REVIEW: River of Gods by Ian McDonald
REVIEW SUMMARY: A novel that’s thought-provoking, literary and entertaining despite a slow start.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The story of several characters during a time of political and environmental change in a futuristic 21st century India.
PROS: Cool technology; Indian culture creates excellent atmosphere; engrossing storylines; well-crafted.
CONS: Slow start; incomplete glossary.
BOTTOM LINE: A hugely enjoyable book on any number of levels.
The futuristic India in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods would be marvelous enough with its technological society, one where the sentience of artificial intelligence is limited by a law called the Hamilton Acts; where illegal software houses circumvent the law; where a government agency known as The Ministry “excommunicates” rogue AIs from this world; where virtual reality is the order of the day; where popular soap operas feature computer-generated characters played by computer-generated actors; where advanced medical procedures can turn you into a genderless “nute” or genetic engineering can give you a disease free, slow-aging Brahmin child; where power is generated underneath sidewalks that harness the energy of footsteps ; where even greater amounts of energy can be realized from the potential difference between two universes that exist at different ground states; and where an alien artifact is found in space that holds untold mysteries.
But River of Gods goes one step further, adding a whole other layer of enjoyment in the process, through the portrayal of Indian culture. It permeates everyone and everything, bringing forth interesting concepts and vivid imagery that give it a distinct mood and flavor. India’s caste system remains but now includes the Brahmin, a group of people genetically-bred to be disease free, whose long life gives them an extended period of youthful appearance. The culture’s many Gods are also prevalent in the story. For the culturally-uninitiated (like myself) there is a handy glossary included that defines many Hindi terms. However, the novel is so steeped in culture (and wonderfully so) that the glossary is woefully incomplete. Many of the words this Average Westerner looked up were not included. Eventually, I stopped using it. Needless to say, those who know Indian culture and especially Hindi will find a whole other level of enjoyment that escaped me, as evidenced by the light bulbs that went on when I asked a Hindi-speaking friend to translate words and section titles.
Even so, what is left behind was immensely entertaining. The story follows several characters through a time of political and environmental change in India. A years-long drought has pushed the region of Bharat towards war with neighboring Awadh. The Prime Minister’s secretary, Shaheen Badoor Khan, is pivotal in maintaining victory for Bharat while trying to simultaneously neutralize the impending government takeover by the people’s prophet, N.K. Jivanjee. Unfortunately for Khan, he has a “perverse” predilection for nutes, social outcasts because they are different by choice. One nute, Tal, is a set designer on the nationwide soap opera sensation Town & Country, where CGI characters are played by CGI actors. Reporter Najia Askarzada gets to interview the soap’s low-level AI stars but eventually becomes embroiled in national conspiracy.
Meanwhile, Mr. Nandha is a Krishna Cop with the Ministry, sworn to eliminate any AIs that rise to a certain level of intelligence while utilizing his own AIs (named after Gods) to capture the rogues. Deeply involved in his work, Nandha fails to realize his wife Parvati forms a questionable relationship with her gardener.
Vishram Ray, formerly a failing comedian, is bequeathed a part of his father’s lucrative power company. Their research and development division has found a way to harness energy from other universes using different ground state energy levels to generate power with no cost.
Thomas Lull is a dropout from society, but his past skills are needed by scientist Lisa Durnau as she is enlisted by NASA to explore the strange alien artifact known as the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is located at the heart of an asteroid that suspiciously keeps missing a collision with Earth. Lull and Lisa meet up with the mysterious Aj, another mystery as she shows signs of having paranormal powers.
Lastly, there’s Shiv; a street thug and murderer who, driven by debt and fear of loan-shark-controlled robotic debt collectors, is being manipulated by powers far beyond his understanding.
These many plotlines are kept separate for a large part of the book’s beginning, something I found to be somewhat disconcerting as I wondered how story lines would intersect. What can I say? I’m an impatient reader. When they did start intersecting, that bewilderment disappeared. It paid off being persistent as McDonald manages to not only successfully juggle these storylines, but does so in a way that keeps you immersed within them.
The language of the novel is beautifully crafted and is infused with symbolism, mostly by way of the Gods. There is also a healthy dose of thought-provoking ideas in the areas of sentience, reality and what it means to be human. The Singularity, a currently popular sf theme which is in danger of showing its age in the genre, also makes an appearance. River of Gods deftly circumvents the overexposure issue by not concentrating on life after the Singularity so much as the way we might get there. (Sorry, can’t say more without spoilers.) Suffice it to say that the book holds many, many wonders. And, dare I say, between the writing style and the layers of story construction, the book gives the impression of being what one might call a “Literary” novel.
When River of Gods was released last year in the UK, it received much notice. It was the winner of the 2005 British Science Fiction Association Awards and nominated for the 2005 Hugo, Clarke and Locus awards. I went in with some trepidation at the prospect of not liking yet another acclaimed book. I needn’t have worried. River of Gods is a hugely enjoyable book on any number of levels.
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