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“River of Gods” by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald’s 2004 novel “River of Gods” is a distinctive science fiction novel for several different reasons. Most obviously, it is set on the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi in mid-21st Century India, a comparatively unusual setting for a genre usually fixated upon American or European settings. The scale and ambition of the novel is also unusual, featuring ten main characters all with their own separate but occasionally overlapping storylines, as well as having a huge amount of detail about McDonald’s futuristic Indian culture and quite a lot of convincing futuristic technology and science. Lastly, it is a rare science fiction novel that manages to combine good characterisation, good writing, complex worldbuilding, plausible futuristic speculation and a compelling plot into a single reasonably-sized story. Too often science fiction novels only deliver some of those things well, but “River of Gods” is good at just about everything it attempts.

The setting is India around the time of the 100th anniversary of Indian independence. Much has changed, with the single Indian state of today fracturing into many smaller states, all frantically competing over precious water supplies to quench the thirst of India’s vast population. It is a nation of contrasts, much like it is today, with high technology (artificial intelligence, genetically engineered children, a third gender in addition to male and female) and some opulent affluence mingling with grinding poverty and a deadly criminal underworld.

The plot is complex and convoluted but the individual storylines are all clearly explained and mostly easy enough to follow and although it is initially unclear how all the storylines could possibly relate to each other, they do eventually combine to form a (mostly) satisfying conclusion. The various main characters include a stand-up comic who inherits an industrial empire on the verge of a great technological breakthrough, a hard-working policeman who hunts rogue A.I.s, a bored middle-class housewife becoming infatuated with her cricket-obsessed gardener, a politician with a secret fetish for the third gender, an entertainment reporter interviewing virtual soap stars, a petty gangster out of his depth and a western quantum physics researcher surprised to be suddenly taken to an American space facility and asked questions about a mysterious device embedded in an asteroid that appears to be older than the solar system. Always in the background is the threat of war between Bharat (where most of the book is set) and its neighbouring states over a controversial new dam on the Ganges and the looming disaster of drought caused by the failure of monsoon rains.  By the end almost all of this will have become connected in some way, though a couple of plot lines do seem to end abruptly without ever becoming fully realised. It does admittedly start off a bit slowly and it takes time for most of the plots to really develop (one disadvantage of the large number of plot lines is that there are large gaps between successive instalments in each story) but as the book goes on the plot lines become increasingly compelling.

With such a convoluted plot and so much worldbuilding to do (McDonald not only has to portray the future, he also had to portray a futuristic extrapolation of an Indian culture foreign to most of his readers) this must have been a very difficult book to write, but the quality of the writing is excellent. Although there is a lot of foreign terminology (a number of Hindu terms as well as words describing the futuristic technology) the book is never difficult to follow and although there are frequent infodumps they never distract from the story and this book is a model example of how to integrate concise, interesting descriptions of sometimes bizarre concepts into what is a mostly character-driven plot. The characterisation is also excellent, with the different major and minor characters all being distinctive and interesting and despite sometimes not getting a huge amount of time to develop they do still manage to fit in a lot of interesting character development.

The scientific concepts that form the basis of the plot are logical extrapolations of modern-day cutting-edge scientific thought and are clearly and convincingly explained, although McDonald does spend a lot more time on the Indian culture than on the science. The Indian setting may be this novel’s most distinctive aspect and to me it does feel like a convincing portrayal of what Indian culture might develop into, and what feels like an authentically Indian atmosphere permeates the novel. It has to be pointed out that I have never been to India, so an Indian person may disagree with this assessment, but as far as I can tell McDonald has done a good job of portraying the sub-continental setting.

In summary, this is a superb piece of writing with a distinctive setting and an admirable ambition. It is a dizzying tale of zero-point energy, artificial intelligence, political conspiracies, soap operas, cricket, gangsters, infidelity, social climbing and a much-delayed monsoon and overall it is very well executed, despite the slightly slow start and the disappointing conclusion of a couple of the sub-plots.

Rating : 9/10

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