See also my review of Ares Express and Brasyl
Arguably, India is already a pretty alien location for many Western readers, so setting River of Gods in the future as well might be seen as gilding the lily, but this is what Ian McDonald has done with his ambitious new novel.
It is 15 August 2047, the eve of India's 100th anniversary, and we follow ten people, mostly Indians, going about their business. Amongst them there's a 'Krishna Cop', a sort of Bangalore Blade Runner, hunting down rogue artificial intelligences; his wife, trapped, unhappy and unfulfilled, at home; a street hoodlum looking to make a big score; the stand-up comic son of the head of Ray Power, one of India's biggest companies; a government secretary, advising the prime minister in a time of national crisis; a 'nute', or non-gendered (the gender pronoun is 'Yt') who works on 'Town And Country', India's regular daily soap watched by hundreds of millions; an American scientist co-opted into the race to understand a strange alien artefact in orbit and looking for her former mentor and lover, an AI research genius gone local amidst the backpacking Western hordes.
River Of Gods jumps back and forth between all these characters attempting what at first seems like a fractured Modernist visualisation of a future India reminiscent of the style of John Dos Passos' USA. However, it gradually becomes apparent that there is a more traditional method in McDonald's madness and a plot and story slowly emerge from the page, a story of AIs and first contact, startling poverty and Hindi gods, sparkling new technology and age-old human problems. Some of McDonald's characters may live in a science fictional world, but all of them are grounded in the human one. Some details of their lives may be novel but they are recognisably like us. Where River Of Gods works particularly well is in juxtaposing these two alien worlds: that of the shiny wannabe future India and that of the far more prosaic India, still mired in poverty, still co-existing with deities, still adhering to philosophies and traditions centuries - if not millennia - old. It's a heady, pungent mix, and one that McDonald seems to evoke (although I can't honestly say how accurate it is) so very very well.
The writing - punchy, full of carelessly dropped words and references - gives River Of Gods an immediacy that is essential if it is to work, the immediacy of streets crowded and busy almost beyond endurance. There's an ease about his use of Indian terms (although I found the glossary at the back frustrating in that it never seemed to include a single word I looked up, despite being six pages long!) that, again, effortlessly conjures up a way of life and ways of thinking often quite different from our own Western ways. I can only guess how much work it took to achieve such an apparently simple effect.
In case you hadn't already guessed, I thought River Of Gods was a wonderful book: believable, engaging, engrossing and thought provoking. Oh, and exciting, thrilling and action-packed too, lest you get the idea that it's a rather slow, worthy and entirely cerebral read. McDonald writes both modes equally well.
I'll wager River Of Gods will be on more than a few awards shortlists in the next year, and deservedly so; in Varanasi we seem to see an entire new milieu for future writers spring fully-formed from the page (Jan Lars Jensen's intriguing Shiva 3000 also takes place in a similarly beautifully depicted India, but is an entirely more fantastical affair). I'm reminded somewhat of Gibson's Chiba City, but McDonald's Varanasi is a more fully rounded, visceral creation: cool and yet still colourful; beguiling and baffling, but not afraid to be squalid, and never forgetting that it is home to crushing millions.
Forget that 15th part of some interminable fantasy epic you were going to buy, forget that recycled gun-toting space opera; there's more colour and life and wonder in River Of Gods than in any other piece of fiction you'll read this year (and you could do a lot worse than be guided in your music purchases by the soundtrack' listing at the back of the book, too…).