River of Gods by Ian McDonald
Reviewed by Mark Teppo
13 June 2006
River of Gods is a Bollywood novel, and not just because it is set in India. Cleaving to the same mythical mindset which sets Indian cinema apart from so much of the turgid crap coming out of Hollywood, Ian McDonald populates his multi-threaded novel with a phantasmagoric sense of divinity. Whether it be the asexual nutes, the Avatars of Mr. Nandha's god gun, the aeais who populate the techno-tronic framework of society, or the whispering data flow that haunts Aj, the strange supra-reality of the divine is deeply at work in River of Gods.
While the Indian intermingling of reality and mythology is an important part of the resolution of the novel (as well as being responsible for a great deal of the rich texture of the book), in River of Gods McDonald is also building a true 21st-century novel, recognizing the growing influence of cultures other than the US in the global Weltanschauung. In a book that winds itself around a discussion of God and the Machine, India—with its ready acceptance of supernatural beings and its increasing footprint in the Information Age—is well suited to be the focal point of this discourse. It is what mythologist Mircea Eliade called the "ephipany"—the point where the sacred touches the profane and God manifests Itself.
The India of 2047 is in turmoil, a water shortage fomenting unrest and near-revolution in Varanasi. The ruling Rana family is facing dissent from a mysterious political rival, N.K. Jivanjee, and his zealous Shivaji, as well as the threat of the encroaching Awadhi military. As political and economic machinations tear the city apart (not the least by playing off the population's deep religious intolerances), a growing technological threat is uncovered: the existence of Generation Three aeais, artificial intelligences whose existential framework is more than twenty thousand times higher than the human baseline; they are consciousnesses operating at a globally interconnected level—legions of nodes acting in concert as compared to our singular point of perception. The cast of primary characters—the Prime Minister's chief confidante, a Krishna Cop, his country wife, two American scientists, a gangster, the journalist Najia Askarzadah, a waif child who hears the whispers of the gods, one of the sexually gender-free nutes, and a comedian-cum-industrial executive—have stories that appear to be unconnected but, as the Varansi landscape breaks down into turmoil and violence, their tales become one massive canvas across which the gods seek to chart their own salvation.
"[Najia] thinks now she knows why the aeai had shown her the childhood she had suppressed. It had not been cruel, it had not been even a ploy for time. It had been genuine, touching curiousity, an attempt by a djinn made of stories to understand something outside its mandalas of artifice and craft. Something it could believe it had not made up itself. It wanted the drama of the real, the fountainhead from which all story flows." (p. 553)
The Ganges River (which flows through Varanasi) is an eternal symbol of regeneration. Bathing in the river is a means to salvation, a way of remitting sins and wiping the slate clean. Each of the character arcs follows a course of transformation; each becomes embroiled in the chaos of Varanasi. As the rains finally come to the city and refresh the turgid waters of the Ganges, the players find ways to rescue themselves from the sins they have committed.
With the exception of Mr. Nandha, the Krishna Cop. Armed with a god gun—a weapon designed to bring down both men and machines—and filled with digitized constructs of the Hindu deities, Mr. Nandha's job is to excommunicate rogue aeais. As cracks develop in his personal life, he focuses more resolutely on the duties of his job—his pursuit of the rogue Gen Three aeai. Ironically, as the man closest to the divine, he fails to acknowledge the sacred nature of what he pursues, choosing to see it instead as a threat to his world. He is the non-believer in a Bollywood world infused by the strange and unreal.
Some of the storylines end tragically and abruptly, but their threads are still integral to the broader canvas that McDonald is constructing. As in his debut novel, Desolation Road (1988), McDonald presents the reader with a gallery of fascinating characters. At the end of each chapter, I would lament being taken away from the current character arc, but the feeling would only last as long as it took to turn the page because I was returning to a previously interrupted story into which I dearly wanted to dig more deeply. While each chapter follows the course of one to three characters, McDonald converges all the arcs in a massive 150-page climax entitled "Ensemble." It's an impressive resolution wherein he sews the entire work into a cohesive whole, leaving the reader well satiated but still ready to follow any of the characters on to further adventures. (An entire novel devoted to Mr. Nandha wouldn't hurt my feelings at all.)
River of Gods is a dense, sprawling microcosm of a novel that touches on the question of "Who Makes the Maker?" from a number of angles, resulting in a kaleidoscope of possible answers, possible permutations. "I am made of memory," one of the aeai avatars tells Najia Askarzadah during an early interview, and asks her how that is different from her own identity. Are these artificial constructs, even the nation of India as it approaches its one hundredth birthday in McDonald's novel, "alive" because of the wealth of their "memory"? Is it action or reaction that defines life? McDonald's world, infused with the teeming multiplicity of tiny gods and struggling humanity, may be nothing more than a soap opera cast and created by a vast network of casual relationships. It may have purpose, it may have a finite goal, it may simply be sprawling and chaotic, an unmanaged expression of human desires. Regardless, it is the first book in a long time that I'm looking forward to reading again.