River of Gods

Buy the book!I first encountered Ian McDonald’s work back in early 1988. Bantam Spectra had decided to make a fuss about McDonald by releasing both his first novel, Desolation Road, and his first collection, Empire Dreams, pretty much simultaneously. I was already a loyal Locus reader at the time, and had read Faren Miller’s reviews of the books in the November 1987 issue, and had ordered copies from a local specialty bookstore in Perth. When Empire Dreams arrived I was knocked out by stories like “Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh”, “Vivaldi”, “King of Morning, Queen of Day”, and “The Catherine Wheel”. The latter story was closely linked to McDonald’s first novel, Desolation Road, which arrived a couple of weeks later. A tale of a sun-drenched Martian desert and the mighty atomic-powered railroad that runs across it, it wore its influences on its sleeve, but was captivating nonetheless, and developed something of a cult following. I followed McDonald through his trilogy of fantasy novellas, King of Morning, Queen of Day, and on through the criminally underappreciated novels Necroville and Chaga.If McDonald’s name came up in conversation after that, as it would from time to time, there’d be a small group who had been bitten by the bug and loved his work, a smaller group who thought he was perhaps too facile, something of an imitator, and a disappointing number who’d never had the chance to read his work. And, through the 1990s he kept producing one finely crafted story after another, and occasionally a novel, all of which were never less than interesting, but by the end of the 1990s he’d lost his US publisher and it began to look like we’d heard as much of the McDonald story as we were going to.

And yet there were occasional rumours of a big project, Cyberbad, in the wind. First, though, we saw the short novel “Tendeleo’s Story” and Desolation Road sequel Ares Express. Despite the quality of “Tendeleo’s Story” and short stories like “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars”, nothing really prepared us for the book that became River of Gods. First published in mid-2004, it is a bright, energetic novel that tells a sprawling tale of an India facing it’s Centenary. In 2047, with a population of 1.5 billion people spread across a dozen nation states, facing extremes of wealth and poverty, beauty and tragedy, incredibly ancient and equally cutting edge. Where else could a Krisha Cop chase a rogue AI while a politician deals with the failure of the monsoon, or a stand-up comic run a power utility while a scientist lands on an asteroid. More than anything else, this surprising and wonderful novel managed to re-establish (or even establish in some places) McDonald’s reputation as one of the best writers working in the field today, and even helped him to get a new US publisher, who has just published a US edition of River of Gods.

If you’re interested in the best in science fiction, a book that takes The Sheep Look Up into the 21st century, then you should try River of Gods.To get a taste for the book, you can read the opening chapter on the publisher’s website. You can also read “The Little Goddess“, a related story that is up for the Hugo Award this year at Asimov’s website. If you like the story, buy the novel. You’ll love it. And keep your eye out for the other three stories set in this universe: “The Djinn’s Wife”, “Kyle Meets the River”, and “The Dust Assassin”. They’re all terrific.

And, as per a note from Ian, there’s a fifth story, “Sanjeev and Robotwallah”, coming in early 2007 in an anthology from Lou Anders, Fast Forward 1. I know it’s not scheduled, and no-one has committed, by a collection of the Cyberabad stories is already my selection for the best collection of 2008. Surely someone’s going to do it.
Note: This is the third title from Lou Anders’ Pyr imprint that I’ve discussed over the past week. While Lou is a friend, this is really coincidence. On to other publishers shortly!

5 thoughts on “River of Gods”

  1. Small pointless typo correction: It would be Cyberabad.

    Can’t wait to read those new short stories! I second the recommendation regarding The Little Goddess, both on its own merits and as a primer for the novel (even though many of us read it after the novel).

  2. Jonathan, where will “Kyle Meets the River” and “The Dust Assassin” be appearing?

  3. I enjoyed it quite a bit, too. This is one that I think, will only get better with additional readings.

  4. thanks for your kind words, sir. You can add ‘Sanjeev and Robotwallah’ to that list: Lou Anders bought it for his Pyr original anthology(twas he sent me this link, the best traditions of a diligent editor. There may be a few other India stories in the near future…

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