At first, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy reading Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald. I think I can boil my reasoning down to three factors:
1. Near future SF has never been a personal favorite.
2. A first glance told me that McDonald’s writing style had some unusual quirks.
3. The setting was utterly alien, and my lack of knowledge about India and Hinduism, made me wonder if I would “get” the tales.
I’m happy to say, my trepidation was unfounded. Though not a book I would typically choose in a bookstore, the stories here are worthy reads.
The book is a collection of seven tales set in the world that McDonald created for his popular River of Gods novel, one Hugo winner and one Hugo nominee among them. Each touches on some idea that is quite relevant to our society today. McDonald seems unapologetic about tackling difficult topics. These topics are about unbridled, unhindered technology and the immediate effect it has on culture.
Though I had some trouble getting used to McDonald’s writing style, once I had read through the first two stories, my mind had to come to accept it. McDonald has a literary style, which means that analogy and metaphor are common, and not always obvious. It reminded me a lot of Peter Beagle, Jeffrey Overstreet, and Patricia McKillip in its form and content. This sort of high style of writing can take a little getting used too, such as in the following passage from “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”:
“It was time out from the world. It is a powerful thing, to subject yourself to another time and another rhythm of life. I was a thing of blood and ashes, hiding in the dark sanctum, saying nothing but offering my daily puja to the tiny garland-bedecked goddess in her vulva-like garbigraha. I could have vanished forever.”
McDonald also pushes the boundaries of grammar. Many of his protagonists are children, or adults looking back on their childhood. In order to convey that child-like frame of mind and to heighten emotional effect, McDonald will occasionally do away with commas where normally they would appear, most especially in lists.
“And now here he was on this traffic island no way forwards no way back no way through the constant movement of trucks, buses, cream-coloured Marutis, mopeds phatphats, cycle rickshaws, cows everything raring ringing hooting yelling as it tried to find its true way while avoiding everything else.” (“Kyle meets the River”)
This increases the immediacy of feeling. Commas often indicate a pause. By doing away with them on certain occasions, McDonald both increases the feeling of being in a child’s mind – going into their worldview; and adds a type of breathlessness, of excitement and heightened emotion, especially when read in context. It is beautiful writing, full of electric emotions.
In “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” we are introduced to a child who falls in love with robots. Strangely, this story manages to look at both past and future. There are echoes here of the robot mania that swept the English-speaking world in the age of the space race. Children, especially boys, fell in love with the idea of robots, as evidenced by the TV and fiction of the era. But the story also looks at the future. Sanjeev, the boy in love with robots, becomes what he dreamed, and learns to control them. But what happens to a robot warrior when there is no war to fight? What does the robot-lover lose in such a situation? The story becomes a tale of the loss of a boy’s fascination when confronted with the complexities and ambiguities of real life.
“Kyle meets the River” showcases McDonald’s literary chops. Young Kyle is a Western boy, confronted with the thinking and ways of the East. Sheltered in a compound, young Kyle escapes to join a friend in and Indian metropolis. This story leans heavily on metaphor and emotional effect. In essence, the story is more poem than prose. Being the rather dense and rational person I am, I did not enjoy this simple story. Though I appreciate its beauty in an intellectual sense, the visceral reaction it seemed to by attempting to invoke could not be found in the rock of my heart. Those who find poetry to be preferable to prose, and esoteric metaphor to unambiguous text will enjoy this narrative.
“The Dust Assassin” is an especially clever story. The lack of water in the India of 2047 has led to several moguls appearing who control the water. The two primary water families are in a blood feud. But when one finally trumps the other, the young woman who is heir to the loser must cling to the only thing she has left, revenge. But although her father often told her she was a weapon against their rivals, she had no idea how that would play out. When the truth of it is revealed, it is a sad day. This story was clever and subtle, and the climax completely unexpected, even though it is foreshadowed right from the very beginning.
“An Eligible Boy” is billed in the marketing for this book as an Indian take on Cyrano de Bergerac. Not having read the latter, I prefer to think of it as a fictional account of the cultural shift that occurs when things like China’s one-child policy are put into place. Though that theme is serious, what emerges from McDonald’s pen is a lighthearted narrative of boys who must become like the male peacock, doing their best to attract a mate. The protagonist takes the unusual step of using an AI matchmaker, something unheard of before. What ensue are some comical and sweet moments. The resolution to the problem of the story is not what I expected, but was quite satisfying even so.
“The Little Goddess” has as its protagonist a young woman who must learn about life after godhood. This novella is the Hugo nominee of the collection, and is also the one that gives the clearest picture of the fictional India McDonald has created. The young girl crosses through all the social strata of the setting, and so I was familiarized with the technology and culture of the India McDonald writes. If you are nonlinear reader, I would even recommend reading this story first. The character’s story is a sad one, though it does end on a high note.
“The Djinn’s Wife”, winner of the novelette Hugo in 2007, relates the tale of a marriage between a woman and an artificial intelligence. With that as a starting point, you can guess that things don’t go so well, especially if you are married or divorced yourself. All seems to go well, but the woman, a dancer and so in tune with the physical, soon wants more than her husband can give. When she is not statisfied, problems occur which have an effect on everyone in India. After all, AI’s can be anywhere and everywhere in a plugged-in world. I love the way that this story is about nothing more than a marriage. It is a tale of two people falling in love. But because of the circumstances, common problems that can occur in any marriage are blown way out of proportion. Add to that McDonald’s emotionally charged prose and flair for using Indian beliefs as metaphor for technology, and it is easy to see why this narrative won the award it did.
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” is a sad story of transhumanism and the singularity. A new tale not seen anywhere else, the tale of a genetically engineered Brahmin who finds himself left behind when most of humanity leaves this mortal coil is heartbreaking and insightful. McDonald is looking deep into the effect technology has on culture and economic disparity. While the middle-class moved towards post-human godhood, the poor are left behind, as are those who were once thought to be the wave of the future. The story is constructed as a fireside tale told by Vishnu, who also happens to also be the protagonist of it. Vishnu becomes a prophet of doom, predicting the end of humanity as a species due to its love affair with technology. (Sort of a future Indian version of Cory Doctorow – but with a great more doom and gloom.) Again, McDonald weaves Hindu beliefs into the story, making the mythology of the pantheon integral to understanding the story, making one a metaphor for the other. A wonderful read.
I highly recommend you take the time to read Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald. It is a good entry point to his writing, and an exemplar of some of his best work. Though I entered this book with trepidation, I left excited to read more by McDonald, especially River of Gods. Like other British writers before him (Kipling, Forster, Masters) McDonald has managed to give the Western civilization a glimpse of the exotic and beautiful country that is India.