“River of Gods” by Ian McDonald

River of Gods coverI had been looking forward to reading River of Gods for a long time; science-fiction set in a future India is certainly a novelty, but it also got rave reviews. I was really excited to get it for my birthday, and it jumped to the top of my reading queue.

The book is set in India of 2047, around the hundredth anniversary of India’s independence from the British. India has split into a number of countries (I believe the term is “Balkanisation”), including Awadh, Bharat and Bangla. There has been a drought in all three countries for years, and they are ready to resort to desperate measures for water. We follow nine different viewpoints – a cop and his wife, a civil servant, a gangster, a set designer, two foreign scientists, a journalist and a stand up comedian. Their stories start off very differently (the first 100 pages or so are pretty confusing), but eventually converge in a story that decides the fate of India.

River of Gods is primarily two things – a science fiction story and a book set in India. I think it is a pretty amazing science fiction book, but the setting of India did not feel authentic to me – the details were all somewhat off-kilter. I’ll address these two things separately.

First, the science fiction story: The plot was really well-developed and came together well. The AIs (“aeais”) were fascinating, and reminded me a bit of the AIs in Neuromancer. I was really swept up in the quest to find out what was really going on and how all the characters and their lives fit together, and the conclusion was satisfying and packed an emotional punch. The world was well-realised and consistent. A lot of the fun came from not knowing what lay ahead, so I don’t want to reveal any plot points.

Although the world felt real and believable, it did not seem like a future India. A lot of the words and concepts shown to be in everyday use already seem archaic to me. The caste system is already fading away in common parlance, and it is weird that it plays such a large role in Bharat 2047. It also seems a bit implausible that India would have split into Awadh, Bangla and Bharat – even if India were to split up, I don’t think that’s the configuration it would take. The slang, the choice of names, the way the people acted… it was almost right, but that made the lack of accuracy much more apparent. Although I would have liked the author to do more research, I think I would have even been okay with less research. The India of River of Gods was very unsettling.

I was also a bit disturbed by the portrayal of India as an extremely Hindu nation, where Muslims are hated and a fundamentalist Hindu party is such a giant threat. That doesn’t match up with my experiences in India, although our politicians are always talking about being more Indian (renaming cities from their British names, for instance) and we do have a couple of very Hindu political parties, I don’t think that they have that much influence.

Other nitpicks: the number of sex scenes in this book is totally unnecessary and gratuitous, and pulled me out of the book. Another annoying thing was the sheer number of Hindi words used in the book, a lot of them seemed also totally unnecessary. I am pretty familiar with Hindi, so I was okay, but I imagine it would be pretty annoying for people to have to look up terms in the glossary every couple of paragraphs. Hindi words are used in place of extremely ordinary words, like “alley”, and a lot of English words are Hindi-ised.

In any case, despite all my quibbles about the setting, I think River of Gods is a great science-fiction book, and I would definitely recommend it on that strength.

4 thoughts on ““River of Gods” by Ian McDonald

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