River of Gods teems with the life of a country choked with peoples and culturesone and a half billion people, twelve semi-independent nations, nine million gods. Ian McDonald has written the great Indian novel of the new millennium, in which a war is fought, a love betrayed, a message from a different world decoded, as the great river Ganges flows on. How dare he, how dare I, warble his praises when he, a white guy from the colonial oppressor state, has the temerity to write a science fiction novel about INDIA?!? It's got every damn thing a reader could want: A new gender, the nutes, pronoun yt; a wholly new form of energy harvested from other universes; a political scandal-ridden politician who falls for our main nute character, despite his long marriage, and pursues yt desperately; a civil war a-brewin' over water rights in the now fragmented subcontinental political world; aeais (artificial intelligences) that are forbidden by law to exceed the Turing Test that establishes whether an entity is human or human-passable; and, as with any law, the lawbreakers who inevitably arise are hunted by a new breed of law enforcement officers, here called Krishna cops. I felt there were two too many, and would entirely prune Lisa, the American physicist, and Ajmer, the spooky girl who sees the future, because those story lines were pretty much just muddying the waters for me. I thought the physicist on a quest, who then makes a giant discovery, which leads her back to the inventor of the aeais, could easily have been a novel all on its own, one that would fit in this universe that McDonald has summoned into being. The aeais' parent, Thomas Lull, is hidden away from the world in a dinky South Indian village. I know why McDonald did this, plot-wise, but it's just not credible to me. She loves the dangerous seduction that it all looks like drama, like action movies. McDonald sees the ethnic and religious tensions that India contains, barely, as we look at her half-century of independence ten years on (review written 2007) and contemplate the results of the Partition. He also sees the astounding and increasing vigor of the Indian economy, its complete willingness to embrace and employ any and all new ideas and techniques and leverage the staggeringly immense pool of talent the country possesses. If you're utterly astonished that an Irish dude from Belfast could winkle this kind of shit up from his depths, if you're so intrigued that you think it will cause you actual physical pain not to dive right in to this amazing book, you're my kind of people.
Like in Necroville we again have near future setting, far enough to fully implement lot of new technology and near enough not to let go of old ways yet.
A key set of four characters are all mysteriously linked: their portraits have been discovered in an alien artifact in space billions of years old. They are an American inventor of a software virtual world, his former colleague and lover who is now a CIA agent, a police agent who leads an artificial intelligence extermination force, and a spiritual young Indian woman with surprising powers of reading people and situations. Other colorful characters include a CEO of an energy development company, a female prime minister, a member of a new neuter gender, a key advisor to the prime minister scandalously in love with the nute, and a journalist who exposes the scandal and is after a scoop on secret agendas of advanced artificial intelligence beings (aeais). India also harbors the last few advanced aeais, a key to high tech industries such as a computer-generated virtual reality soap opera that has addicted much of the world. The love affairs, betrayals, and selfish ambitions of the players in the tale make an interesting parallel with the aeai-created soap opera, Town and Country, while contrasting in their human drama with the inscrutable and hidden lives of the aeais themselves. As with McDonalds The Dervish House, which was set in Istanbul, I found this earlier novel a lot of fun once the stories started converging. This pleasure was similar to the fun I had with Stephenson's "Snow Crash." From my recent readings of popular scientific accounts, I feel McDonald made a brilliant effort in bringing alive some of the current ideas in theoretical physics and progress toward artificial intelligence. In the first, the computer scientist Thomas to his mysterious new friend Aj his view of the singularity event in a way that doesnt require a physics degree: (view spoiler)Aeai is an alien intelligence. Aeais do not need to manufacture stock market crashes or set the nukes flying or trash out planetary web to put humanity in its place; there is no competition, these things have no meaning or relevance in our universe .
(Friends, I may be rewriting this because I am not satisfied that I have effectively conveyed my thoughts and reactions to this book.) This book is being touted as science fiction because McDonald has put his stories in the future, 2047, when the modern state of India has been in existence for 100 years. McDonald has a deft touch and weaves this all together with a very Indian flavor.
This is a future that lives and breathes and is incredibly convincing, and even though the technology is quite interesting(including a frightening look at cybernetic warfare and artificial intelligence), it is the characters that move this thing along.
You know you're probably not going to write a rave when you find yourself skimming hundreds of pages at a time to reach parts of the book that matter to the plot. I can deal with it if it's part of the plot or character but outside of romance novels or explicitly pornographic ones most authors should really stay away from sex beyond the implied. I may have become oversensitized to its frequency but I found MacDonald guilty of insipid sex scenes and gratuitous violence too often for my comfort zone. 2. Too many unimportant and uninspired characters (engaging in pointless sex and mayhem).
I respect what Ian was trying to do with this novel, I really do, but his ambition, I think, exceeded the execution to the point of muddling ambiguity. It scrambles the story and by bombarding the reader with lengthy Indian names, it makes the reading tedious. A sloppy attempt is made at tying up the loose ends, but when it comes to the characters resolutions, the reader's left cold. I would like to read more of Ian's stuff, but would hope I could find something more to the point, less characters, and less overwrought. This novel was just to self-indulgent and I think undeserving of its high praise.
Leadership and scientific struggles at the nation's largest power company; a religious revolt; a Muslim government minister brought down by his passion for an artificial third gender called nutes; AIs thousands of times more intelligent than humans, outlawed and hunted down by a police branch called Krishna Cops. This is a grand old SF characterization tradition, of course, and at least these characters are plausible, unlike the Buck Rogers-style SF characters -- but still, in the end they don't read as real people because they walk through their established paces without changing.
And also like the eras that came before it, the Accelerated Age is mostly being defined through a loose handful of authors who all seem to sorta know each other, or at the very least always seem to be mentioned together in conversations on the topic -- people like the aforementioned Stross and Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Justina Robson, John Scalzi, Robert J Sawyer, Jeff Vandermeer and more (although to be fair, Mr. Vandermeer has criticized me publicly in the past for lumping all these people together, which I suppose marks the main difference between him as an actual practitioner and me as simply a fan); but out of all these post-9/11 SF authors, it seems sometimes that the one who gets the most consistent amount of praise of them all is Ian McDonald, an Englishman by birth who's lived most of his life in Northern Ireland, part of the much ballyhooed "British Invasion" of the early 2000s which is yet another big calling-card of the Accelerated Age. And this is ironic, because the majority of McDonald's work does not fit the typical Accelerated-Age mold whatsoever; in fact, what McDonald is mostly known for among fans is being the so-called "heir to cyberpunk," the subgenre from the '80s that mostly defined the Dark Age before him. And it's all this that finally leads us to what's arguably McDonald's most famous book, River of Gods, originally published in the UK in 2004 and then a few years later in the US by our friends over at Pyr, considered by a whole lot of people to be the single best SF novel on the planet in the last ten years; and I'm happy to report that I just finished the book myself, after recently receiving the brand-new related book of short stories Cyberabad Days, and essentially begging the good folks at Pyr* for a copy of the original so that I could catch up, an incredibly slow yet pleasurable reading experience that took me six weeks altogether, hampered in my case by first having a bad bicycle accident right after starting, then being on a whole series of powerful narcotics the rest of the time, which one could argue made the reading experience even better than normal, but unfortunately also dropped my concentration level to nearly zero, which is why it took me so freaking long to get through these two books in the first place. You see, for Westerners who don't know, India in the 21st century is a giant mass of contradictions, a big reason why it's suddenly becoming of such interest to so many in the West in the first place: it's the world's largest secular democracy, for example, yet with a sizable minority (and growing every day) who believes the country should instead be run under a Hindu-based theocracy, much like how the Muslim nations around them are fundamentally based on Islamic law; it's been a politically unified whole since 1947 now, yet for thousands of years before that was actually a series of constantly warring mini-kingdoms, part of what allowed the British to so easily take over the entire region in the 1700s; and speaking of which, it's a country with infinitely complicated thoughts about its past as a British colony, proud of its Victorian heritage and widespread knowledge of English, even while rightly ashamed of the various indignities it suffered under the so-called "Raj" of the 19th and early 20th centuries. McDonald perfectly understands the drama inherent in such a situation, and puts all these issues to great use in River of Gods, although be warned from the start that you Westerners will need to do a bit of homework to fully appreciate it; as mentioned, for example, you will need to know a little about the longstanding conflict there between Hindus and Muslims (and a little about the Hindu religion in the first place), a little about India's ancient caste system, a little about its former history as a series of warring mini-states, a little about the growing gap between traditional Indian life (think housewives in saris and cows roaming the streets) and modern Indian life (think two-earner families in business suits and clutching iPhones). And then as far as this book's companion piece, Cyberabad Days, the main reason I was sent the pair of volumes in the first place, it's pretty much what you expect -- a collection of standalone short stories all set in the same world as River of Gods, that McDonald has written for various magazines over the last five years, published together here as a whole for the very first time, with all the traditional good and bad things that come with such minor story collections.
S. Lewiss childhood home but has since moved to central Belfast, where he now lives, exploring interests like cats, contemplative religion, bonsai, bicycles, and comic-book collecting. Ian worked in television development for sixteen years, but is glad to be back to writing fulltime.