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Shiva 3000
Jan Lars Jensen
Harcourt Brace, 362 pages

Shiva 3000
Jan Lars Jensen
Jan Lars Jensen's work has appeared in a number of magazines including On Spec, Aboriginal SF, Interzone, Grue and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well as books such as Northern Suns, Tesseracts 6 and Tesseracts 7. Shiva 3000 is his first novel.

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A review by Charlene Brusso

The most striking thing about Jensen's debut novel is its setting, a future India where the caste system has hardened society into unbending rigidity and the gods have been replaced with oddly low-tech machinery. Most visible and feared is the god Jagannath (source of the more-familiar word 'juggernaut'), personified as a monstrous wooden killing machine, mindlessly destroying towns and citizens, and generally causing chaos. The Sovereign, of high Brahmin caste, dwells in splendid luxury, in a palace where holy wandering cattle drink from golden troughs while the lowest tiers of society beg for scraps. No wonder the Kama Sutrans, with their determined search for the highest sensual pleasures, are gaining converts in the poorest quarters, despite the outrage of the country's wealthier, more conservative, elements.

Yet even the Kama Sutrans take second place in universal popularity to the Baboon Warrior, a mighty fighter with a human body and the head of a baboon. Though not technically a god, he is the undisputed hero of the land, beloved protector of the poor and weak.

Enter Rakesh, a young man with a mission. Goddess Kali the Destroyer revealed his dharma to him on the dark, sad, night Rakesh's betrothed Shanti was taken away by the Baboon Warrior: Rakesh must kill the Baboon Warrior. Driven by emotional loss as well as religious belief, Rakesh accepts Kali's pronouncement without a second thought and sets off on foot across the country to track down the hero and kill him. Before long, he is joined by Vasant, high caste Royal Engineer to the Sovereign and the designer of Prince Hapi's airship, a balloon-contraption also known as The Royal Extravaganza. In fact, Vasant is in the airship, having used it to escape the Royal Court after his secret affair with the Sovereign's First Wife was discovered.

In both his thinking and his morals, Engineer Vasant typifies the rigidity of caste society. The only unpredictable thing he's ever done in his life was to sleep with the First Wife -- an event which was actually a seduction on her part, as the first step in a plot to rid herself of her husband via a secret agreement with the Kama Sutrans.

Along the way, Rakesh picks up a few more followers, including a travelling group of Buddhists -- they call themselves Pragmatists -- who've come to study the Hindu religion and are overjoyed to hear about Rakesh and his determination to follow his dharma.

Early in the book, Rakesh insists "beliefs are not set in stone. You can resist. You can choose another life," but his quest to destroy the Baboon Warrior seems to support the exact opposite viewpoint. No matter what he thinks he's chosen, he's really been manipulated just as Vasant was by the First Wife, and if not for the foreign Pragmatists, he never would have known the truth. Because of this, the Buddhist "Pragmatists", with their rational methods and tolerant ways, appear as heroes, while the Hindu deities and their supporters are revealed as petty, fearful, and scheming -- a conclusion which feels odd. It's as if Jensen is taking religious and cultural sides as well as making the more comfortable argument that everyone has free will unless they choose to surrender it.

Despite its unsatisfying conclusion, the novel's almost-travelogue structure works well to illustrate a land trapped between the rigid traditions of the past and an uncertain future. Jensen deftly creates a land of contrasts, where Clarke's rule of "technology is indistinguishable from magic" holds true, and peoples it with some genuinely unforgettable characters.

Copyright © 1999 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.

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