book review: the last policeman

I’ve probably mentioned before how rare it is for me to read a straight-up mystery (and not some sort of science fiction noir type thing) but that’s exactly what Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman is. A man died in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. The newly-minted detective is the only person who doesn’t think it was a suicide. Investigation ensues.

The only complication is that in just over 6 months the world as we know it will end when Earth is hit by a huge asteroid.

So the book is a twisty little mystery involving insurance fraud and drugs and bad coffee in police briefing rooms, but also a look at why even do police-work when the world will soon be ending. Who really cares how one person ended up dead when six months from now everyone will be.

Now that little complication might, in your mind, vault the book into the science fiction category, but it really isn’t. The asteroid is affecting people because they’re all aware of their mortality, but it’s not causing tidal waves or changing the weather or making people flee to the Himalayas or shooting Bruce Willis off into space. It’s something that’s happening, just like war is something that happens in other stories.

I really liked the book even though it’s not my usual science fiction and in spite of the fact it’s the first in a trilogy. (SPOILER: The case is resolved and the book ends still many months before the asteroid hits, leaving room for the next books to remain pre-apocalyptic).

book review: cyberabad days

Cyberabad Days is a collection of short stories set in the world of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. That world is a 21st century where India has fragmented into mini-states banning or making huge amounts of money on aeais and genetic engineering and drought (and cricket).

The collection is good for getting into the details of how some of the weirder aspects of the world worked than you can really get into in the middle of a novel. Setting up other characters who are marrying aeais while the Water War happens is a great way to make the world feel deeper. The final story in the book is about one of the hugely-long-lived Brahmin gengineered children and it’s the only story that really moves the world past the big events that happen in the novel. I think it was my favourite story because of that, though “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” was te kind of complete little tale that I enjoy.

If you wanted to see if you’d like River of Gods (which is a pretty big fat book) you wouldn’t do too badly to read one or two of these stories, but don’t read “Vishnu and the Circus of Cats” because that will kind of mess up a lot of reveals from the novel. And for the record, my favourite Ian McDonald book is still Desolation Road.

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.