RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald

I’ve written before about how thorny the issue of “you should read this book” recommendations is, especially those from my husband. He recommended Ian McDonald’s River of Gods to me in 2007, after he read it, and after it had won many major international science-fiction awards. I finally took it off its dusty shelf where it’s been patiently waiting, since I just finished Salman Rushdie’s classic Midnight’s Children, which also is set in August on an anniversary of India’s independence and partition. So it’s ten years later (also ten years from when I wrote that post on recommended books–I’ve been blogging for a LONG time) that I’m finally getting around to it. That’s a shame, because it’s a book that begs to be talked about, and I waited so long to read it that he is now foggy on the details, which are exactly what I’d like to discuss with him.

Instead, I read as many online reviews as I could find, which is a decent substitute for a back and forth conversation, especially since one of the links, this one at Coalescent, WAS a back and forth conversation.

River of Gods is a huge book, both in scope and size, at 599 pages in my paperback edition, which is curiously only available at amazon from 3rd party sellers, but does not seem to be out of print? The adjectives that litter the books reviews are telling: sprawling, major, huge, vast, ambitious, staggering, etc. The book is bigger on the inside, like the Tardis, and a myth of nesting dolls that one of its characters references in the book, each of which contains a universe bigger that the one that contained it. And the book’s bigness seems to have resulted in a divided response. Most reviews praise the epic sweep and the ambition, while many reviewers complain that it doesn’t (didn’t, given how long ago it was published) break new ground, and that it was bloated and overlong. I’m going to side with those that praise the book.

It’s set in 2047, on the hundredth anniversary of India’s independence and partition. Further partition has occurred, and India is split into three major segments, Bharat, Awadh, and Bengal. I would dearly have loved a map to the fictional divisions, though part of this desire is probably from my typical American lack of geographical awareness. Religion and politics are still sites of contention and unrest. The narrative switches between many characters (the number changes depending on which review you read. The back of the book says nine, but really it’s more like a dozen, with a few locations getting their own segment as well.

India is suffering a drought, with the monsoon three years gone. The territories are clashing over a lack of water, as well as over religious and social difference. Meanwhile the Americans have found a weird artifact in space that somehow ties a handful of the characters together in India, which has become a haven for unauthorized AI activities after certain levels have been outlawed by puritanical legislation globalized from the US.

Non-fans of the book argue that there are too many voices and perspectives, and that they detract and distract from the plot. But to my reading, the panoply of voices and locations and ideas is central to the plot, which concerns itself with how simplistic either/or dichotomies just can’t contain the messy, beautiful, horrifying mess that is life on this planet. This idea is embodied in the character of Tal, a “nute” who has been genetically re-engineered to have neither sex nor gender, and whose pronoun is “yt” and who has a spectacular character arc throughout the book, one that is interesting to contrast with that of Mr. Nandha, the “Krishna cop” who, like Deckard in Blade Runner, is tasked with identifying and eliminating rogue “aeais”.

Like the soap opera Town and Country that’s a key feature of its plot, River of Gods moves in and out of lives and locations to tell a story that’s big, about aeais advancing, while also telling the everyday stories, like that of the Krishna cop’s wife who longs for attention and babies from her husband, who becomes ever more obsessed with tracking and killing aeais even while his own real life is unraveling.

While it was hard to keep track of all the characters as well as the liberal use of Hindu terms and slang (there is a glossary at the end, but I found it was only spottily helpful and eventually gave up, just guessing from context and getting along just fine), I got swept up in the plot as it picked up elements from each of the many characters’ stories. Christopher Priest in his Guardian review says “It is not a page-turner book; it is a turn-page-back book.” By the end section, which is titled Ensemble and features all the storylines and characters coming together in a fast and furious climax and denouement that was vivid and visual in its description, I was hooked and loathe to put the book down.

I’m a sometime reader of sci-fi and speculative fiction. This book reminds me of the work of William Gibson–it’s cyberpunk set in India rather than China. In scope it reminds me of the books of Neal Stephenson, though I think this has a more satisfying ending than Stephenson’s earlier books, like Snow Crash and Diamond Age. In spite of the length and details, I found it accessible and engaging, often even enthralling, and enjoyed the reading experience much more than I did with Midnight’s Children. I wouldn’t recommend it for those unfamiliar or averse to reading sci-fi, but for those with at least a passing familiarity with the genre, this is a grand mash up of India culture, a varied cast of characters, and speculative ideas. Whether the setting is integral to the story, or perhaps a romanticized Western, colonial perspective, is questioned in this piece from the Mithila review, which reminds me to get going on another recommendation of my husband’s, Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road.

If anyone comes here that’s read River of Gods, I’d love to know: what did you think? And specifically, what did you think about the revelations about Najia’s childhood, and how they fit into the plot. Also, what did you think about the character of Krishan?

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