River of Gods was ahead of its time and, to be honest, it completely slipped under my radar when reading articles and academia in, and related to, the genre.
Ian McDonald's well realized fiction taking place in India during 2047 is staggering for a few reasons. For one, it subverts a lot of the genre expectations from cyberpunk. Especially since there's so much nihilism in some places of the book it could be first wave, there is also a lot of hope, synonymous with more post cyberpunk works, for the most part.
Throughout this epic story, there are 10 main characters, which at first seemed a little daunting. As the story progresses though, I didn't have any problems following along and actually really enjoyed such huge questions being posed to me through multiple perspectives. Counter-balanced with not so big questions, like Parvati's struggle that seems quite small, but are her whole world, being given as much agency as her husband, the Krishna cop who hunts rouge aeais (A.I's) and becomes more artificial in his human interactions on a daily basis, alienating the love of his life. At the same time using his education and thought process to illuminate some western beliefs on some of the larger topics. Even dietary differences.
I loved that these things were brought into focus even as the story grew to a crescendo (referenced multiple times within the book, bringing a nice meta level I enjoyed) with the start of the book taking long inhalations of fiction for each character that become short, small breaths until the fiction finally shudders and stops altogether. With each chapter growing shorter and shorter until the last part of the book is just one long scene, with each separation between the characters also getting shorter and shorter. It was really effective for me and in a lot of ways I enjoyed it as much as the semi-same writing techniques used in Cloud Atlas, one of my most favorite books of all time.
Small events in each person's daily life slowly unravel into a much grander plot that puts these individuals lives in a completely different context by the end. What starts as the slice of life in India and Thailand and Australia, and other places, is somewhat slow; but with purpose Mcdonald weaves these people in and out of each other's peripheral. Some never meeting at all, but all of them causing ripples that will alter the other individuals in the story.
There is Parvati, "country bumpkin" uprooted to the city but feeling unfilled in life because her husband, Mr. Nandha, is also consumed—but not for her, for his work. His duty as a Krishna cop is kind of like a paladin hunting A.I's that threaten to evolve past humanity's understanding.
Vishram Ray is pulled from what he loves in life, delivering comedy routines, to run one of the most powerful energy companies in India when his father retires in a highly unusual way.
Shaheen Badoor Khan is an adviser of India's prime minister, but holds a secret wherein he falls in love with Tal.
Tal is probably my most favorite character in the whole book, as they are of a new gender, simply labelled as pronouns of Yt, and wonderfully realized character in the fiction. I was worried that perhaps this was just to appeal to people in a throw off way at first, but instead I think Tal receives the most care and detail—contributing so much to the story. Tal is a "nute" and is rewired in every conceivable way to be sexless, aside from the sub dermal instrumentation used to modify ytself. Tal has to experience emotion as anyone else but has the option to control the reactions to these emotions with said controls. Exploring what it means to be human through Tal is one of the best things the book as to offer.
Shiv and Yogendra are the sort of like bad-boy yakuza type characters who end up doing most of the action sequences. Their storyline was alright, I can see why there needed to be action...but ultimately it left me a little meh, I guess?
Najia Askarzadah is a Swedish-Afghan who is trying to catch a break at reporting and sort of entices a lot of the drama within India, unintentionally. Her story coincides with Tal's eventually and it was ultimately good simply because of the contextualization that occurs between the two...once they interact.
Lisa Durnau and Thomas Lull are scientists that were once on the same life path that careen radically apart until the events in the book take place to have them cross paths once again, haphazardly. I liked their stories but ultimately somewhat felt they were there to lend credence to things with technical terms most of the time. I think it's needed but looking back it would have been nice to have had more screen time on Lisa as Lull gets a lot of it and doesn't use it to much great effect until the end. Which, is a good pay off, don't get me wrong. But throughout I was like...just give me more chapters with Ajmer!
Ajmer Rao is my second favorite character in this book after Tal and is endearing and sweet and easy to love. I don't want to give too much away, but her story is that she is seeking her parents and has this sort of weird peripheral prophet like gift, wherein she just "knows" things sometimes.
In the end the story ended in a great place, which was a roller coaster ride for me. I was like "oh oh oh, this is how I would end it," and actually got a little annoyed as it progressed as it became clear that this wasn't going to be the ending. I felt that it wasn't doing so simply to pay fanfare to nihilistic readers in the genre (oh which, there are many first wave fans), but then managed to exceed my expectations in the deviation anyways. Which, is pretty incredible I think. The author truly knows their craft, in my opinion.
This hits all the check marks for me, the human condition, larger questions at play, inclusive and diverse content. Stupendous world building, great prose, and a well loved and realized foreign culture in the future. There is literally 15 pages of terms he uses, all pretty much colloquial to India and it reads so well! Spirituality and religion takes aim against technology, how it shapes and molds us even as we engineer it. How technology could surpass us and yet represent humanity and personify it better then we often do. There's a new gender, treated well (from my lens, hopefully I am correct). lots of cool tech, and cyberpunk doing what it does best with really good extrapolating. For a 2006 especially, this is a staggering achievement. Lots of speculation that has been coming true as well, say the relationship between the U.S and India, for example.
I really enjoyed it and am giving it 5/5 on Goodreads. Check it out, it is great.