The novel “River of Gods” by Ian McDonald was published for the first time in 2004. It won the British Science Fiction Award.
In 2047 the hundredth anniversary of India’s independence is approaching but in time it fragmented into a number of states. The Ganges River continues to be sacred to everybody but one of the new independent states, Awadh, built a dam and for this reason it’s on the brink of a war with the neighboring state of Bharat.
The political problems of these states intersect with other more global ones due to the presence of particularly advanced artificial intelligence in distributed information networks and a group of Indian cops is hunting them to eliminate them. In India, scientist Lisa Durnau’s interests end up focusing while she’s trying to solve the mystery of an artifact found in the space that turned out to be older than the solar system.
Cyberpunk meets Bollywood. This is the essence, of course very simplified, of “River of Gods”, which brings together some typical themes of cyberpunk in a story set in India in the future. According to Ian McDonald, in the next few decades India will change a lot from the political point of view, fragmenting into various states, yet will maintain the current mixture of ancient traditions and cutting-edge technology.
It’s inevitable that by putting together several themes in a setting like India the result is really complex. The story has several characters whose lives intersect in various ways in the course of the novel but its first part has the only function to introduce them almost one by one in separate chapters.
In such a situation, it’s clear that readers need to invest in the characters. It takes time to understand how the various subplots will develop, also because they’re developed in a semi-autonomous way, and even more to see where the novel as a whole is going.
Obviously not everyone likes this kind of approach so you have know right away that if this type of narrative choice isn’t for you maybe it’s better that you avoid reading “River of Gods”. It must be clear that the presence of many protagonists with their subplots isn’t simply a way to stretch the novel but it’s also due to the fact that in the end this is a heavily character-oriented story.
For this reason, Ian McDonald devotes a lot of time to develop the protagonists, each with his background, his desires and his motives. They have their complexity and go beyond a trivial division between good and bad. For this reason, probably different readers will sympathize with different characters and dislike different characters.
Of some characters their every day life is also described, which can be a good way to give them depth but honestly sometimes this choice seems even excessive. The problem is that in the middle of events that can have profound consequences even beyond India some end up being trivial. On the other hand, we’re talking about a novel where even a soap opera in which only some of the actors are human has its importance.
The presence of technological elements such as artificial intelligence, but also the sophisticated nanosurgery that allows a person to become asexual and the subplot about the Indian company that is doing experiments on zero-point energy, would suggest that this is a hard science fiction novel. Actually, the technical descriptions related to those technologies are very limited because they’re useful tools for developing the stories of the various characters and can also have religious connections.
In particular, the most advanced artificial intelligence are compared to the gods of Hinduism. One of them is identified by some with Kalki, who according to this religion is the tenth and last avatar of the god Vishnu. This mix also affects the artifact found in space, which is called the Tabernacle, and the elimination of an artificial intelligence, called in the jargon excommunication.
Someone might think that mixing technologies and religions in that way is strange but after all on the Internet it’s normal to use terms such as avatar and karma adapting them from their original meanings, which are religious.
All those elements contribute to the development of what is basically a tragedy. The end result is good because I think Ian McDonald is really good at building a great story that brings together the various subplots but I understand that it’s not suitable for all tastes. However, if you like complex character-based novels I recommend reading “River of Gods”.