Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, August 11, 2013

2004: River of Gods (McDonald, Ian)

Culturally and technologically rich, almost too much (4/5)

Ian McDonald is a new author for me and my picking up the tome which is River of Gods was a daunting endeavor. Don’t you hate choosing a new book, voluminous to say the least, and end up hating the author’s writing style in a matter of pages? I’ve had that experience with Spinrad’s Child of Fortune (1985) and Lafferty’s Arrive at Easterwine (1971). I managed to choke down Arrive at Easterwine and regurgitate a review, but Child of Fortune had too many alarums flashing before me, thus I closed the book and sold it after less than 20 pages.

Thankfully, Ian McDonald has impressed me with River of Gods. It’s a cultural and futurological immersion which is both intoxicating and disorientating, yet the reader doesn’t experience each separately—the synergy of the two is an experience itself!

Rear cover synopsis:
“As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business—a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And is is Aj—the waif, the mind reader, the prophet—when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden.

In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of a nation.”


There are many plot threads which intertwine in a dazzling amount of ways, some of those character plots are central to the story and recur frequently, while other character plots add ambiance to the story. However, take any one of those away and it would all unravel. To the best of my ability, this is the synopsis of the synopsis, which should be titled “Meanwhile”:

Ray Power Electric, owned by the successful and reputable father of three sons, suddenly decides to forego the life of an eclectic billionaire and seek life as an ascetic guru. Mr. Ray divides his lumbering giant of a company into three parts, one for each son. Most importantly, Vishram Ray, once a stand-up comedian living a frugal life in Scotland, now owns the Research and Development portion of Ray Power Electric. Vishram reluctantly takes the reins of the department and becomes intrigued with one of its latest budding success: zero-point energy, being fed energy by tapping into higher universes. Maintaining his father’s immaculate reputation and following his work ethic propels Vishram toward the promise of free energy for the world.

Meanwhile in India, Mr. Nandha the Krishna Cop is tracking down artificial intelligences (aeais) which exceed the internationally-agreed limit of Level 2.0, thanks to the Americans’ Hamilton Act. Rouge aeais are always being found in computer systems around India, aeais which panic in their floundering power and inadvertently maim humans and attack the Krishna Cops who are there to execute it. An aeai Level of 3.0 is mythical in some circles, but Mr. Nandha has been tracking down curious leads which point to a massive multinational collaboration involving shell companies, transfer of large amounts of cash, and investment in esoteric research. Sadly, his private life isn’t as thriving as his work life—his socially displaced wife, from a much lower village caste to the city’s government worker’s caste, is awkwardly assuming her newly found place among the elite. However, a trip to the cricket test match reveals her true unreservedness of her caste, a shame which descends upon her and her home wrecking mother.

Meanwhile in America, the government has spotted an erroneous asteroid, one which seems to be shifting its direction of flight to coincide with Earth’s orbit. The government is quick to realize the alien possibility of such an action and assemble a team to delve into the orbiting rock which is imprinted with a vast triskelion. Lisa Durnau is called upon to examine the enigmatic find at the center of the asteroid. The archeological dig into the “Tabernacle” discovers a rippling sphere of black and white bits which, while undulating in mesmerizing ways, only conveys three pieces of information: the face of Lisa herself, the face of her missing ex-colleague Thomas Lull, and the face of an unknown girl. Recently, Lisa has been in charge of an advanced and accelerated push as artificial intelligence which utilizes an evolution based on organic principles, all mimicked by her powerful and handy computer. Millions of years have passed and life breeds on the artificial Earth for an aspiration to, one day, breed a genuine intelligence without human interference. This amazing concept is the brainchild of Thomas Lull, who abandoned his own project and sought a quiet life in India.

Meanwhile, wandering in India in search for Thomas Lull, is Aj, a young girl with a mysterious past and in search for her parents. Her ability of foresight and seeming omniscience marks her as a prophet or sage, but the grounded Thomas Lull is intrigues by the photograph of her parents—two of his fellow scientists, the supposed mother with a barren womb. Aj’s calm demeanor and gifted intelligence are indicators of tampering, a dark possible truth which hangs like drooping vines of guilt from his shoulders. The recent death and possible assassination of Aj’s parents upsets them both and reaffirms some of Thomas’s suspicions.

Meanwhile on the war front, possible assassinations are being linked to the American autonomous military robots which scour the urban streets in stealth warfare against domestic and international insurgents. The daily battles which span the city echo the tensions on the Kunda Khandar border where the Awadh dam has caused tensions for the drought-stricken Indian nation as well as the intercity tensions with fundamentalists taking place around Sarkhand Roundabout. Shaheen Badoor Kahn is the president’s advisor and heads many of the truces, agreements, and talks with the afflicted parties. Renown for his opalescence and dedication, a developing affair creates a schism between himself and his superiors which, on a greater scale, upsets the political balance of a nation at the fulcrum of war and peace, death and drought. His love affair with the eunuch Tal, thus, goes beyond mere lust.

Meanwhile on TV, the hit soap opera named Town and Country and ubiquitously taken the nation by storm with its aeai-directed cast, some of whom have such stardom that the population is entirely unsure whether they are real or not. Tal, a gender neutral human by choice, has created many of the sets for the soap opera. Yt’s (the pronoun chosen for those who have chosen to be gender neutral) knack for interior design and contacts within yt’s media company has shown yt a wild life of fame, fortune and, ultimately, human fallacy. Without the organs needed to naturally produce hormones, yt is able to alter yt’s metabolism and array of artificial hormones in order to meet the circumstances in which yt finds; this comes in handy when yt becomes the hunted party.

Meanwhile, poised to break news as it happens, it the Afghani-native journalist Najia, whose past is as veiled as the dark underpinning of the war of assassination, the sheer amount of power being wielded by politicians and corporate entities, and the precipice of external and internal war the century-old nation of India finds itself on. Her sympathetic nature and astute awareness of the tides of change allow her to be a mercurial investigator amid the swathes of the corruption, decadence and war footing.


This review is being written two weeks after finishing the book, a circumstance which attests to the strong nature of the plot and its characters. The brilliance of the combined cultural and technological foreignness captivates the mind much like the dangling of a keychain in front of a baby; however, the dangling of the culture and technology in front of the reader is able to extend for hours on end, as long as the reader has an affinity for rich narration and seemingly alien foundations.

The one thing which River of Gods does not lack in is color—that vague notion of “color” extends not only to the visual pictures which McDonald paints of rural and urban India but also branches out to depictions of sexuality in the year 2047, graphic acts of seduction and illicit acts of passion, and the cultural thrusts of intrinsic motivation for each character’s parrying. The only aspect really missing from the heavily spiced curry which represents McDonald’s affection for India is the international element to ground it, just one additional perspective on the heap to give it a global feel; Sri Lanka, America and China are all mentioned in passing but none play a pivotal role in viewing the circumstances which India is entrenched in. This would have been an excellent opportunity to try “very tight limited third person" where an outsider would view the wild chaos of elements from their own perspective while the native southern Indians would not eye such commonplace elements.

Therefore, is River of Gods too rich for its own good? If the book were half of its size, the novel would have been easier to consume but given its voluminous existence, it’s difficult to grasp, masticate, and digest the kaleidoscope of language, culture, geography, nomenclature, etc. I didn’t find the web of characters to be difficult to understand; this had a long wind-up but proved fruitful in its execution well into the novel. The word count would probably match some of McDonald’s other contemporary British science fiction authors of Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton or Iain M. Banks. It’s dense, it’s heavy—consume if you have the appetite!

The technology prevalent throughout River of Gods is a mix of author-projected plausibility and some unlikelier elements. Where the visual electronic interface of the “hoek” is among the most plausible and versatile, the alcohol-fueled cars are also plausible but becomes repetitive for its own good. Some technologies in McDonald’s year 2047 seems too implausible: (1) the explosive growth of artificial intelligence, (2) the mechanization and autonomy of military robots in urban centers, and (3) the electronic counter-measurements. The author is fairly casual about using EMP grenades (pages 233, 474, 475 and 509). The most outrageous technological feat is the Bangladeshi towing of an Antarctic iceberg to the coast in order to reset the monsoon which had been absent and causing drought.


I’ll quote myself: “It’s dense, it’s heavy—consume if you have the appetite!” This is definitely an intricate though massive novel which whets my appetite for another McDonald cultural and technological exploration such as Brasyl (2007) and The Dervish House (2010). If I feel compelled, like I did a month ago when I started River of Gods, to open another tome, I am gifted with a number of voluminous novels on my shelves… so McDonald will have to take a backseat for quite some time. Anyway, I need a copious amount to resettle my appetite for another of McDonald’s sci-fi banquets.

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