Ian McDonald’s 2004 River of Gods was a return to writing after a three year break. Batteries obviously recharged, the novel won the British Science Fiction Award and was nominated for others. The premise of the book so fertile in fact, 2009 saw the publishing of Cyberabad Days, a collection of short stories and one novella—a spillover of creative effort from the novel. While a couple of the stories have the feel of a writer in the drawing room, trying out characters and angles for a larger work, most have been polished into more-than-presentable form. The quality of the collection building to a crescendo, the three final stories are glittering examples of the power of sci-fi in short form. Each set in the same India of 2047 as River of Gods, the following are my notes:
A rather standard sci-fi foot on which to start the collection, “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” tells of a poor boy and the stars in his eyes for the war mechs that battle outside his village. Possessing little of the flare that makes McDonald such a great prose stylist, the narrative is written in straight-forward fashion compared to Riverof Gods, but has a nice ending.
The boy this time the privileged son of a wealthy engineer living in a foreigner-only area of Varanasi, “Kyle Meets the River” can be seen as the other side of the Sanjeev coin from a privilege point of view. It is also an examination of inter- and intra-cultural experiences in a city under the stress of class and culture struggle, technology both an escape and barrier.
“The Dust Assassin” is the story of a young woman caught in a family feud among India’s wealthy water monopolies. McDonald’s style buoying things effortlessly, the fairy tale structure of the story has nevertheless been done before.
People in McDonald’s India of 2047 able to predetermine the gender of their children, a 4:1 ratio of males to females results in society. The search for a suitable partner anything but easy for men, Jasbir, the hip metrosexual protagonist of “An Eligible Boy”, tries a variety of methods finding love. From the most traditional to the most futuristic, it’s still not where he thought it was.
“The Little Goddess” is the story of a Nepalese girl who is taken from her family at an early age and isolated in a Kathmandu temple as the goddess Tejalu. But when she meets the real world, the story grabs and takes hold; life outside the temple is more than anything she could have dreamed. McDonald’s parallel to Hinduism in technology-based form is just brilliant.
“The Djinn's Wife”, despite borrowing a page (or two) from William Gibson’s Idoru, is simply begging to be made into a film. The imagery lush, character setup unique, and the tension building, the author really captures magic—err, AI—in a bottle in this story of love, politics, and the scary potential of technology.
Saving the best for last, Vishnu at the Cat Circus is the crown jewel of the collection. The novella is a wonderful examination of life as a Brahmin—a geno-biologically engineered human with twice the life span, intelligence, and memory. DNA tweaked significantly at birth, Vishnu’s upbringing is anything but ordinary. Possessing the body of a child as his physical features slow catch up to his mind, being a little god has never been so literal—and McDonald examines every bright and dirty corner, from the futuristic to a harkening back to the old ways. A bildungsroman like no other, this story contains everything positive about the sci-fi genre.
As a whole, the thematic concerns of Cyberabad Days and River of Gods are the same. From the potential effect of artificial intelligence on society to the meaning of gender when one can become an yt, the influence of media to the convergence and disappearance of tradition, the stories cover a wide gamut of technological, social, and political ideas. Quality improving with each story, the collection begins in rather standard sci-fi mode but by the end finds the technology-informed and socially conscientious groove McDonald is renowned for. Whether the book should be read before or after River of Gods is debatable; the stories stand on their own, however, many of the concepts—e.g. Brahmins, the splintered state of the Indian government, AI intelligences, etc.—are delved into in greater depth in this collection, making it a good introduction for those who don’t easily deal with being dropped into the middle of a futuristic scenario, as River of Gods does.
In the end, Cyberabad Days is about as good a collection of shorts I’ve come across. It comes highly recommended for anyone looking to see some of the best the genre can offer, or McDonald’s talents as a writer of shorts (just be prepared for all the stories to be based in the same futuristic India). Given that the some of the stories were obviously written as case studies when working out material and characters for River Of Gods, the collection bears parallel to William Gibson’s Burning Chrome, a collection likewise feeling out material for a novel-length work. That both authors are interested in similar topics makes the book highly recommended for fans of Gibson, though any reader of cyberpunk and sci-fi with bright ideas will find something to like.