Ian McDonald is one of science fiction’s finest working writers, and his latest
short story collection Cyberabad Days, is the kind of book that showcases
exactly what science fiction is for.
Cyberabad Days returns to
McDonald’s India of 2047, a balkanized state that we toured in his 2006 novel
River of Gods, which was nominated for the best novel Hugo Award. The India of
River of Gods has fractured into a handful of warring nations, wracked by
water-shortage and poverty, rising on rogue technology, compassion, and the
synthesis of the modern and the ancient.
In Cyberabad Days, seven
stories (one a Hugo winner, another a Hugo nominee) McDonald performs the
quintessential science fictional magic trick: imagining massive technological
change and making it intensely personal by telling the stories of real, vividly
realized people who leap off the page and into our minds. And he does this with
a deft prose that is half-poetic, conjuring up the rhythms and taste and smells
of his places and people, so that you are really, truly transported into these
unimaginably weird worlds. McDonald’s India research is prodigious, but it’s
nothing to the fabulous future he imagines arising from today’s reality.
All seven of these stories are standouts, but if I had to pick only
three to put in a time-capsule for the ages, they’d be:
1. The Djinn’s
Wife: this Hugo-winning novelette is a heartbreaking account of a love affair
between a minor celebrity and a weakly godlike artificial intelligence. The
special problems of love with an “aeai” (AI) are incredibly, thoroughly imagined
here, as are the possible glories. Here, McDonald perfectly captures the
stepping-off-a-cliff feeling of the new kinds of romance that technology
enables, and of the wonderful, terrible sense of the wind rushing past your ears
as the ground screams towards you.
2. Sanjeev and Robotwallah: a story
that will be anthologized in two of this year’s “Best Of” anthologies, Sanjeev
and Robotwallah is the story of a young, displaced boy who finds temporary glory
in acting as batsman for a squadron of amped-up teen mecha pilots. The pathos
here arises when the war ends and the glamorous warriors are retired, leaving
Sanjeev in limbo, his aspirations smashed with the lives of the older boys. Like
all of McDonald’s stories, the ending is bittersweet, rich and unexpected.
3. Vishnu at the Cat Circus: the long, concluding novella in the volume
is an account of three siblings: one genetically enhanced to be a neo-Brahmin,
one a rogue AI wallah who is at the center of the ascension of humanity’s
computers into a godlike state, and one who remains human and bails out the
teeming masses who are tossed back and forth by the technological upheaval. A
story of character, Vishnu blends spirituality and technology to look at how the
street might find its own use for things, when that street is rooted in ancient
traditions that are capable of assimilating enormous (but not infinite) change.
Cyberabad Days has it all: spirituality, technology, humanity, love,
sex, war, environmentalism, politics, media — all blended together to form a
manifesto of sorts, a statement about how technology shapes and is shaped by all
the wet, gooey human factors. Every story is simultaneously a cracking yarn, a
thoughtful piece of technosocial criticism, and a bag of eyeball kicks that’ll
fire your imagination. The field is very lucky to have Ian McDonald working in