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Cyberabad Days
Ian McDonald
Pyr, 330 pages

Cyberabad Days
Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald was born in 1960 in Manchester and moved to Northern Ireland in 1965. At present, he lives in Belfast with his wife, Patricia. His debut was the short story, The Island of the Dead, in the British magazine, Extro. His work has won the Philip K. Dick Award for best original SF paperback, the Locus poll for best first novel, and several nominations for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Cyberabad Days
SF Site Review: Brasyl
SF Site Review: Ares Express
SF Site Review: Sacrifice of Fools
SF Site Reading List: Ian McDonald

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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At the heart of this book, in more ways than one, is a story called "The Little Goddess." It is, perhaps, the best story in the collection, the mid-point of the book, but more than that it is the piece that captures, better than any of the other stories, better even than the novel, River of Gods, to which this volume is a welcome pendant, exactly what it is that makes Ian McDonald's vision of near-future India so exciting and so right.

Our narrator is taken as a little girl to a temple where she is identified as a reincarnation of the goddess. Throughout the years of her childhood she lives as a goddess, never allowed to touch the ground, pampered but imprisoned, kept within the belief systems of the past so that her surreptitious acquisition of modern technology is an act of horror and betrayal. But when her blood flows, in her case the result of injury rather than menstruation, she is exiled from the temple into a world that has no place for a one-time goddess. For a while she wanders around contemporary India, joining the bride markets where, through the combination of the ability to choose the sex of children and social customs that favour boys, men far outnumber women. One suitor is attracted by her past as a goddess, one of the would-be new gods of modern India, a Brahmin. The product of genetic engineering, he has been bred for long life and immunity to most ills, but the cost is glacially slow maturation: though old enough to marry he has the body of a young child. He wants her as a trophy, and she flees another form of imprisonment. Her refuge this time is Ashok, a former but unsuitable suitor, a young man involved in the exciting new technology of advanced AIs. But in this balkanised new India, most of the states are bowing to American pressure to outlaw this technology; Ashok needs to smuggle his AIs to a place where advanced AIs are still legal. Our narrator becomes his mule, the equipment is surgically implanted in her so she can carry it across the border. She proves to be adept at this secret life, but eventually the authorities swoop, Ashok and his associates are rounded up, and with a powerful AI still in place she is forced to flee. Before long, crossover between her brain and the AI occurs, she finds herself with new knowledge, new powers. And the story ends as it began, with her on the point of becoming a goddess.

This isn't just a grand tour d'horizon of McDonald's mid-21st Century India, it is a vivid summing up of what is going on in all these stories. There is the way the traditional beliefs of India are integrated with the social and technological changes that are occurring; the way the modern is made part of the deep history of the sub-continent; the way the old is reinvented for the new (as in the way "brahmin" acquires a new meaning) and the way the new is recast as part of the old (the integration of the "neut" into the old social structure). We believe in this future India because all the invention (and there are masses of inventions casually crowded into these urban stories) do not feel imposed upon the setting but feel rather as if they have grown out of the setting. And because of this sense of natural growth, it is a future that is crowded, dirty, tumultuous, poor, thriving, smelly, joyous, colourful; a future, in other words, that feels like the real world around us.

"The Little Goddess," dating from 2005 a year after River of Gods appeared, is the oldest of the seven stories gathered here, the newest, "Vishnu at the Cat Circus," is original to this volume. So all of them postdate the original novel, yet there is no sense that they are make-weight works written to cash in on the success of the novel. Rather it is as if the roaring overcrowded world of mid-century India is too big to be contained even within such a tumultuous novel. These stories are clearly set within the same historical milieu as the novel, but not as if McDonald is simply filling in details here and there, crossing t's and dotting i's. Each story opens more of India, says more about what it means to live within this brave new world, says more about how it got to be the way it is in the novel and about how it may change thereafter.

India is already balkanised by the time "Sanjeev and Robotwallah," the first of these stories in terms of internal chronology, opens, but the new states are still testing their borders and their relative strengths. But McDonald does not present the closing days of conflict in the conventional form of a war story, instead it is a tale of aspiration and the need to escape the poverty of the slums. Sanjeev is swept away by the glamour not of war but of celebrity, the teenage boys who control the robot fighting machines and swank like minor rock stars. So he abandons his father's little fast food stall in order to serve the robotwallahs and hopes that some of their glamour, the shades and flash clothes and fast cars, will come his way. It ends badly, as so many of these stories do. For all its integration into the deep history of the region, the future does not sit easily on this India.

Thus in "The Dust Assassin" one of two industrial dynasties fighting over water rights is wiped out, all bar one girl. She is raised in secret, but is eventually married to the heir of the other dynasty in an attempt to heal the old wounds. But in the moment she realises she is in love with her new husband, she also discovers the nature of the revenge her long-dead family had put in train. Again, in "The Djinn's Wife," a famous dancer marries an AI diplomat from a rival state, only to find herself tragically caught up in interstate rivalries.

The tragedy is both personal and national. The way that a long-standing social need to have boy children is coupled with the technological ability to choose the sex of a child leads to the national tragedy of too many men for too few women. This in turn is reflected in the personal tragedy of "An Eligible Boy" which tells of the new social structures put in place to cope with this changing demographic through the story of just one young man trying to find a wife. But if technology can allow parents to choose the sex of a child, it can allow further tinkering with the nature of the child, hence the emergence of the "brahmins." But as "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" shows, every new advance has its corresponding tragedy, for the slow maturing long-lived Brahmins reach their delayed adulthood just in time to see India develop in a different technological direction. And with the change, perhaps, comes the slipping of the future out of India's grasp: this final novelette sees within its compass of one extended lifetime India achieve and lose its place in the sun. But how much has changed? For what all these stories show (most notably "Kyle Meets the River," the only story here to have a non-Indian viewpoint, making it the weakest story because it is too much a colourful and exotic travelogue) is that the future, for all its integration within the traditions of the land, is only ever a skim across the surface, deep below this surface remain all the same beliefs and poverty and dirt and overcrowding. It is what makes these stories, possibly even more than River of Gods, such a powerful and convincing account of the way this century might be.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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