McDonald: River of Gods

book coverRiver of Gods begins memorably with a flashy small-time crook dumping a woman’s body in the Ganges to let it drift downstream amongst remains from the funeral pyres of Varanasi.

The Ganges, India’s River of Gods, is as sacred as it has been for centuries and the ancient purification rituals are unchanged. Politically, however, India in 2047 is once again a cluster of feuding nation states and the ancient holy city of Varanasi is now the capital of Bharat.

It would be true to say this is a science-fiction novel about artificial intelligence, but that would leave out a lot. This is a big book in every way, with a dozen interweaving stories in settings ranging from Mughal mansions to the poorest slums. We have two pairs of star-crossed lovers, remote-controlled robot surgery, computer-generated soapie actors, an industrialist who gives his company away to become a temple-dwelling ascetic, a new human gender, an alien device concealed in an asteroid older than the solar system, gratuitous violence, a war between Bharat and its upstream neighbour over water resources, wild sex, zero-point energy, and much more.

McDonald’s huge array of characters and ideas means his book, even at almost 600 pages, is necessarily densely written. Its Indian setting also presents an obstacle to easy reading, though the author does at least provide a Hindi glossary at the back. But the book is beautifully written, too – sparks of brilliant imagery continually illuminate the action and its background – and is a feast for the imagination.

River of Gods could reasonably be described as Bollywood cyberpunk, but it tackles important questions too. Readers who avoid SF because they feel it is unrealistic or irrelevant should note that beneath the lively surface of this novel is a solidly grounded exploration of current issues including climate change, genetic modification, discrimination and the rise of India’s IT industry. McDonald’s technological projections are generally credible and his belief that social change will lag behind them is only too likely to prove true.

It should be obvious by now that I believe River of Gods is outstanding. I’m not alone. It won the 2004 best novel award from the British Science Fiction Association, was nominated for a Hugo and was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Order an appropriate banquet from your favourite Indian restaurant and immerse yourself in it.

Simon & Schuster, $21.95

Review originally published July 2005;
published here 2020.