Sunday, November 13, 2011

2004 BSFA – RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald

I reviewed McDonald’s novella “Vishnu at the Cat’s Circus” for the 2010 Hugos and speculated that I might like it better once I was introduced to the wider world. The answer is “yes.” McDonald’s India of 2047, it’s centennial celebration (the novel has the unusual subtitle Happy Birthday India), is a fascinating setting, and it allows him to explore familiar post-cyberpunk themes in a way that few authors I’ve read have matched.

As I mentioned in my “Vishnu” review, McDonald’s futurism tends towards the optimistic (there’s a bit of my old foe, the singularity, at play here). Artificial Intelligences, called “aeais,” are common, but their sophistication is capped by international law pushed by the U.S. Still, they have wide applications in warfare, administration, science, and entertainment (a virtual soap opera called Town and Country plays a key role). There have also been genetic advances, including the slowly aging but long-lived and brilliant Brahmin (covered more in “Vishnu”). Meanwhile, India still suffers from old ethnic conflicts and the environmental problems of climate change and its own diverse geography. The novel centers around Varanasi, an ancient city and Hindu religious center. The region is in a three year drought and a water war looms while fundamentalist Hindus are on the verge of rioting.

McDonald introduces his world through a very broad cast of characters. There’s the comedian who inherits an Indian tech company, a mercenary, a cop who hunts rogue aeais, his beautiful and neglected young bride, a young reporter, a Muslim politician, a surgically created neuter, and a pair of western theoretical physicists, lured into the plot by a strange object found in space. As tensions in the region rise, these characters collide in various, often unexpected ways. Ultimately, hints point to the fact that all of the characters are caught up in the manipulations of powerful aeais.

It’s a very well-written and exciting novel with some incredible imagery, befitting the dramatic setting. There’s always the danger with a novel set in India that we get into some hardcore orientalism (see Song of Kali), but I think McDonald is pretty savvy in avoiding that here. It’s an honest portrayal of the place’s beauty, diversity, and rich history that doesn’t white wash its contradictions and violent history of religious strife. It also has a few sex scenes worthy of the kama sutra; it seems that I only mention sex scenes on this blog to criticize them, so I’ll give McDonald some credit for being…inventive.

It took a little time in the first section for me to get all of the characters straight, but once I did, the next several hundred pages blew me away. This novel was fantastic for most of its run. The end was a little shaky, and I’m beginning to realize that this is a trend in cyberpunk novels, or at least the ones based on AI/singularity. I think the problem is that these plots always run towards apotheosis, which is difficult to portray in a satisfying, or original, way. It’s not a bad ending by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the incredible five-hundred pages that precede it.

Grade: A

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