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River of Gods May 16, 2011

Posted by futurewired in Ian McDonald, Reviews.
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I originally went to the library with the intention of getting out Ian McDonald’s latest, The Dervish House, a near future work set in Istanbul. Despite what the online catalogue said however the shelves were not forthcoming, so I picked up River of Gods instead. The lurid cover nearly put me off but I’m extremely glad I persevered; River of Gods is a fascinating, bewildering and utterly compelling read, packed with intriguing ideas and believable characters.

River of Gods is set in mid 21st century India, that has broken up into multiple states. A political conflict between two, Bharat and Awadh, brought about by an environmental crisis provides the backdrop to the interwoven stories of a number of individuals as they go about their lives; a stand-up comic turned industrialist, a journalist, a gangster, an academic on the run and a policeman charged with ‘excommunicating’ rogue artificial intelligences among them. A mysterious girl searching for her parents, rumours of a weakly god-like AI and a seven billion year old ‘alien’ artefact are among the elements that McDonald weaves together into a gripping narrative that comes to a head amid riots and violence in the chaotic city of Varanasi.

This is a dense, sprawling novel that clocks in at over five hundred pages, packed with Indian terms and neologisms, and as such can be difficult to follow. Any one of the dozens of ideas and strands that are explored here could be the basis of a novel in its own right; the impact of global warming on a newly Balkanised India, warfare in the age of artificial intelligence, the social impact of genetic engineering in a capitalist society, cgi actors playing cgi characters in soap operas, the list goes on and on. The way the book is structured means that often just as you’re getting into a particular strand, the book darts away to follow another character, sometimes leaping back several days in terms of the narrative. This gave it a slightly disjointed feel at times, making it tricky to work out if you were seeing different characters impressions of the same event, or if something new was going on.

In terms of ambition though, the book can’t be faulted. In terms of characterisation too, the result is impressive. McDonald manages to make the characters understandable if not always sympathetic – from Shiv, the Raja (gangster) who is capable of stomach churning acts of violence, either directly or through his even more unsettling sidekick Yogendra, to Parvati, a neglected wife whose blossoming friendship with her gardener might seem tangential to the plot but somehow seems to open up the (for me) unfamiliar setting and culture and provides a good grounding for the more out-there elements of the plot.

The sci fi ideas that the book takes in are dealt with in quite different ways. The genetically engineered Brahmin children whose minds age faster than their bodies are frankly creepy, while the genderless Nutes, capable of controlling their own emotional reactions are an intriguing possibility of how a different way of living could come about (plus extra credit for inventing the new personal pronoun ‘yt’ for them.) M-Star theory features as a hypothetical successor to M-Theory/string theory and along with the stuff about parallel universes it’s just vague enough to be believable as a suggestion of where physics might be in forty years time.

The way artificial intelligence is treated in the book is particularly great, with some passages bringing greater clarity of thought to the way that AI and humanity might interact than I’ve seen in a while. Throughout the book they’re referred to as aeies, a nice touch in my opinion, as it reflects the way that words in one language for which there is no original translation are often adopted phonetically into another. The US has placed restrictions on how far they can develop in terms of intelligence through the Hamilton Acts, leading to research migrating to countries like Bharat which have a more ambiguous legal set-up. There’s one section I’ll quote from as I think it says a lot about how artificial intelligences might differ from us and how these differences could inform their view of humanity;

‘Aeai is alien intelligence. It’s a response to specific environmental conditions and stimuli, and that environment is CyberEarth, where the rules are very very different from RealEarth. First rule of CyberEarth: information cannot be moved, it must be copied… Now what that does to your sense of self, I don’t know and technically speaking, I can’t know. It’s a philosophical impossibility for us to be in two places at the same time; not for aeais. For them the philosophical implications of what you do with your spare copy when you move yourself to a new matrix is of fundamental importance… We’re gods to the aeai. Our words can rewrite the appearance of any part of their world. That’s the reality of their universe; non material entities that can unsay any part of reality are as much the fabric of it as quantum uncertainty and M-Star theory is of ours’

Having read a bunch of books feature AI I was slightly surprised to realise that I’d never thought about this kind of division. Of course in a lot of post-singularity novels it doesn’t really apply, but in the time period described in this novel it helps open up a new perspective on the actions of some of the characters. The high level aeais in the book are emergent intelligences, whose ambiguous sense of self apparently leads them to mistake each others actions for their own, and who it’s suggested, if you were to speak to them directly they would appear almost autistic in their behaviour. Their actions are callous, brutal even, but bearing this passage in mind, they appear both alien and understandable.

The book’s ending manages to pack a real emotional punch, while still resolving the main plot lines in a convincing manner. There’s a lot in the book that’s open to interpretation and in terms of pacing and that disjointed structure you might find it hard going at times, but I can honestly say it’s worth the effort.

River of Gods is six years old now, the author has written a bunch of others that I intend to check out, starting with either Brasyl or his latest The Dervish House.

Here’s a link to a short story, The Little Goddess, published in 2005, set in the same future India as River of Gods.

I originally went to the library with the intention of getting out Ian McDonald’s latest The Dervish House, a near future work set in Istanbul. Despite what the online catalogue said however the shelves were not forthcoming, so I picked up River of Gods instead. The lurid cover nearly put me off but I’m extremely glad I persevered; River of Gods is a fascinating, bewildering and utterly compelling read, packed with intriguing ideas and utterly human characters.

River of Gods is set in mid 21st century India, that has broken up into multiple states. A political conflict between two, Bharat and Awadh, brought about by an environmental crisis provides the backdrop to the interwoven stories of a number of individuals as they go about their lives; a stand-up comic turned industrialist, a journalist, a gangster, an academic on the run and a policeman charged with ‘excommunicating’ rogue artificial intelligences among them. A mysterious girl searching for her parents, rumours of a weakly god-like AI and a seven billion year old ‘alien’ artefact are among the elements that McDonald weaves together into a gripping narrative that comes to a head amid riots and violence in the chaotic city of Varanasi.

This is a dense, sprawling novel that clocks in at over five hundred pages, packed with Indian terms and neologisms, and as such can be difficult to follow. Any one of the dozens of ideas and strands that are explored here could be the basis of a novel in its own right; the impact of global warming on a newly Balkanised India, warfare in the age of artificial intelligence, the social impact of genetic engineering in a capitalist society, cgi actors playing cgi characters in soap operas, the list goes on and on. The way the book is structured means that often just as you’re getting into a particular strand, the book darts away to follow another character, sometimes leaping back several days in terms of the narrative. This gave it a slightly disjointed feel at times, making it tricky to work out if you were seeing different characters impressions of the same event, or if something new was going on.

In terms of ambition though, the book can’t be faulted. In terms of characterisation too, the result is impressive. McDonald manages to make the characters understandable if not always sympathetic – from Shiv, the Raja (gangster) who is capable of stomach churning acts of violence, either directly or through his even more unsettling sidekick Yogendra, to Parvati, a neglected wife whose blossoming friendship with her gardener might seem tangential to the plot but somehow seems to open up the (for me) unfamiliar setting and culture and provides a good grounding for the more out-there elements of the plot.

The sci fi ideas that the book takes in are dealt with in quite different ways. The genetically engineered Brahmin children whose minds age faster than their bodies are frankly creepy, while the genderless Nutes, capable of controlling their own emotional reactions are an intriguing possibility of how a different way of living could come about (plus extra credit for inventing the new personal pronoun ‘yt’ for them.) M-Star theory features as a hypothetical successor to M-Theory/string theory and along with the stuff about parallel universes it’s just vague enough to be believable as a suggestion of where physics might be in forty years time.

The way artificial intelligence is treated in the book is particularly great, with some passages bringing greater clarity of thought to the way that AI and humanity might interact than I’ve seen in a while. Throughout the book they’re referred to as aeies, a nice touch in my opinion, as it reflects the way that words in one language for which there is no original translation are often adopted phonetically into another. The US has placed restrictions on how far they can develop in terms of intelligence through the Hamilton Acts, leading to research migrating to countries like Bharat which have a more ambiguous legal set-up. There’s one section I’ll quote from as I think it says a lot about how artificial intelligences might differ from us and how these differences could inform their view of humanity;

‘Aeai is alien intelligence. It’s a response to specific environmental conditions and stimuli, and that environment is CyberEarth, where the rules are very very different from RealEarth. First rule of CyberEarth: information cannot be moved, it must be copied… Now what that does to your sense of self, I don’t know and technically speaking, I can’t know. It’s a philosophical impossibility for us to be in two places at the same time; not for aeais. For them the philosophical implications of what you do with your spare copy when you move yourself to a new matrix is of fundamental importance… We’re gods to the aeai. Our words can rewrite the appearance of any part of their world. That’s the reality of their universe; non material entities that can unsay any part of reality are as much the fabric of it as quantum uncertainty and M-Star theory is of ours’

Having read a bunch of books feature AI I was slightly surprised to realise that I’d never thought about this kind of division. Of course in a lot of post-singularity novels it doesn’t really apply, but in the time period described in this novel it helps open up a new perspective on the actions of some of the characters. The high level aeais in the book are emergent intelligences, whose ambiguous sense of self apparently leads them to mistake each others actions for their own, and who it’s suggested, if you were to speak to them directly they would appear almost autistic in their behaviour. Their actions are callous, brutal even, but bearing this passage in mind, they appear both alien and understandable.

The book’s ending manages to pack a real emotional punch, while still resolving the main plot lines in a convincing manner. There’s a lot in the book that’s open to interpretation and in terms of pacing and that disjointed structure you might find it hard going at times, but I can honestly say it’s worth the effort.

River of Gods is six years old now, the author has written a bunch of others that I intend to check out, starting with either Brasyl or his latest The Dervish House.

Here’s a link to a short story, The Little Goddess, published in 2005, set in the same future India as River of Gods.

http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0604_5/littlegoddess.shtml

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Comments»

1. Joachim Boaz - August 24, 2011

Great review! I love sci-fi dealing with a future India!


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