Monday, 7 June 2010

"River of Gods" by Ian McDonald (2004)

This is a difficult novel, both to read and review. It doesn't fit any one sci-fi sub-genre. Some of it's best attributes are also seriously problematic. It is big, 576 pages my in my pretty paperback edition. It tries to do too much.

Each of the first 8 chapters are devoted entirely to separate main characters, which is quite an ambitious idea, but does not a page-turner make; it's page 79 before we get to follow up on a storyline. This places a big burden on one's memory, it is not a casual read, particularly as nearly all the characters and places are Indian. Perhaps it would make a good TV (mini) series, particularly if it features the suggest soundtrack: Thievery Corporation, Asian Dub Foundation, Nitin Sawhney, Portishead, Sigur Ros, etc.

I do like the idea of a sci-fi novel in this setting, it presents a conduit for fans of the genre to be introduced into a geographically new cultural background. It certainly got me to look up information about Hindu deities and such. There is a glossary at the back too, but it often didn't have an entry for the words I wanted to look up, and using it further interrupts reading flow.

A truly futuristic tilt is implicitly acknowledging that the world will be far less western centric in several decades time (though China is barely ever mentioned at all). The US is still exerting political pressures on the Balkanised remains of India, but the height of AI science is taking place in our fictional splinter state: "Bharat". Admittedly, this is largely because it hasn't fully given in to US demands to apply it's Hamilton act, banning high level AIs (originally cooked up on basis of bible belt moral views it seems). Politically, this kind of situation seems aptly plausible, with DMCA type IP law being exported around the world at the moment, ACTA, etc.

+ Characters and Plot Summary:

While I felt the whole novel could just about squeeze into the same universe as Vernor Vinge's "Rainbows End" (a little novel I really liked and should have blogged by now), while some of the character's chapters have specific other feels:

"Shiv" seems to be stuck in a claustrophobic, William-Gibson-esque, sprawl, but one that looks more like contemporary India than anything else. His plot arc is bleak and ultimately futile, showing the cheapness of human life.

"Lisa Darnau" spends half the story in a mini-space opera that mostly shows how ill suited humans are to even near earth space travel (somewhat like Stross does in "Saturn's Children"). This sub-plot peaks in intrigue, along with the rest, about 1/3 the way through the book. The asteroid ("Darnley 285", AKA the "Tabernacle") turns out to contain a mysterious core, impenetrable like one of A.C. Clarke's monoliths, but spherical, covered in a rapidly changing cellular automata pattern (and the occasional facial portrait).

Concurrently, "Lull's" newly found travel companion, a mysterious and confused Indian teenage girl: "AJ", is displaying Keanu Reeves type control over real world robots (in addition to localised omniscience). This is not all that innovative considering this book came out shortly after The Matrix sequels. But perhaps, unlike “Revolutions” it goes somewhere cool...

[major spoilers ahead]

... It doesn't. Sure, it is revealed (unsurprisingly) that she is a personality constructed by one of the superhuman 'Aeias' (A.I.s); an effort to understand and open a dialogue with the human race. Presumably what they discover is that the human race is a hopelessly desperate mob of animals, because the Aeias abandon their creation, alone in this frightening world, to be ruthlessly dispatched by the efficious 'Chrisna Cop': "Mr Nandha".

[Kali - Lord of Death, consort of Shiva]

This pitiable suit is the mirror opposite of Schwarzenegger's Terminator: an overworked, diminutive asian, English-aristocrat-wanabe, who goes around 'excommunicating' (slaughtering) 'rogue' (unlicensed) Aeias. His chapter provides a brief cyberpunk thrill at the beginning. A 'Men In Black' type sequence, with the adition of towering effigies of helpful Hindu deities (his deadly AI helper tools). Gradually, his life falls apart under the pressure of his unstinting loyalty to the job. There's a whole sub-sub-plot with his neglected wife slowly falling for, and eloping with, the hired hydroponic gardener (which also fails tragically). Ultimately Nandha fails to have any real influence, loosing his job along with his wits, as the Aeias escape into another dimension. They commandeer an experimental 'hot zero point energy' reactor recently placed under the remit of millionaire playboy "Vishram".

Vishram is a horny, British educated, stand up comedian, who finds himself in charge of the R&D wing of his dad's massive electricity generation company. Apart from getting in his solicitor's panties, he eventually gets to meet the corporate lawyer fronting an Aeia, one that has been throwing inordinate amounts of money into various hi-tech research projects (including his).

There's a mini Smörgåsbord of sex, most novel in the case of the 'nute' "Tal". I've read sci-fi that has dabbled with the idea of gender swap and third genders, but not deliberately un-gendered. 'Nutes' have mortgaged their bodies to have advanced surgical techniques take them apart and reassemble them into a subtle new form. They are devoid of sex organs, but sub-dermal controls still allow orgasmic type responses along with programming new states of mind. A little like the drug glands in Bank's Culture.

That's not to mention "Najia", the foreign reporter who interviews "Lal Darfan" (an Aeia soap star actor) and later deals with "NK Giovanni" (an illusive revolutionary leader who turns out to be part of the same Aeia). Or "Shaheen Badoor Khan", direct secretary to (and brains behind) the Prime Minister, who is disgraced out of office following a scandalous fling with "Tal", while the rest of government is assassinated (either by the 3rd Aeia, or neighbouring "Awadh", with whom they are at war with over river water rights, I forget which).

It is explained that the super human Aeias tried 3 parallel paths when they were faced with extermination by a clamp down on artificial intelligences in the one remaining haven of Bharat: one was "AJ", another was a play for outright power (by overthrowing government, etc), and the third was to run away into a universe of their own, which is what they do. An obvious reference to the Hindu holy trinity. However, the sources of these revelations are somewhat dubious, so the human characters would be unable to know definitively what transpired (which is realistic I guess).

[The Hindu Trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva; Creator, Maintainer, Destroyer.]

+ More Ideas Explored:

As well as the myriad Indian cultural references. there are a plethora of name drops pertaining to interesting real world philosophy/physics futurism: Boltzmann brains, zero point energy, etc...

- One of the memes that resonated most with me, was of (superhuman) AIs that 'think' incomprehensibly differently to humans; naturally able to copy (parts of) themselves on a whim, being legion with instantiated parts common to existentially separate AIs. For them the natural ability of humans to move bodily through space is bizarre. Cool, but perhaps mentioned once too often. However, when they escape through the zero-point reactor at the end, they transfer themselves entirely, leaving no copy behind. "Town and Country" soap opera is no more, "Altere" alternative evolution simulator is dead, presumably some major financial instruments vanish too. It makes no sense to me that they would go to the trouble of erasing their original copies, when they loose nothing by hedging their bets, going two separate directions at once.

The Aeias live atop human systems, almost unaware of the levels of implementation bellow. This makes a sense from a memetic point of view (having read "The Meme Machine" recently) if computer systems (internet, etcetera) create a new environment that allows selection of a truly independent third replicator. "Temes" (as Susan Blackmore calls them in a new scientist article I blogged here) would be distinct from digitised memes (like mp3s, jpgs, and traditional computer viruses) because they would not be selected for by human brains. They would exist and evolve purely inside computer systems, initially selected based on unlikely nuances of system architecture. These forerunners seed an increasingly complex ecosystem; an emergent environment mostly invisible to humans in the real world. (except it might slow things down as happens in "Feersum Endjinn", blogged here)

Ok, so I don't think McDonald states that this kind of bottom up, generative process actually created his 'Aeias', although he does include a massive, online, simulated world for biological evolution (that, like many things in the book, ultimately plays little part in anything).

- I don't know if McDonald was trying stick to vaguely plausible physics (brane) theory, but I would have much preferred it if the incandescent new universe that the AIs create at the end turns out to be one and the same object as the tabernacle. It would go something like this:
The tabernacle breaks orbit and falls into Earth's atmosphere, astronauts evacuate hastily, the outer layers of asteroid break off during re-entry, leaving the strange, light-weight-black-hole-oracle-thing to merge with the new mini-universe created at the lab. i.e. it turns out that the thing was travelling backwards through time (from the end of the story), hence appearing to be extremely old, yet holding effigies of living people. A nicely rounded end.

Instead there's some talk of the Aeias tweaking the starting conditions of our universe and leaving the oracle thing, which is still in the sky, and the genius guy has figured out what mathematical transformation will let us make sense of what it's saying in the future... meh.

- 'Hoek' ("So new it's scary") is like a bluetooth headset that talks directly with the user's brain. I like the notion that this kind of technology may well just turn up, 'indistinguishable from magic' (as A.C. Clarke says), with perhaps no human even really understanding how it works. I would have liked there to have involved some kind of user specific calibration process though, to make it more plausible. Possibly quite a lengthy ordeal in which as many neural pathways as possible are stimulated, so the device can map where exactly to stimulate/scan.

This user interface tech was pretty isolated too; no goggles or contact lense screens knocking about too. Perhaps it gets away with this, because in this India there is no middle class, just rich and poor (have hoeks, and have nots). That's not to say there aren't still castes that McDonald goes on about.

- 'Slow missiles' are a vivid example of the possibilities for future (asymmetric) warfare. When intelligence is cheaper than raw materials. Basically, build a cat like robot, with roughly equivalent intelligence, and stuff it's belly full of high explosives. If major overkill is desired, have 100 of them converge on an urban target from all different directions.

Even if one knows they are coming, one would need a fortress to keep them out. Even then, the chances of one crafty cyber-feline suicide bomber slipping through is pretty worrying. Conventional rocket powered missiles would be expensive to manufacture in comparison, needing high tolerances and lots of expensive materials. Heading straight for one's target as fast as possible is not such a clever tactic if/when anti-missile technology comes of age. It's not exactly subtle: speeding through open space with a massive heat signature and a distinctively high velocity. A fast, computerised defence system would spot and track it from miles away.

Small, stealthy and intelligent is the way to go. Imagine if a military had pinhead sized, anti-matter warheads; there are already butterfly sized UAVs being demonstrated these days (and remote controlled cockroaches). Or if you wanted to be uncouth you could just stick them in guided bullets.

- There are also car sized, bipedal, ninja robots, bristling with overkill. Originally controlled remotely by US soldiers in a bunker back home, some have ended up in the hands of gangsters and “data-rajas”. Running at speeds that would put a T-1000 to shame, and moving (I imagine) like Michael Bay's Transformers monstrosities.

These fit in with current trends in US arms technology; the continuation of expensive, brute force battlefield superiority and deadly force, despite no risk to human operators. Something I keep saying needs drastically rethinking.

- 'Brahmin babies' are the designer children of the super elite. They all age at half rate, in body, but not mind. McDonald makes much of how this causes disquiet: prepubescent rajas with the sexual appetite and social requirements of their 20 years on earth. Seems a bit arbitrary to me though, it stinks a little of zero-sum thinking, that you can't get something for nothing. Maybe early efforts at genetic engineering will have similarly awkward side effects, but there would likely be various different trade-offs on offer, and solutions offering the best of both worlds would be likely appear not much later.

[Daseshwamet ghat, Varanasi by "kinginexile"]

+ Verdict

"River of Gods" is a bloated sci-fi tragedy. It presents novel perspectives on ideas, but nothing ground shattering. While much of the time spent on some main characters failed to go anywhere, I was not left anywhere near as frustratingly disappointed as I was with John M Harrison's attempt at avant-garde surrealism ("Nova Swing"). This is primarily a massive diorama; an epically detailed snapshot of a foreign future. If you want a slick, post-cyber-punk, film noir affair, or a space opera romp, look elsewhere.


  1. Screw you man River of Gods was one of the best sci fi novels ever

  2. :o) Hey there, don't get me wrong, I thought it was really interesting, else I wouldn't have spent so many words reviewing it!

    But as sci-fi novels go it's trumped by the likes of "Excession", "Singularity Sky", and for my liking "Rainbows End" (set in a similar future time period as "River of Gods", but in America).