Where to begin? Ian McDonald’s River of Gods is definitely one of the strangest, most imaginative and most epic books you will ever come across, like a Philip K. Dick novel rewritten by Dostoyevsky. The plot contains myriad twists and turns — villains becoming heroes, heroes becoming villains, that sort of thing — and when you throw AI technology, quantum physics and Hindi colloquialisms into the mix, things can get really confusing.
The setting of the story is India in 2047, the centennial year of the country’s independence from the British Empire. Only it’s not really India anymore: In the future as imagined by McDonald, the Subcontinent has fragmented into several smaller states. Most of the action in this book takes place in Varanasi (also known as the holy city of Kashi), a hotbed of political strife, Hindu mysticism and technical innovation, and the capital of the nation of Bharat. This bustling, hot, overcrowded metropolis on the banks of the Ganges River teems with life and energy in spite of the large-looming shadows of war, revolution and drought.
The main characters (and there are a lot of them) include a pair of American professors, a police detective who fights cybercrime with an arsenal of Hindu-deity avatars like Krishna and Kali, the set designer of South Asia’s most popular soap opera, a Muslim political advisor to the prime minister of Bharat, and a mysterious prophetess, among others. It’s to McDonald’s credit that he was not only able to dream up such a cast in the first place, but also make them more believable and relatable than the characters in much more pedestrian books than this one.
He also creatively extrapolates where current trends in medical science, human sexuality, war and energy could lead us. For example, the book features a couple of fanciful visions of where bioengineering might take us. The first is a new gender called “nutes,” the members of which — despite their lack of sex organs — are hypersexual and sensual. Additionally, a new “brahmin” class is created that ages half as quickly as regular humans, so the hottest bars and clubs of Varanasi are filled with what look like 12-year-old kids.
For all its complexity, though, River of Gods is at its core a cautionary, consequences-of-man-playing-God tale along the lines of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Checks to scientific progress are circumvented (legally and illegally, ethically and unscrupulously), and a high price is paid by just about everyone involved for these transgressions, not to mention their own moral, all-too-human shortcomings. In the end, it’s these failings that bind the characters to each other — and them to us, in spite of gulfs in distance, time and experience.