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.