RIVER OF GODS – Ian McDonald (2004)

River Of GodsThere are a few, small instances of meta in River Of Gods, Ian McDonald’s near-future novel set in India, 2047. One of those makes clear McDonald ultimately writes about our reality, and not about made up stuff.

Something it could believe it had not made up itself. It wanted the drama of the real, the fountainhead from which all story flows.

So, what is the drama of the real that River Of Gods serves its readers? A lot of things, it turns out. The book features 9 different POV characters, who are presented one by one in a chapter each. Multiple viewpoint books have a tendency to take a lot of time before the story lines start to intermingle, but this is not the case in River Of Gods: after the introductory chapters, characters soon start to interact with others – some slightly, some full on. This is a good thing, since River Of Gods is complex enough as it is. (More on that complexity later.) These nine characters all feel real, and display real feelings. Drama aplenty in this 588-page book. Some of it violent and in your face, some of it poetic, all of it human. McDonald manages to evoke emotion seemingly easily, like in the quote below, lifted from a passage about cleaning out the house of a deceased mother.

He thinks of her house afterwards, of the terrible poignancy of her clothes and shoes on their hangers and racks, all unnecessary now, all her choices and fancyings and likings naked and exposed by death.

This sentence is so brutally true – everyone who helped in emptying the house of a loved one will recognize.  

Aside from emotional drama, River Of Gods also serves some philosophical drama. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in its dealings with AI and robots, a lot of science fiction talks about our own material nature. McDonald is one of the very few writers who have been able to significantly add to my understanding of these matters. This book is about a lot of things, but the most important, central story line is about AI – called “aeai” in its pages. One of the characters lectures another character on the matter. What follows is a lengthy quote, but I think it’s essential reading for anyone interested in the theme.

Aeai is alien intelligence. It’s a response to specific environmental conditions and stimuli, and that environment is CyberEarth, where the rules are very very different from RealEarth. First rule of CyberEarth: information cannot be moved, it must be copied. In RealEarth, physically moving information is a piece of piss; we do it every time we stand up, carrying this sense-of-self-ware around in our heads. Aeais can’t do that, but they can do one thing we can’t. They copy themselves. Now, what that does to your sense of self, I don’t know, and technically speaking, I can’t know. It’s a philosophical impossibility for us to be in two places at the same time; not for aeies. For them, the philosophical implications of what you do with your spare copy when you move yourself to a new matrix is of fundamental importance. Does a complete self die, or is it just part of a greater gestalt. Already we’re getting into a complex alien mind-set. So, even if aeais have hit the singularity and are racing away into IQs in the millions, what does it mean in human terms? How do we measure it? What do we measure it against? Intelligence is not an absolute thing, it’s always environment specific. Aeies don’t need to manufacture stock market crashes or set the nukes flying or trash our planetary web to put humanity in its place; there is no competition, these things have no meaning or relevance in their universe. We’re neighbours in parallel universes and as long as we live as neighbours we will live peacefully to our mutual advantage.

Of course, when an AI inhabits a robot, it becomes a bit more human as it is physically movable too, but since this book is about distributed, virtual forms of AI lets not nitpick at that.

What I found especially interesting was that notion of distribution and copying. So yes, I still think humans are flesh robots, but AIs are not mere brains made of circuitry, and self-conscious robots are not mere metal humans. It’s a thought so obvious it kinda baffles me I never considered it before.

Contrary to what the quoted character hopes, living peacefully together might be a Utopian dream, since humans fear the unknown. Part of the novel deals with competition between humans and AI. Parts of humanity want to limit the existence of too intelligent AIs in McDonald’s future, resulting in a struggle for survival that’s instinctive to a large degree. Still, as AI transcends the animalistic, McDonald’s battle transcends the classic X vs Y set-up. River Of Gods goes well beyond the simplicity of good vs evil, both in the techno-plot as in the characters’ story lines.

In retrospect and summarized, the plot is fairly easy, but nevertheless complexity is a returning keyword in a lot of other reviews for River Of Gods. I talked a bit about moral and philosophical complexity already, and there’s political and emotional complexity too.

Add the prose to that list as well. The main obstacle to an easy reading of River Of Gods is its language. I’m not saying it is bad –  not at all – but it takes an effort. McDonald mixes a lot of his characters’ thought into the prose, and as a result we get long, winding passages that sometimes border stream of consciousness writing. I had to reread tons of paragraphs: it’s easy to get lost in them if you’re not fully concentrated.

The roar, the rain, the smell of sewage and spice and rot, the ceaseless chaos of the traffic, the burst dog half gone to black bones in the streaming gutter, the circling carrion-eyed kites, the peeling mould-stained buildings, the sweet stench of sugar-cane alcofuel and burning ghee from the puri vendors, the children pressing in around her, clean and fed but asking for rupee rupee, a pen a pen, the hawkers and vendors and fortune tellers and massage artists homing in on a white woman in the rain: the people. The people. Within a hundred metres of her hotel, Kerala felled her. The sounds, the smells, the sights and sensations combined into a massive attack on her sensibilities. L. Durnau the preacherman’s daughter.

Besides meandering paragraphs, McDonald at times proves he is a master of concise miniature too.

The pontoon bridge is a ribbon of sound, an endless magnetic tape reverberating to wheels and feet.


“Parvati, my flower.” The air in the kitchen is slow as syrup. Mr. Nandha feels the momentum and weight behind every word, every movement of his head.

It’s of note that although the book has an 8 page glossary with Indian terms, about half of the India-specific words used aren’t even in there: after some time, I just gave up checking the glossary, resulting in me not understanding up to a word or two on each page.

There are tons of other things to be said about this book. I could easily write a few paragraphs on:

  • its politics (India is divided in at least three separate states in the book, there’s the threat of war, and one character is a highly ranked political adviser)
  • other philosophical stuff (yes, there are musings on freedom of the will too)
  • gender (one of the characters is a “nute”, an extremely surgically altered neutral, but there’s also the fact that India’s male-female ratio has evolved to 5-1 because of embryo selection)
  • class divisions (the caste system, but also remarks on a divisive economic system that ties in with bio-engineering)
  • religion (Hindu extremism plays an important role, as the place of Muslims in India, as musings on the godly nature of AI & singularity)
  • media, celebrities & soaps (both a journalist and a set designer are characters)
  • climate change (there’s a severe drought that adds to the political tension)
  • and obviously, the elephant in the room: colonialism…

However liberal the Westerner, there is always some part of India that shocks. For Thomas Lull it is this buried stratum of rage and hatred that can one day take a neighbour of a lifetime into his neighbour’s house to cut him open with an axe and burn his wife and children in their beds, and then, when it is all done and over, to go back to the neighbourly life. Even on the ghats amongst the worshippers and the dhobi-wallahs and the hawkers chasing the rag-end of the tourist trade, the mob is only a shout away. There is no explanation for it in his philosophy.

McDonald gets away with a sweeping passage like that because it is only a character that thinks the above. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that Western violence hardly features in this book, and imperialism is just a sideshow.

Ultimately, the story of this book could have taken place anywhere, and India mainly serves as a metaphor for the complexity of our planet and our species. It also makes for a  colorful backdrop, and the Indian pantheon of gods allows easy links with software avatars. All that doesn’t take away the feeling I have that the reason McDonald chose India as the story’s setting has more to do with the stereotypical images we Westerners tend to have of India: ever rising population numbers, lots of religions intersecting, an emerging technological powerhouse full of IT PhDs working for minimum wage, mad ascetic gurus, etc., etc.

The fact that McDonald also wrote a Brazilian and a Turkish book – both of which I’ll willingly read somewhere in the future – makes me think the setting is more of a gimmick and a technique, and not a necessity internal to the story. That’s not a fault per se, and an author’s prerogative. McDonald shows both respect and has done heaps of research. But as a reader, I don’t have the feeling that I learned a lot about India. My preconceptions were reinforced, that’s about it.

Again, not a fault per se: it’s impossible to get to know something as large as a nation through a book, and expecting that is questionable in itself.

Let’s end with another meta-quote. All those pages on technology and science and quantum sometimes makes us forget the wonder books can be.

“The words don’t need to move. It is you who is moved by them.” “It is a very effective way of compressing a virtual reality experience, I’ll give it that. All this for one-point-four megs? It’s just so non-interactive…” “But it is different for everyone who reads it,” says Mr. Nandha.

I liked Luna: New Moon a bit better. That book was more concise, and resulted in an experience that hit me harder. Even so, River Of Gods is an imaginative, intricate book. Recommended, easily.

10 responses to “RIVER OF GODS – Ian McDonald (2004)

  1. Well, what an enlightening review, by an author I was unaware of but will certainly look out for.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I will be reading this in the future as it’s a BSFA winner. Sounds very intriguing from your review. I’ve yet to experience McDonald’s works. Looking forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. After “Luna: New Moon” I wanted to read more McDonald, but this title looked quite dense and intense and I shunted it to the sidelines for later consideration. Thanks to your review, I might reconsider, but I know that I will need a very quiet mind-space to do so.
    Very thoughtful review, as always. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luna is more intense than River, but River is more dense for sure, so you shouldn’t read it while sleep deprived indeed… thanks for the kind words, my pleasure!


  4. Great review! I read this several years ago and remember liking it a lot. I did feel that the setting in India was more important to the book, or at least, given my interests in India, it’s part of why I picked it up. Maybe the basic storyline could take place elsewhere, but then I think it would be a different story. I seem to remember that the AIs were at least partially inspired by Hindu concepts of divinity. But my memories of the book at this point are a bit impressionistic, so maybe you’re right. In any case, I’ll look forward to reading some of McDonald’s other books, especially Luna: New Moon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Some AIs avatars are indeed linked to Hindu gods, and there’s links with different AIs being different incarnations of Shiva etc. but to me that mainly felt surface level. If the story would have taken place in Berlin it could have just as easily been Germanic gods.

      Maybe I overstated my case a bit, since the setting of River of Gods does a lot in flavoring the story, and as such determining it, but as I said it mainly felt surface level to me. For what it’s worth, that’s to be taken more as remark than a point of critique.


  5. I read Luna New Moon last year and I really enjoyed it. I wanted to read his other works but I don’t really know what to pick. I might give The Dervish House a try but this one also sounds great. I really like the fact that it is set in India.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: 2xDNF: BLOOD MERIDIAN (1985) & BRASYL (2007) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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