River of Gods

Ian McDonald

Simon & Schuster 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006 http://dannyreviews.com/
In the 2047 of River of Gods, India has split into a dozen states. Bharat, with its capital at Varanasi, is on the verge of war with Delhi-led Awadh over water shortages — the monsoon has failed — while the Bengalis are trying to change the weather by towing a giant iceberg into the Bay of Bengal. Men vastly outnumber women due to selective abortion. And artificial intelligences are controlled by treaty. But in other ways surprisingly little has changed: Hindu nationalists are orchestrating street protests, capitals still display a vast disparity in wealth between old city slums and gleaming new cities, Western backpackers visit India for the usual reasons, and so forth.

In this setting, River of Gods follows some nine characters: a gangster who finds his usual line of business made redundant by technology; a Krishna cop, hunting rogue AIs, and his neglected wife, who becomes involved with her gardener; two American scientists, one of them co-opted by law enforcement to find the other, who has gone underground in south India; an asexual "nute" working in television production; a young reporter who bites off more than she can chew; the Muslim adviser to the prime minister of Bharat; and a comedian who inherits a third of a power company when his father retires to become a sadhu.

All of this is rather disconnected, with sprawling subplots and devices pulled out of a hat as special effects: technologies are described that have no significant role in the story and the Indian culture vignettes are largely decorative. Common cyberpunk and science fiction cliches have been augmented with cliches about India, but I found no memorable, novel, or substantial ideas in River of Gods.

On top of that, none of the characters are compelling, the plot is slow-moving and largely predictable, and McDonald's prose is workable but uninspiring. There was just enough in the disparate plot lines and the Indian setting to keep me reading, though I did skip over all the passages of tedious fictional physics and computer science.

River of Gods was even more of a disappointment than China Mieville's Iron Council. I'd give it a miss unless you're really desperate.

January 2006

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%T River of Gods
%A McDonald, Ian
%I Simon & Schuster
%D 2004
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0743256700
%P 583pp