River of Gods (2004) by Ian McDonald

RiverofGods1Rich in content, dazzling in delivery, McDonald’s 2004 collage of near-future India is a deeper pre-echo of its 2010 sibling The Dervish House: a multi-character exploration of culture and high-tech speculations that clash amidst an urban heat wave. Less friendly, with less charm and more grit than The Dervish House, there’s no cute little boy with his toy bot to sweeten the plot when things get ugly.

As with all culture novels written by an outsider, the outsider reader must go in with hesitation; this cannot be the book to define India, no matter how well-rounded and respectful its depiction may appear. This can only be a book to define McDonald’s visions of technological and social evolution in a third-world society.

It’s the year 2047, the centennial of Indian Independence,

although the subcontinent as we know it has fragmented into independent states. War and unrest over water shortages threaten diplomatic and social peace, while American combat bots populate the city streets to enforce order. In the city of Varanasi, a holy site on the Ganges River, the sweltering urban atmosphere is a pressure cooker of various lifestyles, political corruption, and the debris of technological leaps.

Lots of slightly related strands weave the tight and fluid foundation of this tale. We meet an AI-hunting cop, his bored housewife, a comedian-turned-businessman, a low-life criminal, two AI scientists (one in space), an independent journalist, high ranking politicians, a third-gendered “nute,” and a strange teen girl who can stop robot armies with one hand. Each strand touches on the others in gentle wisps—sometimes not noticed until later—but all circle the primary mystery that swirls the notions of gods and artificial intelligence into clever and coherent ruminations about the nature of super-intelligence.

The thematic struggle that possesses India also grips each character, touched upon by the kitschy soap opera Town & Country, which seems to play in the background of every character strand. Town & Country, though we learn little about it, the title says much, and serves as McDonald’s impression of the cultural mindset as he sees it: a nation uneasy with its past, present, and future. No one feels at home within their personal network. No one feels at home within themselves. Daily life may be routine, yet within their psyche is a struggle for identity, discovery, and self-acceptance. While India tries to reconcile its ancient myths and early modern hierarchies with postmodern innovation, each character struggles with their own personal mythology and revolution. The ingredients don’t blend well. Persona and culture are but fragments of past and future trying to live together as one, but they only cause friction.

Thematically consistent, but is it a viable depiction? While McDonald’s characters are bold, diverse, and strong enough to endure these struggles, McDonald’s India appears as a passive recipient of technology that, more often than not, surpasses social understanding. In this case, McDonald’s India is inhabited by American Urban Combat Robots (UCRs), which act as law enforcement, debt collectors, (possibly traffic cops, because although the text never said so, this is how I picture the street scenes and that’s what makes McDonald’s world-building so brilliant and economical—his narrative plants seeds that grow in the reader’s imagination). And while there is much talk within many of the subplots about whether robots have gods, and while the robots and aeai (that’s A.I.) seem to have molded to Indian society with their bindis and soap opera credits, we still get the sense that technology happens to India, but not the other way around.

This seems a bit out-of-character for India, and most of the third world, where the combination of poverty-induced ingenuity, petty street crime, and the student class (before they are recruited to the first-world via the “brain drain”) would likely coalesce into, not just an underground aeai industry run by one mobster, but an entire subculture of youths who dismantle, refurbish, and reprogram UCRs for their own amusement. Not to mention that most American technological manufacturing originates overseas, where populations might be more adept at converting overlooked parts. Where is the practical tinker industry? Where is the refurbished Urban Combat Robot with the filed off serial number that washes dishes in the back of the Tikka Pasta Inc. restaurant?

RiverofGods2But although it’s not the India I expected to see, and maybe not India as it is or will be, it’s certainly an India worth seeing. McDonald’s vision is majestic and bold, the tale is ambitious and successful (and how often do we get say both?), and his writing, what I’ve come to expect, is dazzling. And the story itself is suspended on a much loftier hypothesis than any other novel that dares to use the word “singularity,” (which this one doesn’t, so that’s another plus).

*ebook spyglass searches*

Oh, shit. It does use the world “singularity.” But only four times, so that’s practically nothing. But it does bring up a lovely flavor quote I forgot about:

Aj toys with a twist of marigold petals.
“Have we reached the singularity?”
Thomas Lull starts at the abstruse word falling like a pearl from Aj’s lips.
“Okay mystery girl, what do you understand by singularity?” (loc. 4740)

Although the audiobook version is good, it’s not recommended over the text. McDonald’s prose is so, let’s say it again, dazzling, it’s best experienced with eyes over ears to truly appreciate his work.

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16 thoughts on “River of Gods (2004) by Ian McDonald

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      And MarzAat has done it again with their reviewer parallax series. Click above to see their reviews of River of Gods and its series follow up collection Cyberabad Days. Great reviews, Marz.

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      • marzaat says:

        Glad you liked them.

        I have McDonald on my someday-I’m-going-read-all-their-fiction list.

        I have Brasyl but haven’t read it yet, and I need to buy Dervish House.

        First, though, since they seem to now all be available in America, I want to finish his Chaga series set in Kenya.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. That flavor quote is properly impressive—I see why you called it “dazzling.” Ugh, this sounds amazing. And you wrote a pretty stellar review for The Dervish House too, so the author is obviously good. Quit converting me to the dark side… *pushes buttons, adds to wishlist*

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      1 down, 14 to go, haha!

      I did love The Dervish House, too, and I can’t decide which I like best. River of Gods is more thoughtful and complete. There is more going on and it’s darker, too. The strands in The Dervish House are easier to follow (I believe Jesse called it more mainstream, with which I wholeheartedly I agree), but it’s more entertaining. River of Gods is quite negative about its character situations, while The Dervish House is more positive and uplifting. Can’t tell if this difference is influenced by his impressions of Indian v Turkish culture, or commentary on the individual vs. community (which ties into a convo Jesse and I are having at his blog on the Wilhelm post). (Actually, the difference probably has more to do with publisher pressure and commercial sales, I’m so cynical.)

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  2. Did he write Planesrunner? I think that is the only book of his on my shelves… *checks* Ah yes, he did, and I do. Your thoughts on his writing style and that flavor quote have me convinced I will like his writing a lot too. I am impressed that this was so…impressive. Here here.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’d like it. I think Brasyl will be my next McDonald, although I may snag his upcoming Luna when it comes out.

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  3. Jesse says:

    Have you been to India? I went with my wife a couple years ago – my first visit, her second. The first was as a twenty-something, but as a thirty-something she had a very different impression. That my thirty-something (can’t say that for too much longer) impression was similar to hers was interesting. We both had not a negative impression, rather a cloudy-with-bits-of-sunshine one. India is full of beauty. The spicy foods, the markets, the women’s gorgeous saris, and many other things. But seeing literally hundreds of millions living in the most abject poverty possible, cows munching on random piles of fly-buzzing trash, people shitting in public, children skinny as skinny can be, it grabs your sense of pity in a chokehold and drains its life to the point of depression. My heart still breaks thinking of the conditions of life in India. And then I get angry learning there is an Indian space program. The hundreds of millions live in terrible conditions while the government blows millions on science that has zero added value for them… As I’m ranting, I digress. In short, I highly recommend visiting India if you haven’t been. It’s an explosion of culture and color, but if indeed McDonald was left with a negative opinion of the country upon his visit, I can see why. (See also Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali.)

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Actually, and this has nothing to do with the book, really, but India is on the top of our list for next year. You mention the abject poverty that you saw, and that would make sense about McDonald’s more negative tone in this book. Interesting that he focused only on well-to-do characters.

      Dan Simmons… I had a terrible time with Ilium.

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      • Jesse says:

        Well, hope you enjoy it. In the very least, India cannot fail to give new context to life.

        Ilium/Olympos, yeah, not Simmons’ best work. Hyperion, Song of Kali, and The Terror get the hype for a reason…

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  4. Joseph Nebus says:

    This sounds most interesting. There seem to be surprisingly few books set on the centennial or anniversary dates for nations, somehow. And India is quite a wealthy culture to learn about.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      You’re right, haha! It seems more authors should flock to the non-Anglo centennial celebration subniche!

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  5. Ethan says:

    Great review! I really enjoyed this book. I spent several months in India many years ago. It was an amazing experience. Poverty is of course a problem, but some of the richest people in the world live there, too, and the Indian middle class is larger than the population of the United States. You made a great point about technology happening to India in the book, which seems incongruous with the large technology sector there that ought to be stronger by 2047. Still, McDonald is a good reminder that the future will not be limited to Western countries!

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks! I like your point about McDonald being a reminder that the future will happen globally, and his settings are a lot more interesting than the regular Ameri-Anglo-centric settings.

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  6. […] 1994 multiple award-nominated Mother of Storms with Ian McDonald’s 2004 multiple award-nominated River of Gods. I read both during the same week, alternating between books in order to avoid story fatigue, and […]

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  7. […] I can never remember– maintains its status as one of the best novels I have ever read. River of Gods is another of McDonald’s gorgeous feats of culture, technology, and depth, and would have […]

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