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

By Gautam Bhatia

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.

The second twinned word in each of these pairs suggests why River of Gods is set in India. Paradoxes can be exploited to the hilt, a sprawling novel finds its match in a sprawling backdrop in a way that could not happen in a more… well-ordered world. River of Gods has far too many characters and far too many intersecting plotlines to keep track of; the reader is left gasping for breath at many points in the novel, and it is certainly a testament to McDonald’s skill as a writer that it all comes together at the end. The largeness of the canvas allows for a freer rein to the imagination.

The risk, of course, is the descent into lazy clichés from the V.S. Naipual school (the Gollancz blurb to River of Gods is particularly guilty in that respect, starting with “Mother India,” and having the exquisite chutzpah to call the book ‘the great Indian novel of the new millennium’). And this is a trap that McDonald falls into, repeatedly. We know that religion plays an important role in Indian public life, and we know that contemporary India has a history of religious violence; but a novel that features one, long, continuing Hindutva-inspired riot from beginning to end, without further background and context, is both too quick and too unsubtle.

To take just one example: River of Gods ignores every other social fault-line that exists in India, especially that of caste. If a certain form of revanchist sub-nationalism is going to play such a prominent role in the book, then we need some explanation of why it appears to exist solely along a Hindu-Muslim axis (with some accompanying anti-West xenophobia). And even worse, McDonald’s Indians are nameless and faceless, perpetually inflamed, always on the cusp of rioting, and senselessly violent – often to the bewilderment of some of the McDonald’s Western protagonists, who inadvertently get caught up in a riot, and are chaperoned away from the place by his Indian protagonists, part of the suitably-Westernized elite, closer in emotions and mental attitudes to their Western counterparts, rather than their compatriots.

This is a pity — there are parts of River of Gods that make for truly excellent speculative fiction. The human-A.I. conflict is a dangerously well-worn theme, but McDonald’s soaring prose manages to be simultaneously fresh, as well as reminding us of the timeless human questions at stake. The other major theme of the book – water wars – is written with the prescience of a seer (and even here, McDonald brings in a fascinating speculative element, albeit all too briefly – an artificial iceberg, to cause precipitation). And while it is a pity, it is also revealing. The choice of India as a location allows for easy authorial choices that do not obviously stand out as orientalist. It allows for a substantial amount of freedom and very little responsibility. The oriental of the 19th century European travelogue has been fractured into multiple characters – the suave, Europeanised, upper-middle class Indian, the emancipated woman who continues to struggle against social constraints, the cynical politician, the demagogue, the rioter (and add a sprinkling of bemused foreigners). And yet, it remains as much of a type as the old dark skin, long eyelashes, and a propensity to tell lies.

This authorial freedom also becomes a freedom from having to build a consistent, coherent world, because of the strangeness of India (the number of ways in which River of Gods would fail a plausibility test – right from the basic premise of balkanization in the manner in which it has supposedly happened – are too many to list here). The author then becomes free to explore his thought experiment of choice – in this case, the human-A.I. clash – without the inconvenience of the world pressing in upon him.

Some of these tropes are replicated in The Girl on the Road and in The Weightless World, both of which – to be fair – are far more self-aware works than River of Gods. Byrne and Trevelyan consciously try to engage with the risks of white authors setting a novel in a formerly colonized country, that played a huge role in the imperial-metropolitan imagination for a long time (In fact, Trevelyan has one of his Indian characters voice precisely this concern, when he has her call India “the world’s favourite fuck.”) Perhaps inevitably, however, the issues remain, at least to an extent (I have pointed them out in a review of the latter and a round-table on the former): a core idea involving a future technology in the near future finds a geographical home in India, which allows the writer to liberate herself from the obligations of careful world-building, replace plausibility with stereotypes, and thereby give freer play to developing the technology thought-experiment. The difference between River of Gods on the one hand, and The Girl in the Road and The Weightless World on the other, is that Byrne and Trevelyan make a good faith effort to avoid the traps (the degree to which they succeed – or do not – is for the reader to judge). McDonald, however, does not.

The coming years may see more speculative fiction replicating a combination of these themes – the near-future, technological (dys)topianism, and India. It will be particularly interesting to observe, then, how writers navigate the fraught issues that I have outlined in this review – and whether, in the first place, they display any awareness of them at all.

Gautam Bhatia
Gautam Bhatia is an Articles Editor with Strange Horizons, and reviews books for Strange Horizons and The Wire