River of Gods, by Ian McDonald

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Published in 2004, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods is a compelling, complicated and fascinating book that ranks amongst one of the best modern science fiction novels that I’ve ever read. Set in a future India, McDonald takes multiple, diverse story lines, over several fields: artificial intelligence, mass market entertainment, traditional values and international politics, to meld together a book that pulled me in completely. McDonald’s vision of the future is one that is wholly realistic, and I have to wonder how long before 2047 that many of the elements will come to pass.

The book is a complicated one to read, and the book forced me to take my time and really absorb what was going on. Following several storylines, where India has become a divided country, split along loose lines. Artificial intelligences over a certain level of intelligence are banned by international law, while life is run by thousands of different A.I.s (called aeais). Drought has created tensions between the Indian states, and a Hindu fundamentalist leader named N.K Jeevanji has begun to push tensions with his own agenda, while feeding information to a reporter. A genderless set designer, Tal, works on a soap opera that has captivated the nation (with an entire cast of aeais actors), while involved with a secretary for the Prime Minister. Elusive A.I. scientist Thomas Lull comes across a girl, AJ, with extraordinary abilities, while Lisa Durnau is sent into space to investigate an asteroid that houses an 8 billion year old sphere that may or may not hold the key to existence, which in turn leads her to find Lull. While is ongoing, Mr. Nandha, a Krishna Cop tasked with destroying rogue AI systems, faces class troubles at home with his wife, while investigating the possibility of the creation of a Generation 3 aeai by Ray Power, who has just turned over control of their research and development section to Vishram Ray, a standup comedian who inherits a powerful position within the company, with the potential to completely change the world. As the story progresses, each of these separate storylines begin to merge and impact one another, revolving around the progression of an intelligence that is far greater than mankind and the inevitable conflict that that might bring forward.

The dominant theme of this book is the role of AIs in the world. While some books such as Neuromancer have taken their own lead in the early stages of cyberpunk, River of Gods moves forward under its own power and understandings of the world from a far more modern perspective. In a word, it’s modern cyberpunk, and McDonald pulls the concept of modern computing and Indian perspective of Gods, bringing the idea of deus ex machine literally to life, and bringing about a very different perspective on any sort of conflict between humanity and programmed entities. Here, programs are entities in and of themselves (much like the film Tron seemed to portray them), and throughout the high-tech environment of India’s cities, they regulate much of the automated processes that go on (air conditioning, safety measures, automated drones, and so forth), while there is a constant battle being waged against unauthorized intelligences on the part of the government, against the aeais themselves, but also their creators, smalltime technicians and programming wizards who are constantly pushing the boundaries that technology can provide. A murder in the early stages of the book bring Nandha’s attention to one plot in particular, as a pair of scientists with links to various companies are found burned alive in their home, one of the many elements that pushes the plot forward.

River of Gods has a complicated, interesting storyline, one that features numerous elements moving at different speeds, all running together with the same conclusion at the end, much like the film Syriana and Traffic have done, telling multiple storylines to get the entire plot together. The story as a whole is greater than the individual storylines, although there were times, and a couple of storylines that seemed to drop off or not fit as well as some of the others. Regardless, the complicated structure of the book is something that worked to highlight numerous elements of McDonald’s future india, and give the book a richness that made me desire to turn the page and resist putting the book down on more than one occasion.

India as a setting was a refreshing tone for the novel, and I found myself marveling at the rich feeling and background that McDonald was able to imbue into the text. While not a native Indian himself, he apparently spent several years in the country for research, which has yielded a very unique novel, which I hope is the start of a larger trend in the genre. The fact that McDonald has done similar books (Brazyl, set in Brazil, and The Dervish House, set in Turkey), is encouraging that there is material set like this. Another notable example is The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, which is set in Thailand. I’m sure that there are others, and I’m reminded of a panel that I sat in on at ReaderCon, titled ‘Citizens of the World, Citizens of the Universe’, where it was pointed out that science fiction is predominantly slanted towards the United States and other western nations, which leaves out much of the world, and with it, a number of stories. While the aforementioned examples of ‘international science fiction’ has been written by western writers, it’s a step in the right direction, and hopefully with it, there will be a push from consumers for more science fiction that was written locally from various locations around the world. River of Gods provided an interesting glimpse into a different view of science fiction, and while it is something that helps the book stand out, it is not something that was done to provide a sort of ‘stunt casting’ to make it do so. The setting is an important part of the book, which makes it all the more interesting and essential.

River of Gods is a fantastic science fiction story, one that has taken several familiar tropes and twisted them with the culture that it’s injected them into. The West is certainly not the only place with a future, and it is a relief to see that there are some authors who have a very realistic understanding f how the world fits together, with multiple elements and sides that come together at the end. This book is good in its execution, but also in its story, where both have been put together to come up with something wholly unique interesting and exciting.

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4 thoughts on “River of Gods, by Ian McDonald

  1. You’re welcome! 😉

    Great write up. Totally agree w/ the point about “international science fiction”. Esp. since the setting is one of the things that made this book so magical.

    • Heh, thanks for the encouragement in picking it up – it was well worth it, and I can’t wait to get into The Dervish House and Brazyl.

      Setting is something that I’ve felt isn’t as important in some other SF/F books, and I’m going to maintain that belief, I think. What’s more important is the impressions that the setting imposes on the characters and author.

  2. This is one of the books that seems to be liked or not along pretty straight age lines. People – like me – who grew up with SF in the 1950s and 1960s aren’t so impressed, people who came into SF about the time – or after – that William Gibson was the hot author (I use that as a time marker, not a suggestion of style similarity) seem to like this one a LOT.

    I tried it, got about half way through before giving it up as a boring, 3rd worldish take on an old, fairly tired AI (that is robots, at whatever level of sophistication you like) theme. I tried his short story collection and that was only slightly better. I know he is thought of as one of the top SF authors of the day, but for this very long time (55 years) SF reader, it just didn’t work.

    • The book really comes together at the end, within the last hundred or so pages. I’ll admit that I found several points where I was losing track of characters – I ended up referring to the wikipedia page for the book to sort out who was who, which helped. Books like this are generally better with a dramatis personae in the front of the book.

      I felt that his take on AIs was a fairly interesting one, something that I hadn’t really come across a much, and I thought it was good to see such a story that didn’t have the robots / programs with ambitions to take over the world.

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