Author: Ian McDonald
Details: (c) 2006 Ian McDonald; Pub 2007 Pyr; ISBN 978-1-59102-595-5
Verdict: River of gods is quite the tour-de-force.
Reasons for reading it: I am increasingly impressed with McDonald, and the buzz about this when it came out further encouraged me that I ought to read it.
How it came into my hands: I bought it as part of my haul from Amazon last year.
It's hard to even start listing what's so great about River of Gods, it does a lot of different things well and has some really original elements. It's the sort of SF that appeals to dedicated SF readers, absolutely brimming with ideas, and lots of the kind of worldbuilding where all the invented tech is slotted in to the background of society. But it never compromises on characterization for the sake of playing with shiny ideas, and there is a twisty, complex and always fast-moving storyline.
I am not generally a fan of the style of novel that jumps between nine different viewpoint characters, and only gradually reveals the connections between the different stories. But RoG does this so well that I didn't mind. All the characters are so vivid, and there was no sense of being annoyed when a good thread was interrupted for the sake of a less interesting one. The overall pattern is developed at just the right pace, and is beautifully intricate without relying on the ridiculous coincidences which are often a flaw of this kind of novel.
Even though RoG is a long and complex novel, it feels as if there is not a wasted word. Everything intertwines to create an overall structure, which both creates an extremely imaginative and multi-dimensional world, and tells a story. The basic outline of the story is the relatively unoriginal SF theme of AIs transcending their creators, but in several ways RoG is an extremely new take on that theme. Along the way it deals with theology, politics, futuristic medical ethics, class and caste issues, and plenty of people being people. It very occasionally lapses into in character speeches about philosophical issues, but most of the time all the thought-provoking stuff emerges naturally from the story.
I really like starting from the premise that places other than urban America have a future, and the Indian backdrop works really well for RoG. I feel slightly embarrassed that there's this real country with a billion people living in it and thousands of years of history, and as far as I'm concerned it's basically Middle Earth, a fascinating and fantastic setting to read stories about. But I was hooked by Kipling and Madhur Jaffrey as a kid, and moved on to Rushdie and Seth (who are at least actually Indian), and RoG fits right in with that beloved context. There's a helpful glossary at the back of my edition, and I realized that more than half the words were already familiar to me. In some ways, though, I was a little disappointed that after taking the focus away from the usual white Americans with one token ethnic guy, RoG ends with the final spotlight on the only two white characters, and they're almost the only ones who come through the apocalypse unscathed.
But yes, this very much lived up to my high expectations.