Saturday, 6 November 2004

Ian McDonald: River of Gods (2004)

Edition: Simon & Schuster, 2004
Review number: 1271

India is, as pretty much everyone says, a fascinating place. Full of the ancient and embracing the modern, united by a colonial power yet, independent, maintaining that unity in the face of massive pressures both internal and external, home to hundreds of millions of people, who believe in thousands of gods and demons and live in conditions ranging between as poor and as wealthy as anyone on the planet. There have been massive changes since independence in 1947 (as chronicled by writers such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roi) - so a natural question is what will India be like in about fifty years time, on the hundredth anniversary of independence? Of course, no one currently knows, but Ian McDonald has given us his image of what the subcontinent might be like at that point, woven into an extremely traditional science fictional plot, the investigation of an alien artefact. The other main plot strand is the development - or, rather, evolution - of artificial intelligences known as aeais many times brighter than human beings, who are sought out and destroyed being considered a threat.

What is immediately interesting about McDonald's future is how little is actually different. Science fiction authors generally emphasise the changes; he gives more prominent to what remains the same. It is mainly the details that have changed - better computing, slicker entertainment (computer generated soap operas, personal aeai DJs to give you a customised soundtrack to the world); water has replaced oil as the resource to fight wars over, especially in a fragmented India where the monsoon has failed three years running; the ability to choose "designer babies" has created a Hindu middle class in which girls have suddenly acquired massive scarcity value, and where there is a neuter subculture vaguely like gay culture in the West today. None of these changes are terribly earth shattering in science fiction terms (compare this novel with Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, for example). And so as a result Indian society doesn't seem to have changed terribly much: most of what we read about would seem reasonably familiar to the characters of Midnight's Children.

While a science fiction fan like myself can definitely find "prior art" for the various elements of River Gods, McDonald has put them together to produce something which is convincing (if a little conservative), interesting and enjoyable to read.

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