Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2007

Sagramanda: A Novel of Near-Future India

By Alan Dean Foster

Pyr/Prometheus Books, 2006, $25.00
Reviewed by Geoffrey Allan Plauché
Fall 2007

Alan Dean Foster’s Sagramanda is a far better novel than his Transformers. While not especially libertarian, it is also far more so than Transformers. Sagramanda is a science fiction techno-thriller set in the near-future Indian city of the novel’s title. In this, Foster’s novel follows in the footsteps of Ian MacDonald’s River of Gods and MacDonald indeed has a blurb on the back cover in praise of Foster’s novel and remarking on “the growing swell of writers realizing we may be living in the Indian Century.” As far as I can tell Foster does a good job of capturing the spirit and atmosphere of India.

As a science fiction novel, Sagramanda is replete with scientific advances and nifty technological innovations, some military but most of a civilian consumer nature—from human-piloted cow removers designed to clear the streets of sacred roadblocks (gently and humanely, of course) to holographic avatar projectors that can superimpose images over their users, programmed with the complete Kama Sutra, for both instructional and entertainment purposes. In near-future India, futuristic and ancient technology co-exist side by side. Hydrogen powered cars are commonplace, as are camels as beasts of burden still. One character wields high-tech handguns loaded with explosive rounds and neurotoxin-filled syringets while another kills with a very traditional, yet for all that still very effective, sword.

As a techno-thriller, the central plot revolves around a revolutionary and potentially very profitable scientific discovery stolen from a powerful multinational corporation. We do not find out the nature of the discovery until the very end of the novel. All we know is that the scientist who stole it hopes to sell it to another multinational corporation for a huge sum and, rightly, fears for his life, for the corporation he stole the discovery from is willing to kill in order to get the information back. One of the main protagonists is that scientist, and he is a likeable and largely honorable fellow, with the glaring exception of his theft. Arguably, the scientist did not have a right to the discovery, seeing as how he was only one among others working under contract on the project for the corporation over at least a few decades. On the other hand, the multinational corporation he worked for is obviously not a completely honest or just business concern. Other major characters include the scientist’s beautiful yet tough fiancée, an Untouchable; his traditionalist father, who is out to kill him for tarnishing the family name; an enterprising villager who has risen out of poverty as a successful city shopkeeper; a sociopathic, yet perversely scrupulous, company tracker/hitman; a sword-wielding serial killer sacrificing innocent locals and tourists to the goddess Kali; and, finally, a man-eating tiger.

Foster tells a fast-paced and entertaining story but, as I noted at the outset, it is not an especially libertarian story. That the main protagonist is a thief is one reason. Another is that both government and business are shown in both positive and negative lights. Foster sees a legitimate role for government in regulating business, at least to some extent, and the city police are depicted as dutiful and efficient; on the other hand, Foster makes reference to notoriously corrupt Indian politics. It is really only in its portrayal of capitalism, business and entrepreneurship that Sagramanda can be considered to have any libertarian theme at all. Sagramanda is not an overtly political book, however. Small business appears to be shown in a better light than large multinational corporations but, again, we are not given an unambiguous picture of either as primarily good or bad. Popular entertainment and the businesses that provide it are both appreciated and criticized. Capitalism is clearly portrayed as enabling the rise out of poverty for those with the requisite ability, initiative and responsibility. Capitalism has clearly brought great prosperity to growing numbers of Indians and, for all its faults, even its excesses may only be so in the eye of the beholder.

I recommend Sagramanda primarily as an entertaining science fiction techno-thriller with an exotic setting, nifty technological innovations, and interesting characters. Experience the vivacious world of near-future India. Just don’t expect an unambiguous or overt defense of liberty and the free market.

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