Sunday, July 24, 2005

Booklist: River of Gods

Just finished Ian McDonald's River of Gods, and damn, that was some good reading.

It's a kind of sci-fi Short Cuts, where ten characters try to live their lives in India, AD2047, with war and revolution and big dumb alien objects pulling them up short.

The novel has an extraordinary grasp on its main theme, which I took to be humanity's responsibility to and for its creations, and how we seek to shirk that responsibility at every turn by blaming fate, circumstances, gender, society or any one of a million targets to explain away our failings. Mr Nandha, the Krishna cop, with his obsessive dedication to his job at the cost of his new marriage is only one example. As beautiful a portrait as McDonald draws of Nandha's wife, we never get the impression that she is any more than a trophy to him. As he tries to keep her more and more isolated from what he regards as a deformed society, her entire world becomes her rooftop garden and India's favourite soap opera. Eventually, her life begins more and more to resemble the drama which obsesses her, until in desperation, she runs off with her gardener.

Many of the characters - savage journalist Najia, ungendered "nute" Tal, street-thug Shiv, repressed civil servant Shaheen Badoor Khan, world weary physics genius Thomas Lull and his savant companion Aj, all of whom are quite psychologically convincing - share Nandha's flaw. They consider themselves the only truly self-aware person they know, when all they are really doing is defining themselves through what they are not; rejecting and snobbishly evaluating their fellows. Blinded by the perceived flaws of others, they are strangers to themselves.

In McDonald's reckoning there is nothing, no part of our selves, history or culture that is not an artifact of one kind or another. We create where we come from as a people through our creation myths of gods and divinities. We filter who we are as persons through the agglomeration of our memories; we are the sum of what we remember, and depend upon our memories, those we leave out or repress as much as those we can actually recall, to form our personalities. In the world of the novel, we've moved beyond living vicariously through the antics of frail, flesh and blood celebrities, and take our cues for the ideal life from CGI characters in a soap opera played by AI actors.

Artificial, or emergent, intelligences represent the pinnacle of mankind's jones for continual self-improvement through external factors, and also the greatest perceived threat to its existence. Human beings have potentially created their successors, and terrified of being exterminated or enslaved (surely a reflection, an unconscious judgement of themselves) now do all they can to limit their growth, seeking out and destroying any they consider too advanced. But these creations, distributed intelligences that they are, are alien. They are not like us, they do not want the same things as us, except to survive, and with this goal in mind, many of River of Gods' characters are the unwitting puppets of the so-called "Generation Three" aeais. In their struggles for survival these persecuted sentiences offer our characters their greatest chance at some kind of redemption, or the possibility of a final damnation.

Now I'm aware that I've made the novel sound hugely nihilistic, but it's not at all. In the tradition of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, all the strife, and suffering and cruelty of River of Gods should be considered no more than temporary birthing pains, the final nativity being the creation of a new race of gods and their gifts to mankind.

Ian McDonald is one of my very favourite authors but, as with another of my favourites, the mighty Christopher Priest, his novels never remain in print for very long. Why this should be so I have no idea. Both McDonald and Priest have proven, distinguished careers, with much love and many awards showered on both of them. With that in mind, I expect this book to be unobtainable within a year, so go out and read it now.

Category: Books and Comics


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