River of Gods
by Ian McDonald
Format: Hardcover, 597 pages
Cover Design: Stephan MartiniereRelease Date: March 2006
It’s 2047 and India is approaching her centenary anniversary. The country has splintered into several semi-independent nation states. Relations between them have worsened over years of drought, as water has become ever more scare and precious. Culture and society are also under great stress from quantum leaps in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. In this setting, nine people go about their lives: a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. The most important character however turns out to be an orphan who is also a mind reader and a prophet. The characters will decide the fate of 21st Century India.
First off, like McDonald’s book Brasyl, River of Gods goes very in-depth into the culture and society of his chosen setting. 21st Century India comes alive in a myriad of cultures, castes, classes, and religions. The nuances make the background feel incredibly real and it gives the story a flavor not often found in science fiction.
Another thing I really liked was how he made artificial intelligences very different and not just a digital version of a person. In my opinion, a real artificial intelligence will not think like a human being nor will it have the same instincts or abilities. McDonald does a good job of showing this and I actually wish he had done a bit more.
The major flaws that I found turned out to be in the writing and not the book itself. For instance, I thought that the prose was very clunky. Often the story was unreadable and hard to follow, and it took me much longer to finish this book than it might otherwise have taken because of it. The other major problem I had was that I felt the book suffered from extraneous characters and storylines. I think a few of the plotlines, there are nine character points of view, were unnecessary, and the book might have benefited from been trimmed from the story.
River of Gods is a good science fiction novel with a fascinating, exotic setting, but it’s not without it’s flaws. Still, the book is definitely worth reading at least once. Recommended.