River of Gods, Ian McDonald

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 583 pages, C$27.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7432-5670-0

Wow. And to think that I didn’t want to read this book.

You have to understand that I’ve got a checkered history with Ian McDonald’s fiction. Liked Chaga/Evolution’s Shore. Couldn’t get into Necroville/Terminal Café. The thought of another door-stopper novel set on the eve of India’s centenary didn’t do much for me given all the other recent stuff I’ve got to read.

And yet, I should have known. Haven’t I been bleating about the need for world-aware near-future Science Fiction lately? Haven’t I been looking for writers whose understanding of the world goes beyond the usual SF clichés? I didn’t pay attention, but others certainly did: The blogoSFere raved about River of Gods immediately upon publication. Then it got nominated for the Hugo Award, making it jump immediately on my reading stack. As it turns out, McDonald’s latest easily ranks as one the best SF novels of 2004.

At first glance, it read like a kaleidoscopic vision of India, circa 2047, through the viewpoints of roughly a dozen characters. It’s a divided nation on the brink of war, haunted by ancient superstitions and future nightmares, where Ganesh co-exists alongside Artificial Intelligences and Shiva is incarnated by US-built killbots. McDonald vividly begins the novel by a scene in which a “Krishna Cop” tracks down an animal-grade Artificial Intelligence that has become slightly too smart for its own good.

But there’s more. In fact, one of the wonders of the novel’s first hundred pages is in seeing how many elements in SF’s traditional bag of tricks are re-used in this complex vision of India’s future. AIs, military robots, environmental problems, genegineered humans, trans-gender neuters, high-tech street criminals, spaceships, virtual pop-stars, high-energy physics are all used here in a kaleidoscope that feels, yes, far more credible than many other recent SF near-future extrapolations.

Slowly, as characters intersect and mysteries are gradually revealed, a plot emerges. But the plot isn’t so nearly as fascinating as its components, and especially the environment in which it evolves. I’d love to read what Indian readers will think of the novel, but it’s instantly fascinating to American readers. To Western eyes, India stands as an accessible alien society: Substantially different, yet sufficiently Anglicized during the British occupation that it’s not completely incomprehensible. But there’s a lot more to it: India’s mix of traditional and modern values is endlessly intriguing, showing a society with deep historical roots, yet open to technology like few others. Most futurists point to China as the emerging superpower of the twenty-first century, but my money is on India.

Geopolitical speculation aside, Rivers of Gods is a technical tour-de-force backed with plenty of stylistic flair. McDonald juggles a dozen characters with apparent smoothness, and cleverly layers the elements of his plot through separate plot threads. If you do the math, each characters gets around fifty pages of plot (the equivalent of a novelette), and yet most of them emerges as complex and fascinating characters. I was especially fond of Vishram Ray and Mr. Nandha, but there’s probably a favourite for everyone in this book. In fact, my only significant problem with the book (apart from a few passages that seemed for perfunctory than interesting) is that the book ends with a spectacular revelation, without an epilogue letting go of the fascinating characters we’ve just met. There is resolution, but not satisfaction.

But that mild annoyance seems trivial when considering what River of Gods does best: it feels like a real future stemming from today’s reality. There is nothing small, simple or old-fashioned in this novel: It embraces the complexity of the world, spins hard-SF speculation like the best of them and adds so much texture that it’s impossible to remain unenthusiastic about it. It is, in many way, exactly what I want from contemporary SF: Something that uses the tools of traditional SF to make sense of today’s world and deliver an engrossing story. Heck, it even has a good grasp of politics, which is more than I can say for most of American SF.

River of Gods was judiciously nominated for the “Best Novel” Hugo Award for 2004. If the other books are as good as this one, I’m going to be overwhelmed with SF goodness. At this point, I can’t imagine anything beating it out of the first spot of my voting ballot.

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