McDonald, Ian. River of gods. London: Simon & Schuster, 2004. 575pp.
This is a big, fat, sprawling, panoramic novel set in India during its 100th anniversary of independance in 2047. As such, its immediately going to beg comparisons to Salman Rushdie's big, fat, sprawling, panaoramic novel of India's independance, Midnight's Children. Midnight's Children was about the children who were born the very instant of Indian independance in 1947 and the magical powers they grew up with, and how these powers reflected Indian society and history. It's a beautiful novel, one of the best fantasy novels ever written, bar none. It's amazing in its complex wordplay and intricate story, endlessly bizarre. At the same time it's funny, warm and human.
How does McDonald's River of Gods shape up? Not bad, actually. It's sf, of course, for a bit of a difference. It's not so much about India per se as it is about the impact of AI on society, focusing on India's impact on the world and the world's impact on India, rural and urban, old and new, history and future. Being sf, it's forward looking rather than Rushdie's focus on the past. On the other hand, McDonald's large cast of characters make the novel a bit too diffuse and confusing at times. It took me easily 150 pages to really get all the various characters and plot strands really straight in my head. As well, by the rather drawn-out finale, I had lost a bit of interest in the plot only perking up again at the very end. But, many of the characters were very vivid and many of the scenes and plot strands were terrifically executed.
On balance, this novel isn't as good as I'd hoped, it doesn't quite pull off some of its ambitious goals. But it is still highly recommended for a couple of reasons. When McDonald is hitting on all cylinders, the novel is terrific; it's always exhilarating to see someone reach for the sky, even if he doesn't quite make it. Equally important, sf often ignores non-western societies and this novel very believably gives us a future India; if nothing else, we need to thank Ian McDonald for pushing the envelope a bit.