The ZONE genre worldwide books movies
the science fiction
fantasy horror &
mystery website
 
 
home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email

River Of Gods
Ian McDonald
Pocket paperback £7.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Ian McDonald has been active on the British SF scene for ages now and this is far from being his first book. He's already won the British SF Association prize for best novel of 2004 and he's hotly tipped to scoop a Clarke award too. With the Nebulas and Hugos both opting for the more established fantasy work Paladin Of Souls, this may yet prove to be his breakout year, following the emergence of China Miéville and Jon Courtenay Grimwood in recent years. In many ways, it is interesting that River Of Gods should prove successful after Grimwood's Arabesque series.

Grimwood's Arabesque series attracted attention for taking many of the tropes of cyberpunk and taking them out of the west and into the Arab world. McDonald does the same thing but this time brings the genre to India, 100 years after its formation. Setting aside the excellent ideas in this novel (to which I'll return) there are three main themes; India, the nature of highly developed AI and the remodelling of cyberpunk.

The characterisation of India is beautifully carried out. Every page drips with details from the bastardised English words that make up Indian slang to the differences in wealth and belief systems that operate within India. By making India a form of renaissance Italy composed of tiny statelets, McDonald really brings home the idea that the Indian nation is an incredibly complex entity. Different religions rub up against each other as armour-plated government Mercedes drive past impoverished beggars and new beliefs clash with old over issues of sexuality and simple visions of human nature. The main Muslim character not only proves to be sexually the most complex, but also is the most gifted and diplomatic member of a hawkish Hindu fundamentalist government run by a woman. McDonald even addresses the relationship between India and the Anglo-Indians by having one of the main characters be summoned home after having walked away from India to make his way as a stand-up comedian in Scotland. The constant use of Indian terms place a reader in a bizarre position of being thrust into a world that's fundamentally different to his own but yet is strangely familiar because ultimately it's only alien to us because India is a very different culture to that of the west. The different characters being drawn from a wide array of different backgrounds serves to demonstrate how events impact upon different layers of society, the sprawling diversity of India is not just portrayed through differences in settings and characters but in approaches to the same events. For some an AI is a business partner, for others an abomination to be hunted down and destroyed, and for others it's a mystery or a source of entertainment. It's against this richly varied setting that McDonald lays out his vision of cyberpunk.

It is interesting that McDonald's book should follow the work of Grimwood because, like Grimwood, McDonald's vision of cyberpunk has been relocated from the west to the developing world. This is particularly interesting because the original cyberpunk movement was initially a social commentary on the early 1980s. Authors such as William Gibson wrote about the rise of the huge corporations and the breakdown of society, their writings as anarchic and countercultural as the musical movement from which cyberpunk took its name. By repositioning cyberpunk from noir fiction set in a near-future western world to a near-future non-western world, authors such as McDonald and Grimwood are talking about the flight of the creative class. This is the outsourcing of jobs that are not manual to the developing world that started with call-centres and continues with programmers and IT jobs. The worlds of Grimwood and McDonald are grim versions of tomorrows developing nations where old beliefs and ways of life sit uneasily next to the rigorous and scientific worldviews required of the westernised creative classes. Nations that struggled to industrialise will bypass that stage of development to take information age jobs from the west.

The new cyberpunk is not about a world where technology is omnipresent and giant companies have more power than states´┐Ż that world is ours now. The new cyberpunk is a future where economic opportunities force nations to evolve or remain poor. McDonald is rigorous in his exportation of cyberpunk tropes to the developing world in that right from the starts the imagery of his technology is fundamentally Hindu. Hunters of rogue AIs are not 'blade runners' but Krishna cops, AIs and programs name themselves after Hindu deities and supernatural entities, there are no hackers, only data-rajas. River Of Gods can be seen as a creative manifesto for a cyberpunk of the 21st century (or at least this decade of it) and as such could well prove to be as influential as Neuromancer was in its day.

Indeed, McDonald seems to write with a sly eye on the classics of the genre. Like in Neuromancer, the characters are manipulated by AIs and ultimately the truth of what's going on lies in space. Non-sexed neutral people (or Nutes) are referred to not as he or she but as Yt, a term that cannot but remind us of Neal Stephenson's Y.T. character in Snow Crash.

The third theme this book considers is subtle. It brings together the other themes of 'India-the-modern' versus 'India-the-old' and the recasting of cyberpunk by suggesting that the most powerful AI is not some hugely intelligent artificial human mind in cyberpsace but a mind that is qualitatively different to ours. McDonald's AI is composed of numerous personas and programs running side by side, frequently ignorant of their interconnectedness but ultimately part of one single entity. This is an intriguing idea if you consider its obvious source. The Indian philosopher Sankara first put forward the vedenatic tenet that all of humanity is of the same essence as Brahman. Sankara argued that while we are all individuals we are all interconnected and ultimately part of god's divine essence. The main AI in River Of Gods refers to itself as Brahman and the bulk of the book takes place in the region known as Bharat, which is where Sankara came from. One could even read the book as cheekily suggesting a parallel between the AIs and humanity as the various plotlines and characters ultimately prove themselves to be part of one technically brilliant whole. However, despite showing an ability to mix scientific beliefs and traditional mythology that are reminiscent of the Stephenson of Snow Crash, and Neil Gaiman at his more rigorous, McDonald is clearly no mystic or postmodern Luddite. At one point his characters discuss invoking God to explain a mystery but the idea is rejected because if you're not going to be rational you might as well give up and live in the age of miracles rather than the modern world. This is not the cod-scientific mysticism of Fritjof Capra's Tao Of Physics but the rational, scientific open-mindedness of Carl Sagan's Contact where belief in god is not a matter of faith but of evidence and scientific proof.

River Of Gods is practically a flawless novel, the only reservation I have about it is that it takes a long time for the plot to get going and some of the plotlines are less engaging than others requiring a bit of perseverance from the writer but this is quite a common characteristic of books that use the technique McDonald opts for and the chapters are short enough that you never feel bogged down in stuff that's prima facie irrelevant to what's going on (as in Stephenson's Baroque cycle for instance). McDonald's stylistic and technical skills are above reproach and he proves to be a writer with big ideas. Aside from recasting cyberpunk to take into account changes between the world of the 1980s and the world of today, he brilliantly juggles Hindu philosophy with the latest thinking in ontological physics and computer science. This book is bold, thought provoking and refreshingly different, it is worthy of any and all awards it wins and it's a must read for any serious science fiction fan.
River of Gods

Please support this
website - buy stuff
using these links:
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com
Send it
W.H. Smith

home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email
copyright © 2001 - 2005 Pigasus Press