Roger Zelazny wrote his masterful Lord of Light in 1967, a time when the West was gaining and consolidating greater and greater knowledge of the East. The insights of Mircea Eliada and Joseph Campbell were used to full effect. In 2004, nearly 40 years later, Ian McDonald has introduced River of Gods, another sci-fi novel with India as its fundamental element. McDonald, however, increases the complexity, Hindu mythology just one of the ingredients. From the pantheon, he piles on sociology, cultural anthropology, political science, and technology to postulate a near-future for India. And so while both novels crackle with energy and storytelling power, River of Gods has more facets with which to view life-altering technology in the human context.
The novel set in India of 2047, much of the country and its culture will be familiar to readers. McDonald does not envision significant changes in religion, food, clothing, etc. What will not, however, are the forms to which technology has advanced and taken hold in society, particularly artificial intelligence. The US having established the Hamilton Acts, laws which limit the usage of AI above a certain level, some places on the globe remain impossible to regulate and thus have become havens for tech that’s not strictly legal. (One of the entities in the novel, for example, resides in India and utilizes its smarts to profit significantly from stock market using enhanced intelligence.) History repeating itself, another familiar/unfamiliar motif of the novel is that India is no longer united. Multiple nation states have split off along various lines, including cultural, religious, commercial, etc. These differences, along with political issues, are what steer the overriding plot.
There are, however, numerous individual storylines (interwoven) that give the novel its color, roughly ten in all. While some people have complained this number is too high, McDonald’s choice to include so many viewpoints suits his objective. To show the effects of technology in the social context, it seems only natural to have more than a handful of characters to spotlight the variety of sectors societies are composed of. And to his credit, at no time is the reader confused switching between viewpoints. The clues are always there, chapter titles bear the viewpoint’s name, not to mention that within the overall group, many of the characters form pairs or teams, which ultimately aid the reader in tracking the storylines. At no time did I feel lost reading this novel, and more importantly, neither did I feel that the individuals overshadowed the main storyline. To his credit, McDonald remained focused throughout, never losing touch with the book’s message, which is perhaps the reason the book won the awards it did (the BSFA the best in my opinion).
The individual storylines too varied to go into detail, suffice to say there is enough happening at all times to keep the reader, reading. McDonald’s writing style having brisk but dense sentences, fans of Gibson–and more than just Neuromancer - will undoubtedly appreciate McDonald’s non-utopian view of the future and the role technology may play in our lives; the style with which each scribe - suitably descriptive yet efficient – is similar. And while Dan Simmon’s sci-fi focuses on the mythic parallels of AI, fans of the Hyperion Cantos will also enjoy McDonald’s more down to earth portrayal of the subject. Both authors, along with Iain Banks, brilliantly imagine the “mind” of AI. And lastly, readers of Greg Egan will particularly like the gritty edge that McDonald brings to the technology in his books, the asexuals in particular reminiscent of Distress.
If you do not like works such as Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem because you thought they contained too many words you didn’t know or it took too much effort to look in the glossary, then you should be warned that River of Gods contains many Indian words, as well as neologisms McDonald invents to contextualize his near-future India. There is a glossary, but some readers may tire of looking or be unable to sit back and just flow with the novel. Like Wolfe’s series, however, it’s not necessary to know every single word; context is more than enough to understand the message. And the second warning is, if you prefer linear narratives, be careful; some of the individual storylines are not always told in a-b-c fashion. Only momentarily disorienting, McDonald quickly clues you in, and most readers will not have a problem.
In the end, River of Gods is a book that, while not for everyone’s tastes, presents well thought out ideas on technology and society in an exciting and complex fashion. The Indian setting and characters, while perhaps not always culturally accurate, nonetheless becomes an entity of their own under McDonald’s pen. For its insight, its imagination, and its obvious concern for the health of society today, this book comes highly recommended.