RIVER OF GODS
$26.00 hardcover, $17.00 trade paper, available now
Reviewed by Richard, 5* of five
The Publisher Says: As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business—a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And so is—the waif, the mind reader, the prophet—when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden.
In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of the nation.
River of Gods teems with the life of a country choked with peoples and cultures—one and a half billion people, twelve semi-independent nations, nine million gods. Ian McDonald has written the great Indian novel of the new millennium, in which a war is fought, a love betrayed, a message from a different world decoded, as the great river Ganges flows on.
My Review: Ian McDonald. This is a name to conjure with, boys and girls. This is one fearless Irishman. This is a major major talent doing major major things. How dare he, how dare I, warble his praises when he, a white guy from the colonial oppressor state, has the temerity to write a science fiction novel about INDIA?!? There are scads of Indian writers and it's their country! Let *them* write their stories!
Read the book. Then come and tell me it should have remained unwritten because of some nonsensical national pride hoo-hah.
It's got every damn thing a reader could want: A new gender, the nutes, pronoun “yt;” a wholly new form of energy harvested from other universes; a political scandal-ridden politician who falls for our main nute character, despite his long marriage, and pursues yt desperately; a civil war a-brewin' over water rights in the now fragmented subcontinental political world; aeais (artificial intelligences) that are forbidden by law to exceed the Turing Test that establishes whether an entity is human or human-passable; and, as with any law, the lawbreakers who inevitably arise are hunted by a new breed of law enforcement officers, here called “Krishna cops.” Krishna being the Original God, Supreme Being, One Source in many parts of India, there is some justice to that, one supposes.
Recapitulating the plot is pointless. This is a sprawling story, one that takes nine (!) main characters to tell. I felt there were two too many, and would entirely prune Lisa, the American physicist, and Ajmer, the spooky girl who sees the future, because those story lines were pretty much just muddying the waters for me. I thought the physicist on a quest, who then makes a giant discovery, which leads her back to the inventor of the aeais, could easily have been a novel all on its own, one that would fit in this universe that McDonald has summoned into being. I simply didn't care for or about Ajmer.
The aeais' parent, Thomas Lull, is hidden away from the world in a dinky South Indian village. Yeah, right! Like the gummints of the world would let that happen! I know why McDonald did this, plot-wise, but it's just not credible to me. He could be demoted from player to bit part and simplify the vastness of the reader's task thereby.
So why am I giving this book a perfect score? Because. If you need explanations:
--The stories here are marvelously written.
“And you make me a target as well,” Bernard hisses. “You don't think. You run in and shout and expect everyone to cheer because you're the hero.”
“Bernard, I've always known the only ass you're ultimately interested in is your own, but that is a new low.” But the barb hits and hooks. She loves the action. She loves the dangerous seduction that it all looks like drama, like action movies. Delusion. Life is not drama. The climaxes and plot transitions are coincidence, or conspiracy. The hero can take a fall. The good guys can all die in the final reel. None of us can survive a life of screen drama. “I don't know where else to go,” she confesses weakly. He goes out shortly afterwards. The closing door sends a gust of hot air, stale with sweat and incense, through the rooms. The hanging nets and gauzes billow around the figure curled into a tight foetus. Najia chews at scaly skin on her thumb, wondering if she can do anything right. -- p388
Krishan barely feels the rain. More than anything he wants to take Parvati away from this dying garden, out the doors down on to the street and never look back. But he cannot accept what he is being given. He is a small suburban gardener working from a room in his parents' house with a little three-wheeler van and a box of tools, who one day took a call from a beautiful woman who lived in a tower to build her a garden in the sky. -- p477
Some of my favorite passages I can't put here, because they contain some of the many, many words and concepts that one needs—and I do mean needs—the glossary in the back of the book to fully appreciate.
--The concept of the book is breathtaking. Westerners don't usually see India as anything other than The Exotic Backdrop. McDonald sees the ethnic and religious tensions that India contains, barely, as we look at her half-century of independence ten years on (review written 2007) and contemplate the results of the Partition. He also sees the astounding and increasing vigor of the Indian economy, its complete willingness to embrace and employ any and all new ideas and techniques and leverage the staggeringly immense pool of talent the country possesses.
--McDonald also extrapolates the rather quiet but very real and strong trend towards India as a medical tourism destination: First-world trained doctors offering third-world priced medical care. This is the genesis of the nutes, people who voluntarily have all external gender indicators and all forms of gender identification surgically removed, their neural pathways rewired, and their social identities completely reinvented.
Think about that for a minute.
If your jaw isn't on the floor, if your imagination isn't completely boggled, then this book isn't for you and you should not even pick it up in the library to read the flap copy. If you're utterly astonished that an Irish dude from Belfast could winkle this kind of shit up from his depths, if you're so intrigued that you think it will cause you actual physical pain not to dive right in to this amazing book, you're my kind of people.
Welcome, soul sibling, India 2047 awaits. May our journey never end.