Ian McDonald, Cyberabad Days (PYR, 2009)
In Cyberabad Days, author Ian McDonald returns to the technologically brilliant, parched and i-Dusty India of 2047, an India first visited in his award-winning novel River of Gods. The seven stories collected in this volume follow the rise and fall of this new India, from the luxurious, robot-monkey guarded palaces of the super-rich to the slums where the robotwallahs rule like tinpot gods.
McDonald is rightly praised as one of the industry's preeminent SF authors and Cyberabad Days is a showcase of his talent. The world he has created on the bled-dry banks of the Ganges is richly textured and alien, detailing lives that are mundane to the characters but foreign and exotic to the readers. The work that went into researching and developing the culture of this future India -- utopian or dystopian depending on your caste and wealth -- is obvious. This is a world that manages to be convincingly, sympathetically Indian, but is still created with such light strokes of McDonald's pen that the reader never gets bogged down in the world-building. You can taste the heat of the day on your tongue, feel the press of the crowds in the streets.
'Sanjeev and Robotwallah' is an elegantly simple story that was selected for The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection and Year’s Best SF 13. In the middle of a Civil War, a young boy falls in love with the great, armed and armoured robots that do the fighting and the celebrity boy-soldiers who pilot them, but as his father warns him 'all wars eventually end'.
'Kyle Meets the River' picks up where ‘Sanjeev and Robotwallah’ left off, with the war over and American troops arriving to help rebuild the country's infrastructure. But do the Americans, isolated in their compound and behind their guards, understand the culture they are trying to help?
In 'The Dust Assassin', the last daughter of the Jodhra family takes shelter with the nutes -- men and women taken apart, altered and put back together again as neither, the third gender -- after her family is slaughtered. All her life she's been told that she a weapon against her enemies, but they never told her what sort of weapon. Now, if she has to her revenge, she must find out her secret before her enemies find her.
From the wealth and danger of the super-rich we move to the middle-class world of 'The Eligible Boy'. In a culture where women outnumber men four to one, courtship is a science, a cut-throat one, practiced at the Shaadi, the marriage mart. But are the eligible boys and suitable girls the only ones playing the marriage game?
'The Little Goddess' laughed when her uncle fell to his death; that was how they knew she was a suitable vessel for the goddess. Divinity, however, only lasts so long. A child-goddess has to grow up, and then what is there for her to do: marriage, a career? Or perhaps some strange new brand of divinity? (‘The Little Goddess’was a Hugo nominee for the best novella of 2006.)
'The Djinn's Wife' won a Hugo for the best novelette and BSFA short-fiction winner in 2007 and it explores the world of the aeias. Artificial Intelligences are at the heart of India's wealth -- they tell fortunes, sing children nursery rhymes and some of them fall in love. Dancer Esha and aeia negotiator A.J Rao fall in love and even marry, but there are those who think the union is wrong and dangerous. They might be right.
The final story in the collection is 'Vishnu at the Cat Circus'. Genetic alteration created the Brahmin to be the pinnacle of human evolution, gifted and cursed beyond common man. Only the next stage of evolution has begun and left the long-lived Brahmin behind. In the i-Dust. Now the Brahmin Vishnu must be both preserver and destroyer if there is any chance that India will survive.
Cyberabad Days is a brilliant, well-paced short story collection that snatches snapshots of life in this powerful, futuristic India. You don't need to have read River of Gods to enjoy Cyberabad Days, McDonald's world is so immersive it is easy to find your footing in it. The prose is elegant, drawing in lush scenes with a clean economy of language, and the stories riveting. It's an admirable addition to the canon of McDonald's work and one that I'd recommend reading.