September 3, 2009

Book review: "River of Gods" and "Cyberabad Days," by Ian McDonald

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River of Gods, by Ian McDonald

Cyberabad Days, by Ian McDonald

River of Gods
By Ian McDonald
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-436-1

Cyberabad Days
By Ian McDonald
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-699-0

As I've mentioned here several times before, there are many of us science-fiction fans who believe that the industry has entered a whole new "age" in the last ten years, one major enough to be compared to the four eras that came before it (to be specific, the historic "Golden Age" of the 1930s and '40s; the Modernist-influenced "Silver Age" of the '50s and '60s; the countercultural "New Age" of the '60s and '70s; and the angsty, postmodern "Dark Age" of the '80s and '90s); I myself have mostly been calling this new post-9/11 period the "Accelerated Age" (after the Charles Stross novel) and also sometimes the "Diamond Age" (after the Neal Stephenson one), although of course the fan community as a whole hasn't yet collectively agreed on a term, and probably won't until the age itself is over. And in the best historical tradition, this age is mostly defined in opposition to the period that came right before it; unlike the Dark Age, for example, Accelerated-Age tales tend to be overly optimistic about the future, many times bypassing our current political messes altogether to instead picture how our society might work hundreds or even thousands of years from now, with a whole series of scientific conceits that tend to pop up in book after book, thus defining it as a unified "age" to begin with -- sentient computers; the effortless mixing of the biological and mechanical (otherwise known as the Singularity); a "post-scarcity" society where food is artificially created and money no longer exists; practical immortality through a combination of inexpensive cloning and "brain backups" to infinitely powerful hard drives; and a lot more.

And also like the eras that came before it, the Accelerated Age is mostly being defined through a loose handful of authors who all seem to sorta know each other, or at the very least always seem to be mentioned together in conversations on the topic -- people like the aforementioned Stross and Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Justina Robson, John Scalzi, Robert J Sawyer, Jeff Vandermeer and more (although to be fair, Mr. Vandermeer has criticized me publicly in the past for lumping all these people together, which I suppose marks the main difference between him as an actual practitioner and me as simply a fan); but out of all these post-9/11 SF authors, it seems sometimes that the one who gets the most consistent amount of praise of them all is Ian McDonald, an Englishman by birth who's lived most of his life in Northern Ireland, part of the much ballyhooed "British Invasion" of the early 2000s which is yet another big calling-card of the Accelerated Age.

And this is ironic, because the majority of McDonald's work does not fit the typical Accelerated-Age mold whatsoever; in fact, what McDonald is mostly known for among fans is being the so-called "heir to cyberpunk," the subgenre from the '80s that mostly defined the Dark Age before him. And that's because McDonald is a master of taking day-after-tomorrow concepts and marrying them to the dirty, sweaty here-and-now, which is exactly what such classic cyberpunk authors as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling did in the '80s to become famous in the first place, itself a rebellious response to the shiny, clean visions of such Silver-Age authors as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov; but unlike this first wave of cyberpunk authors, McDonald does this uniting not among the smoky back alleys of America and western Europe, but rather in the trash-filled slums of such emerging regions as Africa and South America (see for example my review last year of his latest novel, Brasyl), delivering an entire series of third-world fever-dreams that could've never even been imagined by the trenchcoated fans of '80s science-fiction.

And it's all this that finally leads us to what's arguably McDonald's most famous book, River of Gods, originally published in the UK in 2004 and then a few years later in the US by our friends over at Pyr, considered by a whole lot of people to be the single best SF novel on the planet in the last ten years; and I'm happy to report that I just finished the book myself, after recently receiving the brand-new related book of short stories Cyberabad Days, and essentially begging the good folks at Pyr* for a copy of the original so that I could catch up, an incredibly slow yet pleasurable reading experience that took me six weeks altogether, hampered in my case by first having a bad bicycle accident right after starting, then being on a whole series of powerful narcotics the rest of the time, which one could argue made the reading experience even better than normal, but unfortunately also dropped my concentration level to nearly zero, which is why it took me so freaking long to get through these two books in the first place. Whew!

And after finishing it myself, I have to confess that the hype is mostly warranted; if this isn't maybe the single best SF novel of the entire Accelerated Age so far, it's at least in the top five, an infinitely rewarding experience that made me almost immediately want to start all over again on page one after initially finishing. And a big part of this, frankly, is just in its setting alone; because for those who don't know, this is one of the first English-language books in SF history to be set in India, a part of the world that in just the last few years has suddenly become a red-hot topic among an ever-growing amount of Americans and Europeans. And that's because we're in the middle of watching one of the most fascinating moments in that region's entire history, the moment when the population of India is pulling itself kicking and screaming out of third-world status and into the first world; and yes, I know, this is an inherently insulting term to even begin with, a classification dreamt up by rich white males in the middle of the Industrial Age mostly as a way to differentiate themselves from non-whites, which of course is part of what makes it so fascinating, to see whether terms like these are even applicable anymore in this multicultural age of ours.

You see, for Westerners who don't know, India in the 21st century is a giant mass of contradictions, a big reason why it's suddenly becoming of such interest to so many in the West in the first place: it's the world's largest secular democracy, for example, yet with a sizable minority (and growing every day) who believes the country should instead be run under a Hindu-based theocracy, much like how the Muslim nations around them are fundamentally based on Islamic law; it's been a politically unified whole since 1947 now, yet for thousands of years before that was actually a series of constantly warring mini-kingdoms, part of what allowed the British to so easily take over the entire region in the 1700s; and speaking of which, it's a country with infinitely complicated thoughts about its past as a British colony, proud of its Victorian heritage and widespread knowledge of English, even while rightly ashamed of the various indignities it suffered under the so-called "Raj" of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a nation which desperately wishes to be the next great international hub for education and technology, yet a nation where tens of millions still go without electricity, without indoor plumbing; a nation virtually ruled by its explosively growing middle class, yet experiencing all the same bourgeois-based problems as the British did two centuries ago when its own middle class first exploded, a nation where Jane Austen storylines are literally played out in real life every day.

McDonald perfectly understands the drama inherent in such a situation, and puts all these issues to great use in River of Gods, although be warned from the start that you Westerners will need to do a bit of homework to fully appreciate it; as mentioned, for example, you will need to know a little about the longstanding conflict there between Hindus and Muslims (and a little about the Hindu religion in the first place), a little about India's ancient caste system, a little about its former history as a series of warring mini-states, a little about the growing gap between traditional Indian life (think housewives in saris and cows roaming the streets) and modern Indian life (think two-earner families in business suits and clutching iPhones). And that's because this is a major theme of River of Gods as well, the growing divide between old third-world India and the gleaming first-world vision it wants to become, with the entire novel set in the year 2047, the 100th anniversary of the area becoming a unified independent nation in the first place.

Ah, but see, there's trouble in paradise in McDonald's world, which is why it's so important to have a basic understanding of all these cultural issues; just to mention one important example, in River of Gods India isn't even a unified country anymore by 2047, after global warming led to a period of severe drought there in the early 21st century, leading to a breakdown into regional states again and a series of bloody civil-war skirmishes over the dwindling water supply. We then mostly follow the fate of one of these states -- "Bharat," comprising the northeast corner of the former nation, with the religious mecca of Varanasi its new capital...or "Varanasi 2.0" if you will, a head-spinning mix of the ancient and the cutting-edge, with thousand-year-old ghats along the Ganges River now sitting in the shadows of mountainside skyscrapers and maglev trains.

The actual storyline of River of Gods is best left as secret as possible, which is why I'm going to largely skip over it today; but I will say that in the best cyberpunk tradition, it's actually made up of a half-dozen smaller storylines that each stand on their own, almost impossible at first to determine how they fit together until getting closer and closer to the end, and as the lives of the hundred or so major and minor characters on display start interweaving more and more. And I can also mention that the story here is a dense-enough one and laden with enough local issues and terms to make one think that McDonald must be an expat who has spent a substantial amount of time in India himself (and don't forget, by the way, that there's a glossary of terms at the end of the book); and this is in fact one of the other things McDonald is known for, because the fact of the matter (as he has confirmed many times in past interviews) is that the vast majority of his books' details come merely from page-based academic research, along with just a minimum amount of actual traveling through the region in question, almost all of it simply tourist-based traveling instead of pseudo-native backpacker-style. How he manages to turn in novel after novel of such depth using only traditional book-based research is a mystery that sometimes borders on the magical; and it's precisely this that makes McDonald so intensely loved by certain types of literary fans out there, and is precisely one of the reasons so many consider River of Gods the best SF novel written in the last decade.

And then as far as this book's companion piece, Cyberabad Days, the main reason I was sent the pair of volumes in the first place, it's pretty much what you expect -- a collection of standalone short stories all set in the same world as River of Gods, that McDonald has written for various magazines over the last five years, published together here as a whole for the very first time, with all the traditional good and bad things that come with such minor story collections. Surprisingly, though, instead of needing to first read River of Gods for this companion volume to make sense (as is usually the case in these situations), Cyberabad Days actually exists as a great primer to get yourself ready for the bigger main novel; because also in good cyberpunk tradition, in River of Gods McDonald simply drops you right in the middle of things at first, not bothering to explain any of the details of the situation itself but instead letting the reader slowly pick them up here and there over the first 200 pages of that 600-page tome, something that diehard SF fans love but that can drive others a little batty. That of course is one of the biggest benefits of the short-story format in general, is that authors are simply forced to explain things in a much shorter period of time; for those of you who like getting your backstory out of the way quickly, you may actually benefit from tackling the companion book first before even trying the main novel in question.

I have to admit, out of all the books I could've gotten stuck with during a long convalescence from a major accident, I could've done a lot worse than these two; and now after taking my sweet time with them both, I can very easily see why people continue to go so nuts over McDonald's vision of a future India, even half a decade after he first started laying this vision out. It's one of the great pleasures of being a science-fiction book critic in the early 2000s, in my opinion -- a chance to be reading and reviewing this literature right when it's first being written and published, that is -- and after taking in now a pretty fair amount of ultra-contemporary SF, I have to confess that I too have become a pretty slavish fanboy of McDonald. If you're looking for stories that elevate themselves above the usual tropes of the genre, you can't really go wrong by picking up this groundbreaking saga; here's hoping that McDonald has lots more of them in store for us down the road.

Read even more about River of Gods: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Read even more about Cyberabad Days: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And by the way, all kidding aside, I do want to thank the hardworking PR staff at Pyr once again for all their help; over the last year I've probably requested at least a dozen old backtitles from their catalog, and in every case they've sent them along with a smile and nary a complaint, not to mention of course all the new titles they're actively seeking publicity for, a huge difference in attitude from some other SF publishers who shall remain nameless. It's a common trait among a lot of publishing companies these days, to treat litbloggers like sh-t, so I always appreciate it when coming across companies like Pyr who take bloggers as seriously as any other book reviewers out there.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:29 PM, September 3, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |