River of Gods
One of the central yet peripheral things in many characters’ lives in this remarkable novel is the ‘soapi’ Town and Country. It’s the Indian version of Neighbours, or Eastenders. And in some senses this show – banal and humdrum, focussed on banal and humdrum activities, just like those shows that have enormous and devoted followings today – is emblematic of River of Gods itself. It is neither banal, nor humdrum; but much of it is concerned with surprisingly mundane and domestic issues, which become absorbing and riveting partly because of the skill of the author, partly because of the allure of the exotic: the exotic of the future, and the exotic of a country other than my own.
(Is it wrong to be enchanted by the exotic? And by exotic I simply mean other-than-my-familiar… which is, surely, an inherent part of the appeal of much fantasy and science fiction. Perhaps Other would be a less loaded term than exotic, at that. Hmm.)
River of Gods is set in 2047; the cover proclaims “Happy birthday, India.” Which becomes rather ironic, and somewhat sad, when it turns out that India as it exists in the early 21st century doesn’t exist in McDonald’s vision of its future: it has fractured into several, often rival, states. The political aspect is rarely front and centre in the novel; although it consumes at least one of the characters, McDonald focusses on his larger life, rather than simply making him a political animal.
See how I’m struggling to get on with this review? It’s hard to figure out where to start, what to say. Perhaps I should begin with “I adored this novel,” and attempt to explain why…
I adored this novel. You can stop reading now if you like.
The novel itself is split into five parts, each of them named for some aspect of Hindu mythology. It’s entirely possible that I have missed some deeper meaning here that relates to the novel’s structure, but I didn’t have much access to the internet while I was reading it so I wasn’t able to chase up meanings. The first part sets up the rest of the novel, introducing all but one of the main characters. Each of them gets their own chapter (in the third person), and the issues set up here continue across the novel with occasional intersections with other characters or their issues. Shiv is a crook, involved in various nefarious deals; Mr Nandha is a Krishna Cop, concerned with the regulation of aeais (AIs). Shaheen Badoor Khan is deep in the political regime of Bharat, Najia an ambitious journalist, and Lisa is a polymath scientist concerned with alternate versions of Earth’s development. Add to that a dropout scientist, a set designer for Town and Country, and a wannabe stand-up comic forced to go home to the family business. Parvati, married to Mr Nandha, is introduced later. Through their individual experiences, the novel tells the story of the world over a couple of weeks in 2047, with India as the focus.
Family trouble, political intrigue, criminals to chase, and AIs to try and understand. Also an alien artefact.
Each of the characters has a story. For some of them, the novel encompasses crisis and resolution. For others, we’re brought in halfway through, while for yet others we’re made to leave before the resolution. Some of these stories are exactly the sorts of domestic stories that are the fundamentals of soapies today: love and family and betrayal. (Please note I am in no way using ‘domestic’ in a derogatory sense here. Domestic stories are different from, for example, politically-focussed stories: Much Ado about Nothing is domestic, Macbeth – despite some domestic scenes – is not.) Other aspects are more detective story or political thriller. It does need a bit of adjustment to jump between them, but each chapter heading clearly tells you who the focus is, so it’s not that hard.
McDonald uses Indian slang and terms throughout the novel. I didn’t realise until I was a third or so in that there’s a Glossary at the back (it is mentioned in the contents pages, but who reads the contents pages of a novel?), but even then not all of the words are explained. Most of the time the words – especially the slang – are understandable within context; I don’t need the exact translation to understand when someone is using profanity. Now, I have absolutely no idea whether McDonald is using the slang and other terms in appropriate ways. I’m willing to assume that he hasn’t made too many stupid and insensitive mistakes because he’s seemed to do well in the other, non-Western, novels of his that I’ve read – but if I’m completely wrong here I would like to know, so drop me a line if I need to be put right.
I loved the language. It was a little bit like reading a Greg Egan novel; if you’re put off by not being able to understand absolutely everything, this is not the novel for you (and I’m sad for you). And McDonald writes in an utterly captivating manner that meant putting this novel down was occasionally painful.
Characters As mentioned above, the novel focusses on a great range of people (and it passes the Bechdel test, if not spectacularly), which is a fine way to demonstrate the depth of the world-building. I’m not in love with how some of the female characters were portrayed (and some of the sex scenes seemed out of character with the rest of the novel), but other women were presented realistically. The men and women were just as likely to be competent or not, ruthless or not, etc. There’s only one main character who stays at home, with no job, and she’s female – but this makes sense in the context of 2047 India: there’s more men than women (one to five), so those women who want to work have trouble doing so because the men are favoured.
One of the most intriguing characters, both for who yt is and for yts storyline, is Tal. See that “yt”? Tal is a nute, surgically altered to have no genitals and psychologically/mentally altered to change the neurological aspects of yts previous gender. How Tal comes to physically be thus is briefly discussed, but why is not – so private a decision that the reader isn’t invited in. I have no idea how a reader who identifies non-cis would read Tal and those like yt. As an outsider looking in, I thought yt was treated like every other character and while yts nature was absolutely necessary for elements of the plot, it didn’t feel like a MacGuffin. While yt is treated as a freak by some, this is never (I think) portrayed as an acceptable attitude; and yt’s treated as an ordinary co-worker or neighbour by others. Yts other-ness isn’t treated as something added in just to add spice to the narrative, but as a genuine choice that ought to be available to people who so choose to change their own bodies. A minority, and one occasionally feared and derided, but legitimate.
Issues and themes
There are many. The place of women, as mentioned briefly above. The place of AIs – how do you legislate against them, how do you police that, and what are likely to be the ramifications? Climate change is a major factor, looming large in the background, because the monsoon hasn’t come to India in quite a while and this is, of course, disastrous. The development of new technology features. How to exist as a minority, and how to live as a fish out of water.
Overall, this is another great novel by Ian McDonald and I’m looking forward to reading Cyberabad, his set of short stories set in the same universe. You can buy it from Fishpond.