Another retro review, a follow up to River of Gods, and from May 18, 2010.
Review: Cyberabad Days, Ian McDonald, 2009.
While it’s set in the same future India as McDonald’s vivid River of Gods, a world of old and new gods, soap operas, water wars, mech wars, gender imbalance, and new genders, it is in no way necessary to read that novel first. I read three of these seven stories before I read the novel, and they were satisfactory on their own. However, I do think the one story original to this collection, the concluding novella “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, will have added pleasures if you’ve read the novel.
Each story concentrates on one or more aspects of McDonald’s India, and they mostly take place at various times before the novel’s events.
“Sanjeev and the Robotwallah” covers the War of Separation when India breaks up into several countries from the nation we know. It’s about a brief time in a man’s life when, as a Japanese anima obsessed youth, he teleoperated the robots of that war. It’s a type of war that may be physically safer, but the boys find, like many a veteran of the past, that society may not have much more use for them after the peace.
“Kyle Meets the River”, while a decent story, is the weakest of the book. I think that’s because its plot owes too much to the recent Iraqi War and the story’s initial appearance in the themed Forbidden Planets anthology. India is viewed from the perspective of an American boy, his parents living in the Cantonment, a diplomatic compound of Westerners helping to build the newly independent nation of Bharat. Young Kyle first spends a lot of time viewing the massive artificial ecosphere simulation that features in River of Gods before he sees the equally strange world of India beyond the compound’s wall. However, with the frequent terrorism in the Cantonment, Iraqi’s Green Zone is unnecessarily brought to mind in a way that adds nothing to the story.
“The Dust Assassin” has the air and plot of a fairy tale. The Jodhra and Azad clans have been at war – a literal shooting war at times – in Jaipur for a long time, sometimes over water. The Azads wipe out the Jodhra clan except for Padmini, our young heroine, who goes into hiding with her nute retainers – a third gender artificially created and complete with its own methods of sexual gratification. Assured by her father before his death that she is a literal weapon, she undertakes martial arts training. But vengeance may lie in other directions — if she even wants it anymore.
“An Eligible Boy” is an interesting, humorous and rather melancholy story centered around one of the key aspects of McDonald’s future India: the vast gender imbalance caused by sex selective abortions eliminating millions of Indian women. In this topsy turvy, caste corroding world, men are the ones who must desperately appeal to the few women around. Our hero, Jasbir, has cosmetic surgery done and, at the suggestion of his roommate Sujay, who codes software for the soap operas the Indians are mad about, gets romantic tips from one of the starring artificial intelligences. Romance is found, lost, and, perhaps, missed all together.
“The Little Goddess”, one of the best stories in the book, takes a seemingly autistic girl and makes her the chosen incarnation of the goddess Kumari Devi in Nepal. But it is the world she must navigate after being expelled from her position that is most fascinating. Here McDonald concentrates on the Brahmins – genetically engineered humans, superior in intelligence, more physically robust, but aging only half as fast as normal humans – and the Krishna Cops who try to keep America happy by patrolling the cybersphere for illegally advanced artificial intelligences.
“The Djinn’s Wife”, another fine story, also concentrates on those artificial intelligences, so-called aeais. Here one develops a romantic fixation on a classic Indian dancer. This being India, she even marries him. But the defining characteristic of aeais, their consciousness distributed in space and their concentration equally multiplied, conflicts with a female need for exclusivity.
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” straddles the events of River of Gods, has appearances by some of its characters, and goes further into the future for another dramatic reinvention of India. Its narrator, a Brahmin who is now an obsolete offshoot of human evolution, tells us of the world created by his always jealous older brother, a world where India’s middle class again pushes aside the poor to achieve its ambitions. That ambition here is nothing less than immortality via uploaded consciousness. But every ecosystem has its limits. In real India, it’s water. In the virtual world, it is a need for vast amounts of storage space.
A world worth visiting whether you’ve read McDonald before or not.