River of Gods, Ian McDonaldI came late to reading Ian McDonald. A couple years ago I read the second of his recent popular science fiction novels, Brasyl. I skipped the book that appears to have put him on the map, River of Gods. I am trying to remember why I did that, and what occurs to me is that I couldn’t find River of Gods in the bookstore and Brasyl had just been released. So maybe I picked it up as a book of opportunity. I remember being underwhelmed by Brasyl. And while I appreciated what McDonald was trying to do, I never felt fully satisfied by the execution of it. It didn’t compel me. It didn’t pull me in to a world like I had expected it to do. At some fundamental level, it just didn’t seem to work.

River of Gods is having the opposite effect. I’m a third of the way through this monstrous novel and I am having the hardest time putting it down. All my criticism about the lack of reader engagement in Brasyl is completely misplaced if I were to apply it to River of Gods. This is a wonderfully rich world. The characters are fascinating. The extrapolation on technology is engaging, insightful and frightening. I am repeatedly reminded of my first time through William Gibson‘s Neuromancer. While McDonald’s work is decidedly post-cyberpunk there is a striking similarity of breadth, depth, complexity and nuance. This 2004 Hugo Award nominee is a great science fiction novel.

As an aside, I was intrigued to learn that a former coworker of mine, Stephan Martiniere, did the cover illustration for the American trade paperback.

From the back cover:

As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business — a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And so is Aj — the waif, the mind reader, the prophet — when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden.

In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of the nation.

River of Gods teems with the life of a country choked with peoples, cultures, and technologies — one and a half billion people, twelve semi-independent nations, nine million gods. Ian McDonald has written the great Indian novel of the new millennium, in which a war is fought, a love betrayed, and a message from a different world decoded, as the great river Ganges flows on.