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Author: Gautam Bhatia

The East is a Setting: Issues of Place, Theme, and Tone in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Beyond

In recent years, India has become a somewhat unlikely site of a particular kind of speculative fiction novel. Mid-2014 saw the publication of Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road, featuring an Indian protagonist and a journey across a bridge that spanned the Indian Ocean all the way to Africa. One year later, we had Anthony Trevelyan’s The Weightless World, and a quest for an anti-gravity machine in the wilderness of Western India. 2016 saw Anil Menon’s Half of What I Say, a near-future dystopic novel centered upon the invention of “Super Wi-Fi” for connecting Indian villages to the high-speed web. What unites these novels – apart from their choice of India as a location – is a near-future setting, and a story of overconfident techno-utopianism, episodic violence and personal tragedy, against the backdrop of a certain kind of alien strangeness, the strangeness of India. While the choice of location might be a natural one for Menon, who is Indian, it was certainly a conscious decision on the part of Byrne and Trevelyan, neither of whose novels needed to be set in India (by “needed”, I mean that the core plot would work as well in a different location). Which, of course, raises the question: why India?

Interestingly, however, this sudden profusion of near-futuristic techno-dystopian speculative fiction was anticipated – and presaged – more than twelve years ago, in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. Although separated by a decade, elements of River of Gods resonate strongly in the three novels published over the last three years. Consequently, thinking of River of Gods alongside what came after it might illuminate the existence of a small – but steadily growing – corpus of 21st-century speculative fiction that locates itself – geographically, socially and even culturally – in India.


River of Gods is a sprawling novel, set across the length and breadth of an India that has been balkanized into multiple feuding independent republics. Much of the action takes place across the nations of “Bharat,” “Awadh” and “Bengal,” which roughly correspond to the northern belt of present-day India, running from west to east. The novel combines two frighteningly plausible tropes of the near future: water wars between nations, and artificial intelligence reaching the point of singularity. McDonald’s “India,” which is a mélange of super-technology and superstition, great-game politics and street riots, spirituality and extreme violence, becomes – because of its lack of regulations upon A.I. development – the site of a showdown between A.I. that is desperate to attain autonomy, and humanity that is desperate to stop it. Read The East is a Setting: Issues of Place, Theme, and Tone in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Beyond

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