Cyberabad Days is a book of short stories set in McDonald’s River of Gods universe – I’ve had an eye on it for a while, but finally had the opportunity to read it. I love speculative fiction and I’m from India (which really needs more sci-fi/fantasy representation), so these books are a natural fit for me.
First, a note about the world. As with River of Gods, this is the part of the book I have the most trouble with; otherwise McDonald’s writing and concepts are excellent. He captures the chaos and the contradictions of India very well, but there’s no core holding it all together. Every Indian I know has a strong sense of community – to their family, friends or other networks; there is none of this in McDonald’s India. Everyone is too eager to be individualistic, to be virtual – it’s a hard leap to make, considering quite a few of my high school classmates don’t even use e-mail. Maybe that’s just McDonald’s writing style (I haven’t read any of his other books); but in that case, India isn’t a good fit for it.
The way that India has evolved also feels somewhat off to me – it’s like McDonald has taken all the most “exotic” things in India and made those India’s defining features, even if they’re currently in decline – the soap operas, child marriages, female foeticide, the hijras, even royalty (which doesn’t really exist anymore). Some of the terms used would be archaic now (although I suppose it is possible that nostalgia would make a comeback). It’s not that any one of the things he describes is impossible, but the whole picture combined just doesn’t feel right. Also, I have no idea why this book is called Cyberabad Days – Cyberabad is an area of Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh (my home state!), and neither state nor city is barely even mentioned in the book.
Don’t get me wrong, though – this is a very good book! I just feel obligated to talk about the world since I’m from there and feel oddly protective about it.
There are seven stories in this book, and they’re a nice mix of lengths and styles. The protagonists run the gamut from a poor village boy to a rich, genetically superior “Brahmin”, and the stories span decades.
Since there are only seven stories, I’ll write a bit about each:
Sanjeev and Robotwallah: This is the classic story of the kid that wants to be cool but then discovers that the cool kids really aren’t that cool. It’s classic because it’s satisfying no matter how many times it’s done, and that definitely holds true here. It was also interesting to learn more about how warfare in India has evolved, and how the villages have stayed pretty much the same.
Kyle Meets the River: The only one of the stories with a non-Indian protagonist – a young American boy that’s curious about the real India. This story was depressingly real, right down to the parenting decision made at the end. I also liked seeing how the relationship between the US and India had evolved.
The Dust Assassin: One of my two favourite stories, this features a young water heiress who has been told her entire life that she is a weapon to be used against their rivals. When she finally finds out what that means, it has tragic consequences. This story was almost told like a myth, and I loved the sheer romance of it.
An Eligible Boy: A story that explores the consequences of female foeticide leading to a very warped gender ratio. Jasbir, a young middle-class professional, is desperate to find himself a city wife, and of course, hilarity ensues. When he does snare a girl, he finds out that it isn’t quite because of his charms. Probably the weakest story, but that’s only because it doesn’t stand out in any way – it’s still pretty good.
The Little Goddess: The adventures of a former living goddess from Nepal, and her search to find meaning in the new world. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the Kumaris of Nepal, so I really enjoyed this story. It’s told from the first person perspective, and that adds a lot of authenticity to the telling. What does a former vessel for the divine do, when the divine have left her and the AIs are now gods?
The Djinn’s Wife: A famous Awadhi Kathak dancer falls in love and marries her biggest fan – a Charati diplomat AI trying to make peace between their two nations. However, the looming ratification of the Hamilton Acts (which ban high level AIs), and the sheer differences between the couple (think Laurie Jupiter and Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen) make it a hard time for the first human-AI marriage in history. I could’ve done without the framing story; I don’t think it added much, but otherwise, it was poignant.
Vishnu at the Cat Circus: This is the longest and most expansive story, and the only one that hasn’t been published elsewhere. The protagonist is a Brahmin (I was glad about this; they’re so often demonised by characters from other stories), and happens to be involved in (or know of) events throughout River of Gods as well as after. I don’t want to spoil much, since this was very plot-intensive. This is also a case where I could’ve done without the framing story, though.
Summary: Cyberabad Days makes a great companion book to River of Gods – we learn more about the history of India, what the events of River of Gods meant to the population that wasn’t involved in it, and how India and the world fared afterwards. (I wouldn’t recommend reading Cyberabad Days first, though, unless you’re not planning to read River of Gods).