Volume 25, Number 01, Fall, 2007

River of Gods

By Ian MacDonald

Pyr Books, 2006, $25.00
Reviewed by Anders Monsen
October 2007

The subtitle of Ian McDonald’s sf novel River of Gods, “August 15, 2047—Happy Birthday, India,” sets the scene of the novel before the reader even turns to the first page. We know the place and the date; all that remains is for us to discover what the author sees in the future, and determine the implications of his choices. Yet it’s never that simple, and River of Gods is far from a simple novel. Despite the date and place so cleanly handed to us, the setting ranges from India to Kansas, deep into outer space, and even inside the virtual worlds created by network-distributed artificial intelligences.

The year 2047, a mere three decades from now, bears close similarity to the turn of the 21st century. The novel bears closer similarities to the cyberpunk novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially as imagined by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Walter Jon William, and others. Tech is ubiquitous, as normal as autos and TVs even at the lowest levels of society. One difference between those cyberpunk novels and River of Gods is that the Singularity plays a far stronger role in this novel. Computer gods and demons stalk through cyberspace and the real-world. Meanwhile, humans scrabble through their own daily lives dealing with the reality and implications of AIs far superior than humans in terms of knowledge, who are as indifferent to human concerns as humans are to ants.

For fans of hard sf, River of Gods is a joy to read. Tracking the threads of the nine main narratives overwhelms the reader a little at first. Yet once inside the book, I found myself far more comfortable. Among the nine narratives we meet characters from varied backgrounds and social strata. There’s a low-life crook eager to make a living in a new world, finding himself forced to take on a task well over his head. There’s the youngest son of a wealthy businessman who realizes he’s playing a very real-life version of King Lear, and in his efforts to remake himself seals a bargain with a cybergod, or cyberdevil. Other characters include a cop determined to eradicate any AI that shows signs of intelligence; a politician with a dark secret; a professor on the run from his past; his former lover now working as a spook for the US government; a young girl who communicates with the AIs; and possibly the most powerful AI of them all, seeking who knows what and pulling multiple strings to reach its goals. Each character bears their own flaws that they must deal with in order to survive, a future that by no means is guaranteed.

The Indian setting gives the novel an almost alien feel (at least in the sense of culture). Many of the characters are non-Indian, and of those from that country some are non-Hindu, setting them apart from the majority of people around them. Each character seems slightly out of place, either in terms of social levels, or in terms of beliefs and morals. The deeper implication of River of Gods seem to surface only near the end. Although much is made throughout the novel of the theory that AIs are not human, and therefore will not think like humans when seeking their own goals, MacDonald never breaks free of the anthropomorphism of AIs; they act like humans, or like human-created gods and monsters of mythology (which in turn were based on human emotions and traits).

In the end, the AIs act no differently than humans; enslaved by their creators they view themselves as auto-created and thus free from human constraints. In many ways this is similar to another recent novel about AIs, Justina Robson’s Silver Screen. Even the solution to free AIs from the bonds of electricity are the same, although the execution varies. Still, it’s almost impossible not to enjoy the thrill-ride of River of Gods. This isn’t just a novel about the Singularity, or India, but a novel of the wild mosaic of humanity and our possible future.

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