River of Gods
by Ian McDonald
Review by Harriet Klausner
Pyr Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1591024366
Date: March, 2006 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
"Badmashs" Shiv and Yogendra make a living stealing and selling ovaries; neither care about the politics of Bharat or India as long as the states do not interfere with their black market economy as they sell their wares in the alleys and sewers. That is until medical science turns their product obsolete. Shiv owes money to the wrong people so he accepts a job to steal a crypto key, but will soon learn that nothing, when it comes to people, is what it seems.
Krishna police officer Nandha is assigned the task of stopping a runaway AI program that has turned rogue in Varanasi. His police work comes before his wife Parvati, who turns to the gardener for lovemaking. Meanwhile Parvati battles with a Generation Three essence that is much more intelligent than a mere cop in a pasta factory.
Personal Secretary Shaheen Baddoor Khan works for the demanding female Bharat Prime Minister Sajida Rana at this difficult time. Three-years of drought and protests have caused unrest. Rana considers hostile action on some made up pretense against neighboring Awadh to divert attention from her failures. She knows many politicians have gotten away with using patriotism to divert attention from economically disastrous policies in the past. Khan finds hostilities interfering with his vice for bioengineered other gender nutes that he hides from his boss and the media, until reporter Najia Askarzadah meets nute Tal.
Meanwhile interfering in other nations internal affairs, the U.S. government hires cosmologist and Darwinian cyberneticist Lisa Durnau to work for them. The Americans have found an alien artifact, the Tabernacle, that wants to communicate with her, her former teacher Thomas Lull, and an unknown woman. Lisa goes to India to find Lull and the unidentified third party, but will also uncover links to the rogue AI.
While everything seems ready to implode in war driven Bharat, Ray Power Company chief Vishram Ray knows his family firm is in jeopardy of bankruptcy as his father the CEO goes off on some religious quest. Not used to being in charge, Vishram bets on the dangerous zero-point-energy project to save the company. He gains significant backing to continue his project unaware that his benefactor has a non-human agenda.
Ian McDonald's futuristic look at India is an incredible tale but it is impossible in a few paragraphs to bring out the depth of his description of one state Bharat over a few weeks in which decisions at the top will impact everyone in society. The story line provides differing perspectives on the same event so that the audience sees a world in which millions of Gods compete with modern technology for control. Intriguing is the theme of an AI wanting to escape humanity's prejudices enforced through political and religious machinations, which inevitably leads to readers comparing Mr. McDonald's dark state with today's spin doctoring world.
In this realm, surprisingly the Ganges which flows through Bharat serves as a wonderful metaphor for all that is going on in Mr. McDonald's world as each player in varying ways worships the river to wash away their sins. Thus the miracle of the well written surreal thriller is that the ensemble cast contains differing personalities as seen by their relationship to the River and to the pantheon of Gods. Each key protagonist represents a layer of society. Shiv is a street rat punk; Nandha is a dedicated workaholic; Khan is a kiss butt bureaucrat with a fetish that will kill his rise in power if revealed; Rana will send others to die just to remain in power; Najia places the story above anyone else's well being; Tal can destroy Bharat's government and much more with her insider knowledge and begins with a virtual soap opera; Vishram knows he is no chip off the old man's block, but just a jokester struggling to save his place in society; Lisa wonders when she will next find a Lull in her life; while the third party mysteriously seems to know too much about each of them, their connection, and what is going on. In this vast realm these diverse people will interconnect with the rogue AI.
Epic in scope with elements from the mystery genre interwoven into this deep futuristic science fiction thriller, fans of complex, unreal yet realistic and thought provoking works will want to read this profound novel. This is not a one night read, that is if one wants to grasp the nuances of tomorrow and compare them with the realties of today. Mr. McDonald is at the top of his game with what is sure to be on everyone's short list for SF book of the year.