Thursday, May 17, 2012

36. River of Gods by Ian McDonald

I'm really surprised that this book and Ian McDonald himself only came upon my radar recently (that was thank's to Pechorin's Journal).  I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, but I keep my ears open and I really should have heard about this book. It's probably the best new science fiction novel I've read since the Cryptonomicon.  An engrossing, at times thrilling, thoroughly satisfying near future epic that mixes the good and bad of technological development with social and political issues that resonate very much with the present.  River of Gods takes place in India in the year 2047, the 100th year of its independence.  Except India is now divided up into several smaller nations after a civil war that is never fully detailed.  Bharati is one of those new nations and it has become a haven for certain higher-level artificial intelligences after they were outlawed by the U.S. government.  There is a wide cast of characters and the book is structured through them, with each chapter until the end being devoted to each character.  As their stories converge, the greater narrative starts to reveal itself, which I won't reveal but just say that this work is definitely a descendant of Neuromancer.

It's very well written, the kind of science fiction book where you feel a bit worried at the beginning that you are not going to be able to figure out what is going on.  It's not just the passing references to new technology that is taken for granted by the characters, but also the use of a lot of Indian cultural references and language.  However, you become quickly immersed in the world as the characters and whatever the hell they are up to become interesting.  And what a great cast of characters.  Standouts were Nandha the detective whose job it is to hunt down and "excommunicate" rogue AI's with his gun that uses avatars of various Hindu gods and goddesses to do its work and Taj the "nute" a person who has augmented their body so that they no longer have a gender.  The world, too, is just awesome. What I enjoyed about it was that it had a nice mix of optimistic and pessimistic about the future. Climate change is real (one of the serious problems for the nation is the lateness of the monsoon), but there are also many believable options of renewable energy.  So you get lots of neat little instances of day-to-day technology that are the kind of little candies nerds like me love to read about.  But it's all mixed up in a very rich, busy, diverse economy and society where there are still tons of poor people who follow their age-old traditions.  It makes for a very neat mix. 

Ultimately, I can't say that this is a work of art.  It is so well-crafted and slick that it almost felt like it lacked a teeny bit of soul.  I think that is a mean thing to say and probably inaccurate, because I don't think it was created in any way from a cynical motivation.  It just all went down so smoothly for me, like a top-notch summer blockbuster with actual intelligence behind it. I kind of knew how it was all going to go down and nothing in the end blew my mind or touched my own soul (the way Neuromancer did, for instance, though I was 15 when I first read it).  However, I still frickin' loved every page of it and could barely stop reading it at night.  Check it out.

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