Happy Birthday, India!
Ian McDonald’s River of Gods repositions cyberpunk by envisioning it in a Developing world. What would such a world look and feel like ? This is what McDonald sets out to show us in this novel about a compellingly realised future India
Langues : anglais
Type de document : Ouvrage
In terms of risk-taking, sheer scale, ideas, detail, inventiveness, and intellectual scope there are few recent books to match Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, and as a novel about India, there is nothing like it. River of Gods is a richly imaginative science fiction thriller about India. It is August 2047, the 100th anniversary of India’s independence. On its 100th birthday the nation has fractured into warring sub-nations. India has split into several independent states, one of which is now preparing to dam the holy river Ganga for drinking water. A three-year drought has pushed the region of Bharat towards war with neighbouring Awadh. As the thirsty crowds riot, Bharat becomes a final holdout.
The book envisions an Indian future where AI technology has grown big enough to create AIs that are not only indistinguishable from people but smarter. AIs and programmes name themselves after Hindu deities. But a law called the Hamilton Acts limits sentience of artificial intelligence, and the Ministry « excommunicates » rogue AIs. « Krishna cops » are blade runners who hunt and terminate these rogue AIs. Soap operas feature computer-generated characters played by computer-generated actors.
The energy of footsteps on sidewalks is used to generate power. Robotic debt-collectors pounce from the sky. It is also a world populated by people who have « stepped away » — a term referring to « neuts »: those who have chosen to become neuters, to have their gender surgically removed. The story follows ten characters through a time of hyper environmental, cultural and political change in India. The plot described above is fairly common to cyberpunk writers such as China Miéville, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman and Jon Courtenay Grimwood. What distinguishes River of Gods and makes it exciting is that Ian McDonald repositions cyberpunk by envisioning it in a Developing world. What would such a world look and feel like ? This is what McDonald sets out to show us in this novel about a compellingly realised future India.
Encounter specialists are called Krishna cops, there are no hackers, only data-rajas, genetic engineering has made possible a disease free, slow-aging Brahmin child, armour-plated government Mercedes drive past impoverished beggars, the main AI refers to itself as Brahman, scientists discuss invoking God to explain a mystery, and even as the book thunders to its epiphanic climax, India are 208 for 5 in the second Test match.
One of the many things Ian McDonald is doing in River of Gods is « info-dumping » — a new sf trope that works by « dumping » a lot of fascinating, bizarre information about new technologies (layered over old mythologies) on the reader in order to make futuristic worlds feel strange and… well, new. River of Gods does this supremely well since the author uses a combination of Indian culture and cyberpunk for his info dump. The chapters are short and the multi-threaded story moves from character to character. In a virtuoso collision of stories, he converges all the characters in a huge 150-page climax entitled « Ensemble ». He writes consistently well and poetically too — as in this description of a night train ride: « the train ploughs on peeling a bow-wave of night from its streamlined prow as it eats two hundred and eighty kilometers of India every hour ».
McDonald has an uncanny understanding of the sprawling diversity of India and its phantasmagoric sense of divinity. He effortlessly juggles techno talk with ontological physics and Hindu philosophy. Ian McDonald is a writer with big ideas.