Ian McDonald River of Gods Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

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River of Gods

Ian McDonald

Simon and Schuster

UK Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0-743-25669-7

Publication Date: 06-07-2004

583 Pages; £17.99

Date Reviewed: 07-06-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Science Fiction

08-23-04 (interview)

The 'River of Gods' is the Ganges in Ian McDonald's massive new novel, so readers who take the plunge should not be surprised if things are a bit murky at first. After all, Shiv, a low level gangster, has just dumped in it the body of woman he recently murdered. Shiv's only a small part of the huge cast that McDonald steers through a traumatic period some forty years hence, in India's future history. Like the Ganges after which it is named, McDonald's novel is long, complex, branching and filled with some rather unpleasant substances. But once you're caught in the current, you'll be swept away helplessly in McDonald's powerful torrent of words. At times you might feel as if you're drowning in mystery and you'll almost always find it difficult to trace the precise source. Is it the chaotic, filthy future that McDonald has imagined, or is it simply that a documentary about current day India could easily be re-cut into a surreal science fiction film? Whatever the source, stick with it, stay in the prose vessel that McDonald offers. 'River of Gods' delivers a simple but very effective story swathed in high strangeness, brings to life a huge cast of characters and carries them all to a conclusion as crystal clear as the water that drips from the ice cave high in the Himalayas where the Ganges is born.

The characters we meet as 'River of Gods' begins are diverse and seemingly unconnected. Shiv scurries along the sewers and side streets, always hoping the next score will make him a raja. Mr. Nandha is a very proper Krishna cop, whom we meet in the second chapter, in a gripping and exciting set-piece that finds him confronting a runaway "aeai" in a pasta factory. Shaheen Badoor Khan is an up-and-coming government minister who has the ears of the PM and a secret that can undo him. Najia is a flash reporter who finds herself to be a conduit passing highly-charged information in a dangerous environment. Tal is a nute, a self-designed sexless being who helps to create the virtual soap opera Town and Country that captivates the entire nation. Vishram Ray is a standup comedian about to find a new career when his father, the head of an important power-generation company, decides to embark upon a religious quest. Lisa Durnau is a scientist who has helped design a virtual world where evolution has created a gamut of weird creatures. She's unaccountably asked to join an expedition to a near-earth object when they can't find her mentor, Thomas Lull.

Each of these characters is born in the murky depths of prose studded with actual Indian terms and futuristic neologisms created by the author. McDonald practices an immersive technique with impressive, if occasionally patience-testing results. But patience is always required when one is building something really, really big, and 'River of Gods' is certainly big. McDonald's language is perfectly deployed in tandem with the raveling plot. One weaves the other, adjusts the clarity, resets the picture, fast-focuses on one of many in the parade of characters moving across a surreal and crowded landscape. McDonald is skilled enough as a writer so that the glossary he helpfully supplies goes largely unused. A large part of the enjoyment of this novel is to be found in the flow of language. It's the joy of watching incongruous components coalesce into a vibrant immediate image.

The novel is big in part because McDonald has such a huge cast. In order to make his plot work, he needs to fill in the details for each of these characters mentioned above and more. And while the characters are all quite clearly citizens of India, the ever-creeping western influence keeps them from seeming totally alien to the readers, with the exception of Tal the nute, who might as well be alien, and Aj, Lull's mysteriously connected companion who knows far more than she should. At the core of the novel, holding it together as he holds his life together is Mr. Nandha, the Krishna cop. Fearless and always on-point in his pursuit of aeais, Mr. Nandha brings a nice clear-cut detective sensibility to the proceedings, as well as a bit of action that's quite spectacular. Counterbalancing Mr. Nandha's stern take on events, Vishram, once a comedian (always a comedian), finds himself more than adequate at the task of running a major corporation. But as the narrative builds up steam and mass, each of the other characters becomes equally compelling. As the connections clarify, the characters connect not only with one another, but with the reader on a more visceral level. McDonald is clearly aiming for a big effect here, and everything is as meticulously planned as if Mr. Nandha had been standing over McDonald's shoulder, a stern taskmaster keeping things on course.

In any novel that might fall into the category of "sweeping" or "epic", plot is not often the first concern, and so it seems here as well -- at least at first. But as the characters coalesce, so does the story. McDonald has a gripping story arc at the core of 'River of Gods', with some fascinating if familiar SF tropes turning the wheels. But McDonald unfurls his around-the-corner innovations and synthesizes them into spectacular writing, a wealth of detail, compelling characters and a very satisfying conclusion. Still, this is the kind of book where the journey proves in retrospect to be every bit as enjoyable and important as the destination.

'River of Gods' has no scheduled US publisher or publication date that I can currently discern. Simon and Schuster in the UK have happily created a very nice hardcover edition with a beautiful and pertinent cover image. The hardcover is quite easily read, and helps reinforce the immersive quality of McDonald's prose. Given that it has no planned stateside publication, the wise buyer will opt for this edition, worth every bit of shipping and handling required to move it through the river of goods to the reader's hands.