book review: river of gods

River of Gods is a science fiction book by Ian McDonald, set in 2047 India (mostly). It was pretty great. It felt like a William Gibson book, but in India. There were some expat characters, a scientist hiding out on a southern beach, an Afghani-born journalist, and a virtual worlds researcher, but the book wasn’t about magic westerners coming to save the world and the world-saving point just happened to be in India.

It used India really well, even though the country had balkanized into a bunch of mini states. One of the characters was the advisor to the nation of Bharat (where Varanasi is) and Bharat and Awadh (which is bigger than traditional Awadh and I believe included Delhi) are involved in a water war because there hadn’t been a monsoon in over 5 years and the Ganges was being dammed up in Awadh. Meanwhile the Banglas were bringing a chunk of Antarctica up into the Bay of Bengal to try restarting the monsoon.

India is a haven for artificial intelligences that have been regulated out of existence in North America, but to keep up decent relations the Ministry of Information has agents who disrupt and destroy AI systems that break India’s (laxer) rules. A chunk of the storyline follows one of these agents, a “Krishna Cop,” and this was where it felt the most cinematic with the gods guiding his EMP gun and decrypting all the virtual stuff. I loved those sequences because of their mix of traditional cyberpunk elements without a jacking in type sequence. It felt updated with all that Internet of things type stuff instead of “going into the machine to hack the hell out of it.”

And there are the nutes. There are these people who’ve forsworn gender and get their bodies (and brains) rewired out of sex drives and into something else. Something almost entirely fashion driven. They can manipulate their bodies’ response to stimuli with nodes on their arms, since they don’t have the glands and wiring for being driven by their genitals any more. They were very SF, very neat.

As you can see, there’s a lot in this book (someone also goes into space). There was one storyline I wasn’t too big a fan of, though it was useful in depicting some of the caste/class issues of Varanasi society life. But yes, in all a great SF book, even if as a regular SF reader you can tell what’s going on with one character long before the characters around her seem to figure it out. I’m now actively looking for more by McDonald.

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