It is the light of Brahma

Well, I am returned from Madrid, and since I couldn’t post while out there I have a fair bit of catching up to do. First on my list is the excellent River of Gods, by Ian McDonald, a large and ambitious SF tome which reinvents the (in my view largely moribund) cyberpunk genre while investigating a dizzying array of issues both SFnal and more general. Coming soon are a Captain Alatriste novel (I was in Spain after all), a new noir novel I picked up on a whim at the airport (probably quite a short entry that one), a masterly history of Spain between 1492 and 1716 and The Gift of Rain (which I am still presently reading).

River of Gods weighs in at nearly 600 pages, a common length presently for SF fiction but happily in this case justified by the ambition and success of the work. Given that I consider much contemporary SF to be bloated and self-indulgent, it was a delight to find a work that was large because it wished to address large themes and needed space in which to do so, rather than because it’s publishers expected its intended audience to judge their books by the yard.

In broad terms River of Gods is an SF novel set in India in 2047 (100 years after independence), an India which is no longer a single state but which has instead balkanised into a number of different countries with differing priorities and differing strategic interests. Essentially, McDonald has taken the tired cliches of the cyberpunk novel and refreshed them by setting his novel not in the usual near-future America, but rather in what is considered by many to be a potential future superpower (I consider it no coincidence that his most recent novel is set in a future Brasil, will we be seeing Russia and China too for a thematic tetratology in respect of the BRIC nations?).

River of Gods embraces certain SF themes which are particularly current the contemporary SF scene (AI, the singularity, the fate of consciousness in a universe which does not seem well disposed to preserving it, transhumanism, many worlds theory which seems to come up surprisingly often in this blog for some bizarre reason). He couples this with themes which although SFnal are more specific to the issues genuinely facing the BRIC nations in the real world – conflicts over water, managing internal religious conflict, balancing faith and tradition with the needs of modernity, the changing role of women in traditional societies, the role of automation when the cheapest and most available resource is people.

In order to portray a cross-section of Indian (more specifically, of Bharat, an independent State in what is presently North-Eastern India) the novel is written from the perspective of some eight to ten different characters, with each chapter in general being written from the perspective of a different character or pair of characters. These characters include a gangster who suddenly finds himself dangerously in debt, a senior political aide to the prime minister, a civil servant cum police officer who destroys rogue AIs, an American physicist, a stand-up comedian and so on. The intent is to see society from high to low, from the cabinet office to dives and hovels, and to see it both from within and from the perspective of outsiders. Were it set in the present day, I would describe it in some ways as a state of the nation novel, an almost Nineteenth century exploration of the whole of a society from its top to its bottom.

As the novel opens, a gangster by the name of Shiv is disposing of the corpse of a murdered woman by pushing it into the Ganges, a common ending for many corpses as we are in the holy city of Varanasi, capital of Bharat and a city where pilgrims come to die so that their bodies can be floated down the river. It is the river of gods, it is at the heart of the culture and religion of the Bharati people and it is at a low ebb as the monsoon has not come and the country is gripped in drought. Before the chapter ends we learn the woman was murdered so that her organs could be resold. We further learn that the murder was wholly pointless, as unknown to the gangster a press announcement of a breakthrough procedure in the US has overnight destroyed the entire stolen organs industry, the proceeds of his crime cannot now be sold.

Already then we have key themes, the impact of technology, the cheapness and disposability of human life, the river Ganges and its centrality to Indian culture and belief, the importance of water to human civilisation.

After this rather dramatic opening, the next few chapters introduce each of the major characters. Perhaps inevitably, some are far more interesting than others, the Muslim adviser to the Hindu nationalist woman prime minister is a tremendous character (as to a degree is the prime minister herself), the part-Afghani journalist I thought essentially dull and not wholly persuasive. As these characters are introduced, we see a vignette from their lives and through this see the world they inhabit.

No concession is made to the reader in this portrait of a future India, characters casually use slang or religious or local terms which were wholly unfamiliar to me and where a word or concept would be obvious to the characters then it is left to the reader to deduce from context what it signifies and why it matters to the character. The back of the book does contain a glossary, but thankfully it is not generally needed (thankfully in part as it was fairly useless, the few times I looked up a word it turned out not to be included, and partly as in my view if a writer really needs a glossary to explain what something means then the writing just isn’t good enough), I had little trouble understanding the language of the book and the use of local slang added greatly to its atmosphere and aided with establishing the different classes and subcultures to which the characters belonged.

In other words, in reading the book we are immersed within the place it portrays, we are ourselves in the position of a foreigner visiting a crowded, alien and often confusing country. Given that the likely audience for this novel will mostly be European and American SF fans, clearly McDonald is aiming to recreate in the act of reading the novel the experience of visiting India as a foreigner where much will be unfamiliar and often all too little explained (and, in the interests of disclosure and all that, I should probably mention I’ve spent a week on business in Chennai which qualifies me not at all to say anything intelligible about India, other than that it looked quite interesting from my taxi and meeting room windows…).

Bharat is a small and not wholly successful state, its neighbours are more technologically sophisticated, it’s populace although nationalistic and proud do not wholly appreciate it’s fragile place in the world, religious tensions are being used as a means of political leverage by rival parties and persistent water shortages are causing severe and increasing hardship, as well as tension with a neighbouring state which controls a dam over the Ganges and which therefore is retaining water that could otherwise be used by the desperately thirsty Bharati people. Perhaps the most successful Bharati industry is its chief soap opera, Town and Country, which as a result of increasing automation of the creative industries has as its stars computer generated actors scripted to act as if they are sentient beings in their own right. Not only is the soap scripted, so are the “lives” of the actors themselves who attend virtual screenings, have (according to the celebrity magazines) marriages and affairs and who live scripted celebrity lives so creating a meta-soap which sits above the soap itself. The public demand for celebrity has led to the automisation of celebrity, with real people simply not being reliable enough or interesting enough to compete with their computerised equivalents. Equally, the increasing power and decreasing cost of computation means that it is easier to choreograph a million computer generated people dancing on a cloud than a dozen dancing in a real studio. The result may not be high art, but it is financially successful mass-consumed creative product (and for anyone who finds that whole scenario too far fetched, like much in this novel it is based fairly solidly on some already emerging technological and social trends).

This leads to a fascinating celebrity interview at one point in the book, where a journalist interviews an AI actor about his role within the soap and his life outside it, the AI reacting as if it is itself self-aware and therefore a person. The AI’s responses are as scripted as the soap itself, all is artifice, nested realities for the entertainment of a public that thrives on fantasy and the comfort of glamour. The AI does not think, it merely thinks it thinks because others have programmed it to think that way (the principle of cogito ergo sum is very much not a reliable guide in this future), and the question is very clearly asked how much our own consciousness differs – how much of our own memory is real and how much is a construct of our wishes and desires and of the stories that others have told us.

On a similar note, the automation of track mixing by smart AI systems has made DJs obsolete, fashionable clubs sell themselves on their cult barmen, anyone can buy a personalised DJ system for their Ipod equivalent and have whatever mixes their mood and temperament might desire.

Just as the entertainment industry has been automated, so increasingly is warfare. American forces stay at home remotely operating combat drones or relying on computer piloted unmanned fighters (again, both developments on which a great deal of money is already being spent, the vast bulk of the advances in the book are in areas where the research and development actually started some years ago in the real world). Wars, for the developed nations, are bloodless affairs in which only robots die while their video-game reared operators wake in a control centre somewhere back home. The blood is that of the people where the war is fought, the local population die, the professional military may be at no risk at all. This is brought home in one of the novel’s most successful sequences, a two page description of a military counterattack which lasts but eight minutes and which brings an entire country to its knees in that time, the target nation’s error being its assumption that wars still work as they did in the twentieth Century when technological change has in fact made those tactics as obsolete as a cavalry charge against machine guns.

Together with an examination of how technological change transforms matters as diverse as warfare and the entertainment industry, the book also looks at the impact of sex selection technologies on the role of women in society, with Bharat having an immense gender imbalance as a whole generation of parents selected for boys and so created a society of young men with few young women to accompany them (a real issue increasingly in contemporary China, and a key medical ethics point in relation to presently developing selection technologies). The opportunities for beneficial marriage are so great in this environment that it is far more profitable for most women to marry well than to have a career, the outcome being an immense move backwards in terms of equality (and another outcome perhaps being Bharat’s belligerent nature, nations composed primarily of young men are not by their nature peaceful places).

As well as technology, water is a constant presence in the book (or rather, the absence of water). The Ganges is always present, the lack of rain a permanent concern, water and commodity scarcity is likely to be one of the major causes of conflict this coming century and McDonald wholly embraces this in his desire to show a future which in many parts is deeply plausible.

As an exploration of the impact of technology and of diminishing global resources then, the novel is a tremendous success. However, unlike others who have commented on it I did not think it an unqualified success. McDonald is overly fond of characters (particularly female characters) who enjoy rough or transgressive sex, in fact every character in this book who has sex has it in an unusual, rough or transgressive way and while I have no particular issue with that as a character trait when every sexually active character has the same trait it becomes deeply unconvincing. The book would have been better served not necessarily with less sex, but at least with a bit more variety. I started to long for someone to get into the Missionary position, which I’m not sure was the desired effect. The book actually contains relatively little sex, the issue is not therefore the sexual content itself but rather its negative impact on characterisation where it does arise. If everything is transgressive, nothing is, and the impact is wholly lost.

Equally, some characters simply are more interesting. Khan, the Muslim Prime Ministerial aide mentioned above is a wonderful character with the tensions between his ambition, his position in a Hindu fundamentalist government and his role as an advisor more competent than those he advises wonderfully captured. Equally the anti-AI policeman, with a fondness for Bach and a life in which each element is perfectly controlled and his increasingly unhappy wife from the country is skilfully drawn. It is no small achievement to portray a wife tempted increasingly to infidelity, and to make us sympathise both with the husband and with the wife. To make her reasons understandable, and his failures as a husband similarly. By contrast, the Afghani journalist felt to me like a collection of traits put together for purposes of plot and theme, with little by way of convincing inner life. A reclusive US computer genius was for me similarly unconvincing, though in fairness a surgically transformed neuter-gendered virtual set designer was (particularly for a character who after all could not exist at all today) surprisingly subtle and real. In addition, a significant plot twist in the personal life of the ministerial advisor jarred with me and did not persuade. Still, these are ultimately minor points in a work of this size.

Finally, on the negative, for those who have read much contemporary Indian fiction (and I am not yet among that number) much may seem a tad familiar. India is large, sprawling, exotic, frequently chaotic, the tensions explored are not all previously untouched territory. That said, I do not think it fair to criticise McDonald overly for treading the same ground as many others have since he adds much that is new to the picture, and since it is so vital that he establish a sense of place so that he can speak to where that place may be heading.

The main plot, which is very slowly revealed to the reader as the different narrative strands intertwine, is about the machinations of godlike AIs and their attempts to attain various goals which I can’t fairly describe here in case anyone reading this has yet to read the novel. The core plot is a clear reference to William Gibson’s groundbreaking Neuromancer trilogy, an updating of the ideas found in that work for a new and more troubling century than that of Gibson’s 1984 debut (in novel form) with its more comforting future of Japanese ascendancy and a world in which the great powers are those we are already familiar with. The AIs in River of Gods are Wintermute’s children, the world of River of Gods a reflection of our own and of our fears just as Gibson’s was a reflection of the world of the 1980s and the fears of that era. In SFnal terms, there really isn’t much higher praise than a comparison with Neuromancer, and it is a comparison which I think River of Gods rightly earns.

Similarly, the novel is continuing the conversation about the possibility of singularity found in the works of writers such as Vinge, Stross and of course Ken McLeod. Similarly, a (offstage) member of the US cabinet with a strong anti-AI position is named McAuley, a clear reference to the writer Paul J McAuley. I see this therefore as very much a work in a particular literary tradition and as a contribution to a literary conversation, happily though I do not think an ignorance of those other works would in any way prevent a reader from enjoying this one. It is simply another layer which can be found, and which for those familiar with its literary cousins adds a further level of interest.

Looking above, as ever with an interesting work, I see I have barely scratched its surface. I haven’t mentioned the way McDonald picks up on the increasingly widespread usage of texting as a means of holding private conversations in larger meetings and of meeting participants sending each other sardonic comments as they grow bored. I haven’t mentioned the way genetic engineering is opening the possibility of a permanent genetic rich/poor divide, the Blade Runner-esque animal intelligence rogue AIs, the importance of religious and class divisions within society, on that last point alone I could have quite easily filled this entire blog so far with the social commentary contained in the novel. It is, as I said at the outset, a novel which uses the space it takes and in which the page count is increased by the depth of content rather than by a lack of decent editing.

Near its end the book contains a lovely moment, as a child throws a garland of marigolds into the Ganges. Human life is summarised as comprising of moments of joy and wonder briefly bubbling out of our common humanity, as AIs abound and new universes are created religious ceremonies continue as they have for millennia and fathers take their children to the river to experience the simple joy of participating in a timeless ceremony. In the face of our common mortality, an issue which also sounds loudly in the book, our small moments nonetheless matter and in the face of cosmic immensities it is those truths which remain most important. It provides a welcome humanity and a warmth which is all too often lacking in SF, we are brief and inconsequential, the universe is large and does not care about us, but we are still for all that worth caring about. We are connected, each with the other, and though the connections may not be always visible to us in McDonald’s future they remain as important as they always have.

Two reviews which I enjoyed and which I recommend are at Eve’ s Alexandria (http://evesalexandria.typepad.com/eves_alexandria/2007/03/to_be_human_is_.html, and which is excellent on the symbolism of the anti-AI character and on issues of identity, I disagree with the criticisms in the comments section of that blog entry) and at the Zone by the always excellent Jonathan McCalmont (http://www.zone-sf.com/wordworks/rivergods.html, which brings out key themes of the novel more succinctly than I have managed to here).

http://www.amazon.co.uk/River-Gods-Ian-McDonald/dp/0743404009/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222552382&sr=8-1 (For some reason I couldn’t find it on thebookdepository, hence the Amazon link for this post.)

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4 Comments

Filed under India, McDonald, Ian, Science Fiction

4 responses to “It is the light of Brahma

  1. Jonathan M

    Very kind of you to say so.

    That review was my first ever properly critical piece in that I used the lens of philosophy to take a look at themes and ideas that may or may not have occurred to the original writer.

    I enjoyed your review quite a bit.

  2. Pingback: Brazil is not a serious country | Pechorin’s Journal

  3. For some reason, I missed your original review of The River of Gods and came through it via your most recent review of Brasyl. I stopped at the sentence where you strongly recommended this one, went and hunted it down at a temporarily local sci-fi bookstore (Dark Carnival in Berkeley which you should visit if you ever get out here), was seduced by the cover, bought it and read it in under a week.

    It was great. I am pretty much in agreement with your opinions. The one thing that makes me hesitate from saying it is truly great is that somehow it feels almost too slick. It’s like the perfect (or near-perfect) cyberpunk novel where I sort of knew how it would all end up. So I found it thoroughly satisfying, with some genuinely thrilling moments (both in the narrative and in the portrayal of the future) and yet it didn’t feel truly novel to me. Sort of like a really well-done summer Hollywood blockbuster that actually has intelligence behind it. Maybe it’s just me, though. Despite this probably unfair “criticism”, I gobbled it up and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it any sci-fi fan and even some non-fans.

  4. This is still the longest review I’ve written, and likely the longest I shall. Nice to see it commented on again.

    Glad you liked it too, it is pretty impressive. I know what you mean about novelty though, there’s starting to be a template for cyberpunk/transhumanist fiction, though the change in setting refreshed it a lot and I liked the playing with the Turing test in the form of whether the cybercelebrity was conscious or feigning consciousness.

    Brazil is worth reading, I’ve reviewed it here, but not quite to these heights.

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