Thursday, May 19, 2005

Ian McDonald: River of Gods

Ian McDonald's River of Gods is science fiction. It is set in India, in the year 2047, which is a hundred years after the country gained independence from the British.

Perhaps the first thing to be said is that the book is long: 575 pages. And it contains a great many characters: too many, I think, for comfort. It is one of those sweeping panorama type of books which garnish a lot of praise in some quarters; and indeed it's going to get praise from me, but not without some caveats.

I borrowed this book from my local public library, and the date stamps show that it had been borrowed by two other readers before me. However, judging by the stiffness of the binding, I don't think either of them finished it.

Why not? Well, at the beginning of the book we are introduced to ten different characters in as many chapters. Not only that, but we have to take on board a completely foreign culture, and also the imagined world of 2047, as envisioned by Ian McDonald. This is all a bit much to absorb, quite frankly, and some readers will doubtless lose patience.

True, the author provides a glossary at the back of the book, to help to explain some of the terminology. But there are some important words missing: ghat, sundarban, Kali, for example.

Whether the reader sticks with this book will depend, I think, upon whether the reader is prepared to put up with not being quite sure who he is reading about, and what they are up to. I can only say that, in this instance, I was prepared to stick with it (and I am notoriously quick to dump stuff on occasion), and I found it worthwhile in the long run.

And what's it about, I hear you cry. What's the one-line description? Um, well now. That ain't easy. But I suppose that it's about artificial intelligence. And it took me about two thirds of the book to figure out what an aeai was.

There is also a serious problem, I find, with long books. There is a terrible danger that, at the end, one will feel a sense of anticlimax. All that, you think, just for this? That was my reaction even to Neal Stephenson's formidably talented Cryptonomicon. So, once again, I would caution would-be writers against excessive length. Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan was about half the length of River of Gods, and at least twice as effective.

All of that having been said, this book is a substantial achievement on the author's part, and I recommend it -- but only if you have a taste for long science fiction. Some previous knowledge of India wouldn't do any harm either.

Ian McDonald has written many other books and has won various awards.


archer said...

There is also a serious problem, I find, with long books. There is a terrible danger that, at the end, one will feel a sense of anticlimax.

Dickens has to deal with this at the end of Bleak House.He makes the problem work for him: "All that, just for this" is just the point he wants to make, and does make. (The giant lawsuit collapses beneath the weight of the legal fees and sputters out.)

I was spared Dickens in my youth, and am reading him for the first time in late middle age. You'll have to excuse my occasional ranting about him. The quality of his stuff reduces me to boring dewey-eyed undergraduateness.

Anonymous said...

What I didn’t like about the book is that McDonald has finally decided to turn political. He is always controversial but he’d been able to avoid liberal mainstream so far.
I believe that “River of Gods” is a parable for the ongoing conflict Islam Vs the rest of humanity. “We just too quick to condemn what we don’t understand” and so on.