Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald
(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 52.)
Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald
Pyr, 2009, 330 pages
A young man who becomes the caretaker of a troop of battle robot pilots. A boy whose father is part of an international peacekeeping force befriends a local boy. A girl who becomes the heir to a vast corporation when her family is assassinated. A young man looking for love in a country where men outnumber women four to one finds help from an AI. A girl who had been a goddess finds out what life is like when her time as a goddess is over. A classical dancer falls in love with an artificial intelligence. A genetically engineered man comes to terms with the age he lives in.
Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days returns to the world of his award-winning 2004 novel, River of Gods. The setting is the India of the near-future, centering on 2047, the centennial of Indian independence. This future India is a fractured, lively place, the subcontinent divided into a number of smaller nations. It is a land of a billion and a half people, of strange new genders, climate-change induced drought, and a soap opera within a soap opera performed completely by artificial intelligence actors.
The seven stories in the collection are rich, full of vivid language and striking images. They draw the reader in from the first sentence, like the start of “Kyle Meets the River”—”Kyle was the first to see the exploding cat.” Or of “An Eligible Boy”—”A robot is giving Jasbir the whitest teeth in Delhi.” McDonald’s prose delights, though at times it is experimental, with shifts in tense or in person within a single story.
The rich prose well suits what for most readers is an exotic setting. There is a wildness to the language suitable to the wildness of McDonald’s future India. Yet the heart that beats at the center of each story is universal, human. Each story is a coming-of-age tale, about the main character finding his or her place in the world, or failing in that quest.
Not that Cyberabad Days is an exercise in clichés. The unique setting and style prevents that. But even more so the vividness of the characters. These people and their stories are totally engaging. It is no surprise that “The Djinn’s Wife” won a Hugo award, or that “The Little Goddess” was nominated. My personal favorite in the collection was “The Dust Assassin.” Readers familiar with River of Gods will find special enjoyment in the novella “Vishnu at the Cat Circus,” which presents a kind of Ender’s Shadow to the events of the novel.
Readers already familiar with McDonald’s India of 2047 will find Cyberabad Days a welcome addition to their enjoyment of this unique world. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed the stories even more than the novel (though I also enjoyed it). A story collection linked in theme and setting allows McDonald to focus on individual characters while at the same time gives him the freedom to highlight even more aspects of his multifaceted future. However it is by no means necessary to have read River of Gods to enjoy Cyberabad Days. All lovers of human adventure will enjoy this presentation of McDonald’s vision.
(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)