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.