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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

River of Gods by Ian McDonald

River of Gods by Ian McDonald. Amherst, NY: Pyr, 2006. ISBN: 1-59102-436-6

Now this is what science fiction is supposed to be like! Big, sprawling, set in a slightly alien culture, keeping us just slightly off balance, never quite sure of where we are, or what we're doing. In this case, the slightly alien culture is India, but India just a few years into the future. India with sundarbans, data havens where unlicensed and unlawful artificial intelligences, aeais are bred. And Mr. Nandha, cop extraordinaire, aeai killer.

An India with apparently independent states engaged in water wars with one another. Where a new, neutered gender has been created, using the pronoun yt, instead of it (not to mention he or she). Where the super rich can genetically manipulate their children to create so-called Brahmins, children which age much more slowly, looking to be only 10 when they are much much older. And a future where the Americans have discovered an apparently alien artifact, apparently billions of years old, but extremely advanced, technologically.

There are eight or nine major characters, with each chapter named for its protagonist of the moment. Mr. Nandha is just one of them. His wife, Parvati, is another. Mr. Nandha has marital difficulties, despite having married within jati (caste), an increasingly difficult feat to pull off in this India after decades of genetic manipulation in favor of boys. There aren't enough women to go around anymore.

An American physicist on the lam is another prime character, along with an unusual girl that he meets. His erstwhile student and colleague, meanwhile, is up in space visiting the artifact. Najia, one of the ungendered, is yet another of our featured roles. There are several more. It takes a long time for all of these varied strands to twist tightly around one another, the book is almost 600 pages, after all. But with each chapter, and eventually each page, the strands twist tighter and tighter.

There is a glossary at the back of the book to help with the unfamiliar words, many of them Indian in origin. Some are given new meanings on top of their traditional ones. I didn't realize the glossary was there until I reached the end of the book. I discovered that reading next the computer is also helpful, as many of the definitions can be found via the eponymous Google. (Sidebar: use the search format “define:term” in Google to locate formal definitions, very handy). But you can also just read the book not knowing exactly what the words mean, and deduce much of the meaning from the context, or simply get along with out knowing everything. Still, knowing the glossary is there, you won't have quite the same struggle I did!

This is a story, a book, an adventure that just wraps itself all around you. Catches you up in its pull, and drags you along, compels you from page to page, chapter to chapter. It has the flavor of cyberpunk and provides the same kind of rush. Highly recommended for SciFi fans who are ready for something a bit out of the ordinary.

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