Fiction Reviews

River of Gods

(2004) Ian McDonald, Pocket Books, 7.99, trdpbk, 583 pp, ISBN 0-743-40400-9


Concat regulars will by now know that virtually all of its core reviewers go for substance over style. The downside of this (if it is a downside) is that we tend to pan books that, while having a brilliant style, have little else to recommend them, which means that we do quite often disagree with those critics with a (so-called) literary perspective.   The upside is that if we recommend a complex, stylistic book that lit-fans also like, then you can bet your bottom dollar (or rupee) that the book is really something.   The other thing you need to know is that I primarily read SF for entertainment (I get my reading challenges from primary research journals). I also read SF so as, if possible, to be stimulated by new concepts or new treatments of old ones. I simply abhor style without substance, writing that is incapable of adhering to logic, and SF that takes needless liberties with science.   So now you know, if you did not before, from whence I come.

And so to McDonald's River of Gods. This is the UK paperback release of last year's hardback (reviewed last autumn). The story is set largely in, and events focus on India, 2047 AD. It is a bustling country (as it is now) with a large population stepped in a rich variety of religious cultural heritages and yet is accepting the challenge of new technology. For entertainment (as today) many of the population follow soap operas, only in this instance with one of the most popular shows the actors are all computerised with a cyberspace off-screen life that is followed as avidly by the tabloid press as the viewers follow the soap.   It is also a country facing environmental pressures and in particular a water shortage which leads its fractured sub-states to political and military tensions with their neighbours.   Here the action focuses on those states around the northern an western parts of the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges - the 'River of Gods'.   Of course being the future, computer science has progressed on to develop artificial intelligence, AIs, or aeais as the book has it. However (as in previous novels from, but not limited to, Do Androids Dream,1968, to The Algebraist, 2004), AIs with a sophistication above a certain level are illegal, and in River of Gods these are hunted down by the Krishna cops.

In this country nine people's lives slowly come together. Among them a gangster, a Krishna cop, a politician, a stand-up comic (who actually inherits part of an industrial empire), a journalist, and a scientist.   Little do they realise that the Americans have discovered above their heads in space an artefact that is older than the solar system.   This artefact will impinge on them all, or it would if only its nature, function and purpose could be discerned.   Unfortunately the aforementioned local international tensions build to war and threaten to get in the way.

On the human level the River of Gods is a staggering and bold work that is both complex and sophisticated with a sound plot thread, the significance of which becomes more pronounced with each chapter and in the end which delivers on both human and science fictional planes.   The pain in the bum is that River of Gods is a staggering, complex and sophisticated work that challenges the reader. Part of the complexity is the vocabulary. Fortunately there is a glossary of about 100 terms appended. These terms are all genuine Hindi words (I checked - thank you Surinder). Another is the sheer cast of characters; would that a dramatis personae list had been appended. (Instead we got a somewhat pretentious 'sound track' list of musicians/musical groups - McDonald, though is fond of his music as is revealed by some of his past work and it is hard to criticise passion.) Another still is the number of plot threads, but fortunately these are woven together with considerable skill.   River of Gods is definitely not for the faint hearted, and if you want an easy read then look elsewhere.   The good news is that because there is sound substance underpinning the style, the reader is rewarded for accepting the challenge with a solid SF story and a fresh take on some old tropes.

Ian McDonald has come a long way from his excellent debut novel Desolation Road (1989). I reviewed that in Concatenation no. 4, back when we appeared in print, and asked 'will this new British author maintain such a high standard?' The answer sadly was no and the following year when reviewing Out On Blue Six I felt swamped by his 'so   rich' style. The man had left Desolation Road and was moving in the wrong direction.   The good news with River of Gods is that he is back!   Here, while the style is there in spades, the reader gets a return for absorbing so much information into a really coherent whole.   I liked it.

OK. Review over and now the discussion in the bar. Sitting comfortably? Good. I will kick off saying that I still wonder whether Ian McDonald is capable of a little more straightforward SF yarn? I am sure such would sell so well.   I also am a little worried (because I am such a shy and sensitive soul) about a British writer whom I understand has lived all his life in the UK, from writing about India and its communities as if from the inside. Of course there is no reason why the man should not, but then I have this niggling feeling that perhaps someone from that culture should have written this book even if it does appear to have been well researched.   Then again, because this is such an accomplished work, what are the publishers doing about promoting this work to the UK's Indo-Asian community? Indeed how would someone from that community view this book?   I do hope I get some answers over the coming year.   Over to you.

Jonathan Cowie

I see that Tony has reviewed the hardback (though I have held off from reading his comments until after writing the above). Tony says: 'This is probably McDonald's most mature novel yet and recommended to both those familiar and unfamiliar with his work alike.' Our Tony is a man of fewer words but feel free to check them out.

Also reviewed on this site is Ian McDonald's Ares Express.

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