River of Gods, or Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

In honor of From Couch to Moon posting her review of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and, in a separate post, I’ll put up my retro review of it and the follow up collection, Cyberabad Days.

From May 25, 2009 …

Review: River of Gods, Ian McDonald, 2006.River of Gods

In the ancient city of Varanasi in the country of Bharat in the former nation of India it is 2047, the Age of Kali, and gods are being hunted there.

Those gods are artificial intelligences, aeais, who hide in the networks of businesses, sundarbans where illegal software is written, and even in the computing infrastructure of Town and Country, the nation’s wildly popular soap opera. American pressure and international treaties forbid all those aeais above a certain level of intelligence. Krishna Cops like Mr. Nandha hunt them down and perform a lethal “excommunication”. But in the burned out remanents of one sundarban he finds subtle evidence of a new monster.

The war between the new and regulated, man and the creatures emerging from the cybersphere of his world, ultimately snares many characters beside Mr. Nandha. There are Shiv and Yogendra, two hoods with a serious debt problem after their organ legging business has dried up. Shaheen Badoor Khan advises the Prime Minister about a water war with Awadh, another state born of India’s fragmentation, after it dams the Ganges. Vishram Ray’s stand up comedy career is aborted when his father, founder of the country’s premier energy company, Ray Power, pulls a King Lear and divides the company up between his three sons. Naji, the Afghan-born journalist, has ambition and bloodlust and the determination to make a name for herself whether it’s interviewing one of the aeais who plays a character on Town and Country or leaking information in a political war between fundamentalist Hindi politician N. K Jivanjee and the Prime Minister.

Also playing their part in this war, this drama where aeais and humans are gods in each other’s worlds, are two Americans generally in favor of advanced artificial intelligences. Lull has dropped out of academic life to hang out in India where he encounters Aj, a young woman with creepy knowledge of people’s lives and a disturbing ability to control machines. And looking for Lull is one Lisa Darnau, proxy for the American government, who would like to know why her and her former colleague’s picture are in an alien asteroid seven billion years old.

And there is Tal, a nute, a new gender born of extensive surgery, their lives precisely and deliberately scripted with hormones, their sexuality push button. Joining nutes and aeais are Brahmins. They are children of the rich, engineered to avoid the decrepitudes of old age even if it means their bodies – but not their minds – age half as fast as normal. The fears and hopes around those creations and the aeais form a major theme of this novel.

Artificial intelligences as gods, nutes, Brahmins, alien asteroids, water wars – none of these are original ideas to McDonald. What he has done is sampled these ideas and set them in a totally new context – a future India. McDonald has made something of a career picking novel settings, specifically Third World settings. Terminal Cafe (a future Mexico), the Chaga novels (a future Kenya), and Brasyl all remind us that people in those parts of the world will have their own futures affected by advancing technology or alien encounters.

That does not mean McDonald’s novel is a tiresome attack on the West, a guilty paean to a culture not his own. His India has its problems. Muslims and Hindi, after years of peaceful co-existence, go suddenly murderous. More than one character calls India a “deformed society”, and it is not just the presence of Brahmins, a new untouchable caste, that has deformed it. It is the practice of selective abortion which has deformed it, the shunting of educated and talented woman out of public life to the purdah. McDonald confronts India on its own terms and acknowledges its energy and contradictions.

And, yes, McDonald does actually use Hindu mythology in this story. Certain characters gradually come to be associated with certain Hindu gods though the correspondence between god and character is not as explicit as it would be in a Roger Zelazny novel. And the story, with its many betrayals being a major theme, seldom forsakes the gritty world on the banks of the Ganges for a virtual world or cyberspace.

There are some minor flaws. McDonald leaves the fate of one of his gods a bit unclear, and Tal seems less like a member of a new gender than a gay man. The scenes of violence sometimes seem, on the aeais’ part, too slow and the combat seems a bit too much like mecha anima at times. Still, I admired this novel very much and will return to this fascinating universe with McDonald’s collection Cyberabad Days .

The Parallax View


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