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Sagramanda by Alan Dean Foster
Cover Artist: John Picacio
Review by Ernest Lilley
Pyr Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 1591024889
Date: 02 October, 2006 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Sagramanda is a fictional city of 100 million in the not so distant future, and the setting for Foster's new novel, published by Pyr publishing. If you think 100M is an unreasonable number of people, keep in mind that Bombay (Mumbai) has nearly a fifth that many people now, just past the beginning of the new century.

Taneer is an Indian scientist with a beautiful girlfriend and secret code that could solve the world's energy problems. Unfortunately he's got a few problems of his own. For one thing, he stole the code from the multinational corporation he worked for, and they'd really like it, and him, back. That would be bad enough, but his father is looking for him too, and not to invite his "Untouchable" girlfriend out to their place in the country for a weekend. Though this near future India no longer "officially" has restrictions between castes, asking a girl from the bottom of the social ladder to marry you calls for nothing less than an honor killing to clear the family's name.

Taneer needs to peddle his stolen code and get out of Sagramanda and into a life of blissful anonymity with his gal, and the sooner the better. He taps a small merchant who deals in various legal and illegal items to act as a go between with the buyer's go between and only wants three percent for his trouble. That's three percent of, to paraphrase Princess Leia, "more money than he can imagine."

While the recovery specialist sifts through a city of 100 million looking for this particular needle in a hay stack other hunters are stalking the city as well. First, there's a tiger with a taste for people plucking the unwary at the edge of the Jungle. Like most civil services in Sagramanda, animal control is overburdened and undermanned, making do with monitor bots and holographic hunter-scarecrows. But a tiger isn't the city's biggest worry, much to Chief Inspector Singh's chagrin. There also a serial killer on the loose striking at random and with a very, very, sharp blade, leaving victims decapitated and crime scenes bereft of useful clues. The story cycles between its dramas as we wait for their inevitable coalescence.

The serial killer, we learn right at the start, is a European girl high on a drug called "rapture-4" and in the thrall of the goddess Kali. Though Inspector Singh spends a considerable portion of the book trying to solve his murder mystery, I didn't find the investigative process especially convincing either. Though the city has a massive population, the only evidence we get of it is the occasional traffic snarl and reference to the shanty dwellers on the sidewalk. Otherwise it's a more or less normal metropolis, granted with a more drastic division between the haves and the have nots. Though the killer spends plenty of time in places you'd expect monitors, even today, and the Inspector ruminates at times on how much video surveillance has done to keep crime down, these facts never quite meet up in the story, as they would no doubt be inconvenient for the maintenance of dramatic tension.

Foster's other stories all have a sympathetic and easily identifiable main character, but Sagramanda offers neither. The scientist loses the moral high ground (in Western eyes) for stealing the secret code, and should probably do so in Indian terms for his cross caste courtship. Perhaps such things are the bread and butter of Indian romanticism and the staple for Bollywood scripts. Perhaps. The drug and religion crazed Kali killer certainly isn't sympathetic, driven as she is by her internal demons, and the tiger, though only doing its thing comes across as a passionless killing machine. The most passionate player in the book is Taneer's father, and he's presented as being fully as irrational as the serial killer. The two characters with the best claim to virtue are Sanjay, the shopkeeper turned middleman, and Inspector Singh.

Alan Dean Foster is a master of creating alien worlds for his protagonists to deal with, but his near future India is more complex and alien than anything he's attempted yet. That's the good news. The bad news is that it doesn't feel like India as much as it feels like one of his created worlds, though I admit I've never been there, and Foster, an accomplished world traveler, had undoubtedly done thorough research on the ground. In the end, Sagramanda's strength is the author's willingness to engage in cross cultural conversation with people who may well emerge as the technological leaders of this century, but it's only the beginning of a dialog which will hopefully lead to understanding on both sides. To achieve this, Foster needs to keep the story going for another few books, though Sagramanda has a stand alone feel to it.

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