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REVIEW: Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald

REVIEW SUMMARY: It was great fun to return to the culturally rich world of McDonald’s future India.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 7 stories (6 reprints + 1 new) set in the world of the author’s awesome book, River of Gods.

PROS: Wonderfully imagined world; great story ideas; McDonald’s well-crafted prose delivers enjoyment on several levels.
CONS: I had a less-than-stellar reading experience with one story.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent collection of stories that serves as both starting place for readers new to this world, and fascinating return trips for those who have been here before.

Here’s what you need to know about Ian McDonald’s short fiction collection Cyberabad Days:

  • It’s a collection of stories set in the world of his fantastic novel River of Gods and explores, if not the same characters, the same things about the world that made the novel so compelling, things like: artificial intelligence (some legal, some not); Krishna cops whose job it is to destroy rogue AIs; a water war that tears India apart; people who are sexually neutral (nutes); people who are genetically engineered (Brahmin); other cool technology like nanotech and robots, and more.
  • It’s peopled with realistic characters (flaws and all) who were borne of a long-standing culture yet react and interact with the futuristic world around them.
  • McDonald’s writing is incredibly infused with Indian culture. It’s not an afterthought; it’s weaved into the elegant prose like it belongs there, like the story wouldn’t be whole without it.
  • Although each story adds to the world, it is a wholly independent entity. You feel like you’ve been through a beginning, middle and ending that mixes interesting ideas with a futuristic setting to create something rich with flavor. And the more stories you read, the more you realize how beautifully detailed and well-imagined it is.
  • It’s Literary SF. This (and River of Gods) is what you point to when someone says science fiction is not literary.

Does all that mean the stories were perfect? No. But overall they were very good, which is actually rare for a collection of mixed stories. (And this comes despite my lackluster reading experience with “The Djinn’s Wife,” which ultimately won the Hugo for best novelette, so what do I know? ) Ultimately Cyberabad Days serves as either an excellent introduction into McDonald’s deservedly praised world, or as a pleasant return journey to wondrous lands.

Standout stories in this collection include: “The Dust Assassin”, “An Eligible Boy”, and the brand new story “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”.

Individual story reviews follow…

(Note that I read these stories over the course of many months, so you’ll see a lot of the same observations about the larger setting.)

[Originally reviewed in Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders. What follows is what I said then.]

During the tail end of war, a young boy named Sanjeev is befriended by a group of teen robot jockeys in “Sanjeev and Robotwallah”. While the overall focus of this story is how the times change when the war ends, it is brought to life by the cool AI-controlled war robots. McDonald doesn’t quite recapture the magic that he dealt out in River of Gods – the story needed seemed to lack its import – but it was nonetheless fun to return to that world.

“Kyle Meets the River” offers a glimpse of the early days of McDonald’s futuristic India, when the country is rebuilding itself after war and is separated in several nation-states. Kyle is a young American whose father is helping to rebuild the country. His efforts are not appreciated by everyone and so Kyle’s family, in danger from violence, lives in a cantonment. The story follows Kyle as he visits his Indian friend, Salim, which shows in stark contrast the difference between his life and the life led by Kyle under the protection of the military. As usual, McDonald infuses the story with much culture, though this sometimes works to the disadvantage of driving the story forward.

“The Dust Assassin” is the story of a young girl, Padmini Jodhra, whose family controls the water in a country plagued by draught. Padmini, through unfortunate circumstances, is raised and trained by a group of nutes (gender-neutrals and outcasts of society). She eventually comes to meet Salim Azad, a boy from a rival family, who wants to end the families’ feud. This is a wholly captivating story, almost fable-like in its structured telling. McDonald takes the rich, cultural setting and blends tragedy and forgiveness into a fascinating story of destiny, betrayal and loss.

[Originally reviewed in Fast Forward 2 edited by Lou Anders. What follows is what I said then.]

Ian McDonald returns to his futuristic India with “An Eligible Boy”. It’s the story of Jasbir, a young man so focused on the rituals and games of dating and finding a mate that he is blind to anything else. Beautifully written and stuffed with Indian culture, this story re-evokes the wonder I had reading his River of Gods. Well done.

[I read “The Little Goddess” this as part of my 2006 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project. What follows is what I said then.]

In “The Little Goddess”, a young girl becomes a goddess, falls from god-status and becomes a courier of illegal AIs. Here, McDonald paints a touching and thoughtful picture of innocence lost, shifting social status and redemption. The Kumari Devi is just an innocent child when she is chosen to become the goddess; eligible because she is one of few who bears “the thirty-two signs of perfection”, chosen because she alone passes a series of traumatic tests. As she learns to follow the strict and required ways of a Devi, she is guided by two surrogate mothers who she calls Tall Kumarima and Smiling Kumarima. Out of love, Tall Kumarima secretly gives the goddess a forbidden portable AI palm device. The discovery of the device leads to the Devi’s fall. She eventually meets Ashok, a dataraja – an illegal AI dealer. (AI tech is legally forbidden above certain levels of intelligence.) Ashok hires her as a courier using her assumed status as potential bride. The ex-Devi is implanted with an unprecedented five AIs for one final run, but the Krishna cops close in and she must act fast. What was interesting about this story is the same thing that was interesting about River of Gods. The story is steeped in culture that provides a wonderful atmosphere and vivid imagery. At the same time, you feel for the ex-Devi who, as much as we all are to some degree, is a victim of things beyond her control. Good stuff.

[I read “The Djinn’s Wife” as part of a 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction reading project. What follows is what I said then.]

In “The Djinn’s Wife,” a famous dancer falls in love with an artificial intelligence. This story his many of the ingredients that made that novel such a success: an “aeai” who is as much a character as any human one, threatened by the Hamilton Acts that prohibit his growth; a sympathetic enforcer from the Department of Artificial Intelligence (Thacker, a “Krishna Cop”); the political background of a water war between neighboring nations; and a hefty injection of Indian culture. Sad, then, that this story was nowhere near as engaging. The fault lies in the execution. The aeai named A.J. Rao, who is also a major figure in the negotiations for precious water, reveals himself to be a fan of the dancer named Esha. Esha immediately notes how handsome the AI has made himself in his mental manifestation – Esha “sees” him thanks to hardwired brain hardware. A desire for social status prompts Esha to proclaim Rao as her fiancée, a charade to which he readily agrees. Their relationship – and here is where it gets silly – eventually leads to sex in which Rao brings Esha to e-orgasm. Life is apparently perfect for Esha…until the realization hits her that Rao, being the computer simulation that he is, can manifest himself anywhere simultaneously – an ability that is the digital equivalent of unfaithfulness. At around the same time, Esha is confronted by Thacker who is concerned of Rao’s advanced intelligence since impending legislation would make Rao eligible for “excommunication”. Thacker eventually wins the affections of Esha while she plays the part of spy. Of course, Rao finds out, and all hell (briefly) breaks loose in an ending that lifts the enjoyment level of this story to the realm of mediocrity. Another thing that hurt the story was the occasional use of run-on sentences meant, I suppose, to convey the hurriedness of the speaker but instead were long winded interruptions to the flow of the story.

The title of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” may make it sound insignificant, but this story is anything but that. The story’s narrator, Vishnu, runs a street show with trick cats. But his show is just an excuse for him to tell his life story. Vishnu is a middle child of an influential family. He is also a Brahmin, genetically engineered to be super-intelligent and long-lived. His intelligence gives him the ability to see patterns of human discourse – a trait that leads him into politics. His long lifespan gives him unprecedented opportunity, but at a price; his pseudo-immortality comes from physically aging at half-speed. But his intelligence progresses as normal, so you get the mind of a super-bright 20year-old in the body of a kid. Some thought-provoking stuff on it’s own, but McDonald doesn’t rest the story on that cool hook, but several others at he same time: the water-starved future India that is a rich treasure of Literature; the sibling rivalry between Vishnu and his older, jealous brother; an arranged marriage that leads to drastic life changes; and the AI back story first encountered in River of Gods, but taken to a new level and used to mind-blowing humanity-altering effect. All of this combines to make the story a remarkably captivating experience. Well done.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

1 Comment on REVIEW: Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald

  1. Just read this over the weekend and loved it.  Thus far I am super impressed with the work of Ian McDonald.  I know I probably did this bass ackwards, as I haven’t read River of Gods.  I did pick up a copy on Saturday though and hope to get through it sometime in the near future.  Also looking forward to the next novel in the Desolation Road universe (coming in April, I believe).  I know you didn’t enjoy that one as much as I did.  Can’t wait to get back to that universe.

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