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River of Gods by Ian McDonald (2004) 583 p.

I don’t recall which cyberpunk author it was – it might have been Neal Stephenson with regards to “Jipi and the Paranoid Chip” – but somebody mentioned, once, somewhere, about how technology pops up everywhere, even in the third world; how orphans in the slums of Dhaka and Lagos are using mobile phones while still shitting in ditches. River of Gods is a novel-length example of this. (And if anyone knows the actual quote, please let me know, so this introduction is less clunky.)

River of Gods takes place in August 2047 – the centenary of India’s independence from Britain – with an ensemble cast of various Indians, Americans, and one Afghan-Swede, who range the gamut from cops to criminals to journalists to politicians. India has balkanised by this date, split into dozens of bickering smaller states, and most of River of Gods takes places in and around the city of Varanasi, in what’s now known as the nation of Bharat.

To successfully write this kind of science fiction world, a convincing and believable Year 2047, you need to cover the entire range of futurism. McDonald accomplishes this very well – River of Gods, in its formidable 583 pages, covers mid-century geopolitics, genetic engineering, first contact, artificial intelligence and climate change, to name just a few. The second hurdle for this particular book is how realistically a British author can write about India, and unfortunately I can’t really judge, having never been there myself. Suffice to say that McDonald obviously has a few Indian visas in his passport, and clearly has a keen interest in the country, and his India sufficed to convince a fellow foreigner like myself. An Indian might very well think differently, but I was happy enough.

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the major storyline (and certainly the most interesting one) is dominated by the two American characters, Lisa Durnau and Thomas Lull. Lisa is a physicist and biologist who is plucked out of her ordinary life by the CIA, sent up into space, and told – in one of the book’s best passages – about an asteroid called Darnley 285, which is on collision course with Earth. She is told that it has often been on collision course with Earth before, but then always changes its course before impact.

“You’re saying…”
“An unidentified force is modifying Darnley 285’s orbit to keep it the same distance from Earth,” Daley Suarez-Martin says.

This is echoed later in the book, when an Indian gangster is hired to abduct and interrogate an American agent. As he leaves – after a gut-wrenching proof-of-loyalty killing – his new employer casually finishes the chapter by saying “By the way, in case you ever wonder what the Americans are decoding. They have found something in space and they have no idea what it is.” These are cool, spine-tingling moments – they’re what science fiction is all about and I liked them a lot.

In terms of prose style, McDonald was borderline for me – it’s the very definition of florid, but when he manages to restrain himself he can often pick just a few choice, perfect words, creating a brilliant visual image. This happens all over the book, but I’ll share some of my favourites, a few of his descriptions of two legged mechs or combat robots or whatever you want to call them:

The security bot completes its check, stalks away into the shrubbery like some late Cretaceous hunter.

The Urban Combat Robot rears over him. The vile little mantis head lowers, sensor rigs swivelling.

Running feet in the rural pre-dawn. Titanium-shod feet, as much felt through the bike’s suspension as heard, gaining on them, faster than any running thing should… The robot looms over the dune crest and rears up to its full height. It is some evil stalking rakshasha, part bird part spider, unfolding palps and manipulators and machine guns from its mandibles.

Just as often, however, these fine descriptions are drowned out by excess. You can see William Gibson hovering over McDonald’s shoulder, and McDonald seems keen to throw a lot of words at the page and see what sticks in order to impress his predecessor.

And that brings me to the larger problem with River of Gods, which is bloat. There are nine major characters in the novel, and while it gives McDonald a chance to show us mutliple perspectives of his future India and flex his world-building muscles, at least three of them could have been removed without affecting the story much. The novel also could have been 200 pages shorter; it often drags, getting bogged down in description and superfluous scenes. I can understand why this happened, and why McDonald would probably fiercely defend every word of the book, but it comes at the detriment of the story.

When River of Gods is good, it’s very good. If it had been edited more judiciously it could have been great. Unfortunately, it often falls short. But it’s still well worth reading for science fiction or cyberpunk fans, and I look forward to checking out the next two books in McDonald’s cyberpunk-in-a-foreign-land trilogy, Brasyl and The Dervish House.

My short fantasy story “The Shipwreck of Andalus the Hero” has been published in the latest edition of Schlock Magazine. It’s only about 1,000 words long and you can read it free online.

This is the first story I’ve published that’s been illustrated, in the nice piece of art you can see above, by Thom Cuschieri. Thanks Thom!

Good afternoon! Australian speculative fiction magazine SQ Mag has released its “best of” edition for 2012, which includes my short story Nullus, as it appeared way back in March 2012 in the magazine’s inaugural edition. You can read all the stories in here online at SQ Mag, but isn’t it nice to have them all picked out for you in an attractive $2.99 Kindle package? Besides, as the editor said to us, “depending on sales, we may accrue sufficient revenue to attract royalties for you.” Hooray! So head on over to Amazon and support the independent arts, and by extension my drinking habit.

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2006) 261 p.

Winner of the 2007 Booker Prize, Anne Enright’s The Gathering follows Irish woman Veronica Hegarty in the aftermath of her brother Liam’s suicide. As she travels to England to retrieve his body and bring it back to Dublin for burial, and braces herself for the wake which will see the drunken, bickering Hegarty clan reunited, she slowly begins to think about the past, and why her brother became a suicidal wreck. As the blurb puts it: “It wasn’t the drink that killed him – although that certainly helped – it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house in the winter of 1968.” (It’s exactly what you think it is.)

The Gathering slots neatly into the Booker-bait category of “depressed person looks back on a life of regrets,” a template particularly popular among novelists from the British Isles (see also: The Sea, The Sense of an Ending.) I liked it a bit better than The Sense of an Ending, and a lot more than The Sea, but it was still a fairly dull affair. Enright is a decent enough writer when it comes to prose style, and there are some good scenes and visual images throughout the book. But in the end I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about this miserable woman from a family of jerks. I’m afraid I don’t have much more to say about this one.

Roughing It by Mark Twain (1872) 462 p.

I bought this when I was travelling in Beijing a few years ago and the only English-language bookstore I could find was something churning out endless public domain texts, presumably for students. Mark Twain is by far the most readable of any 19th century author, so I picked this up, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently.

Roughing It is an account of Twain’s journeys across America’s western frontier when he was a young man in his twenties; it was apparently written in 1872, but the actual journey took place in the 1860s, while the Civil War (rarely mentioned in this book) was raging in the east. His brother Orion had been appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory, and Twain (or Clemens, at the time) went along with him as an assistant. He remained with his brother in Nevada for some time before, as youth are wont to do, he went gallivanting off on his own adventures. What was supposed to be a three-month journey ultimately ended up being seven years.

Roughing It takes place, as I said, before the events of Twain’s more famous travelogue The Innocents Abroad, but it was written after the success of that volume, collated from various old diary entries, correspondence pieces and Twain’s imperfect memory. Apparently the first third of the book, detailing their journey to Nevada, is heavily based on Orion’s journals. This may be why I found it dull, dry and difficult going, since it lacked Twain’s personal spark.

The book picks up a bit more as Twain begins his own travelling, and branches out into other work – prospecting, mining, real estate speculation, and eventually journalism, in the confusingly-named town of Virginia, which is where he first adopted his famous pen-name. (A recent theory suggests this didn’t come from riverboat slang, as originally thought, but was perhaps something Twain would cry out at the bar in Virginia when putting new drinks on his tab.) Towards the end it also details his time in San Francisco, and a trip to Hawaii – which would have seemed a bit tacked-on to the book in 1872, but now slots in with the theme of America’s West quite well.

I mentioned earlier that Twain is the most readable of any 19th century writer, but that is of course a relative measure – his style is long, verbose and drawn-out, and to a 21st century reader it can often become tedious, especially when he’s taking you through the finer points of gold mining or relating a somewhat amusing 12-page-long shaggy dog story. But there are also moments which, even 150 years later, are quite amusing. My favourite anecdote comes when he and two friends become lost in a blizzard, their horses bolting into the blinding snowstorm. As they huddle together in the cold and await their certain death they pray to God to deliver them, swear off all their sins, apologise to each other for past grievances, and slowly come to accept their demise. In the morning, clinging to life, they wake to find the snowstorm has cleared – to reveal the inn from which they had departed a mere fifteen feet from where they sat.

For two hours we sat in the station and ruminated in disgust. The mystery was gone, now, and it was plain enough why the horses had deserted us. Without a doubt they were under that shed a quarter of a minute after they had left us, and they must have overheard and enjoyed all our confessions and lamentations.

It’s interesting to see the trace of humour, and Twain’s use of sarcasm and deadpan – he’s clearly not a man to let the truth stand in the way of a good yarn – mixed with overwrought 19th century prose. I always wonder whether people actually spoke like that in the 19th century (think the movies True Grit, or Lincoln), or whether they just wrote like that, and modern filmmakers interpret it as a speech pattern as well, based on reading letters and journals. (Westerns from the 1950s and ‘60s were pretty plain-talking, weren’t they?) And, if people did actually speak like that, when in the course of history they stopped.

In any case, Twain’s non-fiction – as always – can be difficult and sometimes tedious for the modern reader to follow. The jokes and amusement sprinkled throughout the book are not a reward for effort, but rather a sweetener for a reader who wants an insight into the real Old West – not cowboys, Indians and train robberies, but rather mining, prospecting and the sheer majesty of an untouched wilderness. Roughing It is an excellent first-hand account of life around Nevada and California in the mid-19th century, but be warned that it can be difficult going.

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October 2013