This collection of seven stories is subtitled “Return to the India of 2047,” but what it really is is a return to the India of McDonald’s 2004 novel River of Gods. The novel won the British Science Fiction Association Award, as did one of the stories, and it would not surprise me to see this collection nominated as well. McDonald displays the assurance of a mature talent immersed in his fictional world — yes — but also the deep, multi-layered understanding of an intelligent and compassionate man immersed in the 21st Century.
First, the world. Cyberabad Days is essentially cyberpunk, keeping company with William Gibson’s Idoru and Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age. Nanotech has blurred the line between hardware, software, and wetware; AI is here and scaring the pants off a lot of people; programming is the new oil; information is the new gold. Unlike many of Gibson’s heroes, however, McDonald’s protagonists are not the web-jockeys and hackers, the people getting dirty on the pipelines or in the mines. McDonald is mostly writing about the people affected by the new economy a few steps away from production, the people who have to live in the world others are building, and tearing down, all around them. He is writing about the inheritors, and inheritance is one of the themes running through these stories.
He is also writing about India one century after the nation achieved independence from the British Empire, and, in his fictional future, just a few years after the nation fragments into half a dozen nation-states — another inheritance, of a kind. A bold move, you might even say a risky move, for a white guy living in Northern Ireland to be writing about India. He isn’t coy about it; with one exception, his characters are all Indian, Hindu and Muslim. He is an outsider writing with an insider’s perspective, and that turns out to be one of the great strengths of these stories. Because what he is showing us is a society so complex, so fractured and yet so bound into interdependence, that everyone is both an insider and an outsider in their own country.
And in one story after another, McDonald challenges us to recognize the fact that to be “inside” one circle inevitably means being “outside” another. From the village boy forced into the city by the war of separation to the British boy living in a walled compound, from the Hindu girl raised in a palace to the Nepalese girl raised to and then cast out of goddess-hood: McDonald’s characters are discovering the boundaries that wall them in even as they cross those boundaries to struggle with life on the other side. The beautiful thing isn’t just that India is a perfect setting for these complexities and juxtapositions, though of course it is. It’s that an India grappling with god-like AIs and killer drought, with tech-driven decadence and ancient injustices, becomes more than a setting: it becomes the model for our world.
Paul McAuley’s introduction quotes a line of Gibson’s: “The future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” McDonald’s narrator in the original novella that ends the collection, “Vishnu at the Cat Circus,” says something I like even better: “How human it is to be so engrossed by our latest crisis that we forget we have failed to solve the crisis before that.” It is also a North American failing that we on this continent tend to forget that most of the world’s billions live elsewhere. We are in the minority. The glorious, frightening thing about McDonald’s India is that everyone is part of a minority. Except, as he points out at the end of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus,” for the poor. They are the inheritors of the earth, and the earth that McDonald leaves them — the earth, as he more than implies, that we are leaving them — is a thirsty place. In more than one story he describes India as the teat or breast hanging from the body of Asia; in Cyberabad Days, that teat has long run out of milk.
If this sounds bleak, well, it is. The great pleasure of these stories is that even the bleakest of them has another face. India — the world — is crammed full of people. It is part of the world’s disaster, yes, but it is also part of the world’s treasure. McDonald’s characters are flawed, often selfish or ignorant, but they are full of hope, struggle, humor, life, and so is everyone around them. A great richness lies in the multiplicity of his India, and when the protagonist at the end of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” says,
I thought of the villages that had so welcomed and amazed and blessed and watered me … I thought of the simple pleasures I had taken from my business ventures: honest plans and work and satisfactions. India — the old India, the undying India — was in its villages,
he is speaking about the India, the world, that is most likely to survive. This to my mind is a message of hope. And the fact that the character Vishnu says this in the midst of poverty and ecological disaster — says it at the same time in the midst of extraordinary technological advances changing the nature of humanity and reality itself — makes it one of the important messages of our time. These stories are doing what the very best science fiction does: making us think about our own world, our whole world, with the insight of the insider and the detached clarity of the outsider. Pay attention.
McDonald’s voice is smooth and strong, as you might expect from this experienced, award-winning author. That these stories all share the same milieu might rob them of some variety, but there are some fine contrasts, as between the naïve young protagonist of “Kyle Meets the River” and the never-innocent gene-modified Brahmin narrator of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus.” The humorously wistful romance of “An Eligible Boy” stands against the romantic, fairytale tragedy of “The Dust Assassin” and the all-too-modern celebrity-marriage disaster of “The Djinn’s Wife.” McDonald’s characters are all young, though both male and female, and yes, despite moments of wonder and humor, they all suffer disappointment and loss.
These stories are beautifully crafted, with no shortage of suspense and action, and they are emotionally rich. McDonald never shies away from giving us his insight into his characters’ inner selves, and he has found that delicate balance point between explaining his future world and letting us live in it with his characters. It helps that their world is changing so fast as to be continually new to them as well as to us; and that is, of course, another aspect that makes them feel so real. I can’t say the author never stumbles. The first-person narrative of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” is self-conscious and gets a bit sticky to wade through at times; the relative superficiality of “Kyle Meets the River” might be appropriate to its subject, but is nevertheless a little disappointing given the depth of most of the other stories. But given the great strengths of this collection as a whole, these are minor quibbles. My only real caveat to the reader is to take your time with these stories. They make a rich meal, and will take some time to digest.