River of Gods by Ian McDonald

(2006-04-06)

Published by Pyr
March 2006
ISBN 1-59102-436-6
600 pages

Ian McDonald's River of Gods has already won the BSFA 2005 Best Novel Award, now it finally comes to US shores in beautifully designed package from Pyr, featuring a cover by Stephan Martiniere. McDonald throws wide the scope of characters in this one, which allows the reader to really see how far ranging the story is that he wants to tell. In the not too distant future, 2047, the nation of India is evolving and on the brink of a civil war. Daily life is flavored by the popular show, Town and Country, which is a measuring stick against which many people judge and live their own lives. Town and Country also happens to consist of not human actors, but AI characters.

McDonald deserves a measure of credit for the range of characters he presents in the novel, including a politician with a dark secret named Shaheen Badoor Khan. The chapters focusing on this character are probably the best example of how McDonald characterizes each chapter. Each chapter has its own flavor, focusing on a specific character, providing a protagonistical snapshot of the story, which adds depth and credence to the events of the plot. By no means are the Khan chapters the exception to this rule, rather each chapter has its own unique "identity," while still a part of the greater whole of the story. McDonald cycles the chapters from the point of view of a policeman who speciliazes in tracking down rogue AIs, a sceintist who's expertise is AI technology, the corporate heir of one of India's most powerful technological companies, and a young girl who holds a technological mystery in her being. These are only about half of the unique point-of-view characters in the novel.

The early chapters do a fine job of setting the table, in terms of the characters and the current state of the world. Once McDonald establishes the characters, he filters in some of the of the momentous events touching the lives of these people - the impending war, the discovery of an impossible artifact on an asteroid in space, and the evolution of artificial intelligence. These are all events, that alone, would drastically alter society. Here, McDonald bravely posits all of these things occurring simultaneously. As the events unfold, McDonald focuses on the characters he introduced earlier, to lay out those effects.

Some of these events are easily identifiable extensions of things we see in today’s society, like a corporate takeover. However, the manner in which this corporate takeover manifests itself, as an evolving third generation artificial intelligence, is the type of conceit that epitomizes great SF. McDonald also throws in implanted memories, body sleeves, and the ever popular "big dumb object." While the BDO isn’t big nor is it dumb, it has much in common with the monolith from Clarke’s 2001 stories. It evokes the same sense of wonder and stirs the same type of questions about humanity and evolution.

So, McDonald has filled the novel with great, distinctive characters and great SF-nal concepts, what about the setting? The novel is very much about India and he touches upon both the history and culture of India as well as the future. India is as much a character in the novel as any of the human characters. Not very many SF novels are placed in India, at least that I’ve read, so that combined with McDonald’s, for lack of a better term, world-building in the novel, truly lend an atmosphere of an other-worldliness to the story. However, he doesn’t do this at the expense of displacing the novel away from the familiar and realistic.

The only, minor, problem I had with the book was really settling into the novel. McDonald throws quite a bit at the reader early on, by no means is River of Gods a breezy read. In terms of the "widescreen" and "epic" I’d compare him with Peter F. Hamilton, despite the novel taking place primarily on Earth with events spanning only days, rather than years and galaxies. River of Gods is an extremely rewarding novel that almost begs to be reread, with its wide swath of characters and great sense of wonder.  I plan diving into the river again.

© 2006 Rob H. Bedford

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