Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novella: "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" by Ian McDonald (CYBERABAD DAYS))


This novella is part of the short story collection Cyberabad Days, which recently received a special citation from the Philip K. Dick awards and takes place in the same world as McDonald’s award-winning River of Gods (which is on the docket for future review). All of these stories take place in a divided India in the middle of the twenty-first century. Nanotech and genetic engineering are common, especially among the middle and upper class, and there are also powerful sentient computers, called “aeais” – basically, this future India is on the verge of a “singularity.”

This novella follows the titular Vishnu, a genetically engineered boy. A “brahmin,” Vishnu is super-intelligent and destined to live twice as long as a normal human. Unfortunately, he also ages at half the rate. In his teens, he’s a sexually confused prepubescent. In his twenties, he’s become an influential figure while still an adolescent. To add insult to injury, technology makes him obsolete before he reaches adulthood.

It’s a chilling depiction of genetic manipulation, and it also depicts a very rich world. It’s an incredibly dense work, with political, social, and technological changes introduced on every page. I have doubts that the world will change that much in my lifetime, and this is going to be a common complaint with me and stories about “singularity.” But, I’m willing to go with it, and McDonald’s focus on the developing world, quite well-realized, adds a welcome twist.

I got the impression that Vishnu was a new character but that his story was heavily integrated with material from River of Gods (I guess I’ll know for sure when I get to that novel, probably next year). As a preview for that novel, however, this novella certainly had me intrigued. I’ve complained in the past that short fiction leaves me wanting more; in this case, it’s nice to know that there actually is more. I’m not sure how well this novella stands on its own though.

Grade: B-

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