I recently read, and very much enjoyed, The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. One of the commendable things about McDonald is that he goes out of his way to ground his stories in cultures that have heretofore been largely ignored by science fiction (of course, its equally important that he does this with great sensitivity, avoiding obvious orientalist pit-traps where possible). The Dervish House was set in a beautifully realised Turkey, while River of Gods, written six years prior, takes place in India.
In 2047, India has splintered into a number of smaller states. Most of the action centres around the city of Varanasi and the state of Bharat in north-east India. Brimming with ideas and at the cutting edge of AI technology, this India seems like just a small step from the one imagined by Kim Stanley Robinson in The Years of Rice and Salt. Bharat is in the grip of a serious drought and the monsoon seems to be in no rush to turn up (I’m sure there’s a thesis to be written on the use of the monsoon’s arrival as a symbolic element in the final act of fictions). Taking advantage of this, a Hindu fundamentalist demagogue is brewing up unrest and threatening the stability of the country. Working to counteract this is chief advisor to the Prime Minister (and muslim), Shaheen Badoor Khan.
That’s one strand of the novel. As usual, McDonald uses the perspective of many characters to construct his plot and I’d be here all day if I were to even sketch all of them. (Wikipedia does a pretty good job of spoilerless scene setting and character enumeration, so you can go look there if you want.) To be honest, I think there might be a little too much going on in this one. There are maybe nine major points of view and another couple of minor ones. The book isn’t short (about 500 pages in paperback), but it’s very hard to do justice to all of these characters with all of the jumping about that’s required. A related problem is that the plot’s a bit…messy. There are tonnes of great ideas, and it would have been nice if some of them had been given a little more room to breath. For example, there’s some classic space opera shenanigans involving a mysterious object older than the universe floating in space. This could easily have been excised, leaving the core of the novel sleeker and essentially unharmed. This occasional sense of incoherence made me feel like River of Gods was a clear intermediate step in craft between his exuberant but chaotic earlier novel, Necroville, and the fantastically assured The Dervish House.
The novel is about all sorts of things, but the theme that stood out the strongest related to intercultural (and interspecies) differences and the difficulties in grasping and accepting these. Indian and American, Muslim and Hindu, city and country, gendered and nute, natural and artificial intelligence. Of course this leads to all sorts of interesting conflicts between and within characters. The most compelling character was Khan, mentioned above, who really personifies this kind of conflict. McDonald does great stuff showing his travails as a Muslim and as a person attracted to nutes. (Nutes are people [pronoun: ‘yt’] who have undergone intensive surgery to erase any trace of gender; they’re described as looking like manga characters, long limbed and androgynous.) Khan is also subjected to one of the more savage betrayals that I’ve ever encountered. He’s a fantastic tragic figure.
Other entertaining characters include millionaire playboy idealist Vishram (who must have been lots of fun to write); and Mr Nandha, lover of Western classical music and destroyer of AIs, with an array of hunter killer programs in the guise of Muslim deities at his command. The constant efforts of Mr Nandha and humanity generally to curtail the spread and development of higher and higher levels of AI (the singularity) is another great strand within the novel. McDonald’s conceptualisations of what an AI would be like and how it would contrast with our own intelligence are original (to my eyes, at least) and convincing. Some of his writing on this topic reminded me of the seminal cyberpunk anime, Ghost in the Shell. Like the crypt in Iain Banks’ Feersum Endjinn, McDonald’s AIs create an avatar (again a naïve super-powered woman) in an attempt to reconcile with humanity.
So, lots going on. If you haven’t read McDonald before, then I would recommend The Dervish House as your first port of call, but, still, exciting and evocative, River of Gods did not disappoint.