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Ian McDonald – Cyberabad DaysCyberabad Days (spot the word play) is a collection of short stories by Ian McDonald; most of the stories were previously published in the 2005-2008 time frame, and follow on from/play in the same setting as his award-winning River of Gods novel.
The book displays a cleverly executed structure, inasmuch as that the stories can all be read on their own, but gain additional depth and structure by being read together and in sequence; concepts introduced in one story are usually expanded upon and further explored in the next.
The Indian setting is equally impressive – the entire world, places, names, concepts, and culture has been extrapolated into the mid-21st century. No, I cannot judge on the authenticity and correctness of usage of the concepts and words, but it very much adds up, and works very well in creating a fascinating, coherent, indelible setting for the stories to unfold in.

So, without further ado, the stories contained in the collection are:

Sanjeev and the Robotwallah
The story follows Sanjeev as he gets involved with a group of robot soldiers (they’re cool!) fighting in one of the many secessionist wars that India has plunged into. And so we’re getting a Mecha story, India style, with child soldiers (they like shoot-em-up games, and have the best reflexes!) controlling robot armies; but who are now facing the challenge of peace. I found this to be the weakest story of the lot, lacking sufficient local colorit to really engage. It’s an interesting cross-over, but didn’t capture me.

Kyle meets the River
"Kyle was the first to see the exploding cat.” Best story opening. Ever.
The war is over. Foreign contractors are helping to rebuild the country, if the locasl want this or not. So they do it from behind heavily fortified compounds, with suicide attacks, bombings, and general hostility rife. Depressingly realistic, and all offset against one boy’s friendship with a local, and his one experience of the local culture/life/experience.

The Dust Assassin
Here the book definitely hits its stride – this is a story about a drought in Jaipur when the Monsoon fails, about two rival water companies (Empires, given their power!); and about their enmity and battles – to the death, to the extinction of a family. Not what I expected it to be from the title, and very much a positive surprise. It also introduces a new concept – there now is a 3rd gender, the Nutes, sexless, brilliant, genetically modified, and definitely set apart.

An Eligible Boy

Another very realistic-feeling story, this time following Jasbir, and Eligible Boy, as he tours the Shaadi circuit looking for a bride: “The Economists teach India’s demographic crisis as an elegant example of market failure”. Think about the current preference for boys. Add selection of gender at conception. Extrapolate to 2047 – the gender ratio, at the relevant age, is 4:1. Think about what such a wedding market does for the remains of the case system! Women marrying up, men trying not to marry too far down; never mind the reversal of the dowry duties!
In parallel we get to see the development of the consequences of the development of the Aeai’s, the personal assistance AIs that everyone carries and uses for constant advise; and which become more and more intelligent, more and more aware. What happens if they court, fall in love, and have offspring? Runaway what? (just ask Charlie Stross)

The Little Goddess
Follows a re-incarnation of Devi Talejn Bhavani – as always a little girl, a Little Goddess – until she spills blood, either as an accident, or as she comes of age, which is when the Devi leaves her and moves on. What happens after divinity? How do you fit in ever again? The story outlines the cracks and contradictions between the old habits, structures, and beliefs; and the new, 21st century acceleration in technology and societal implications. Wonderful description of a place: “Streets began in this millennium, and ended in one three before”.

The Djinn’s Wife
Humans have always shared their world with Djinns. Now they also share it with Aeais – just as invisible, and at least as powerful – a new race jostling for space in an overpopulated world. It’s not always an easy relationship between the three groups; but still, humans, nah, make that beings can fall in love across the boundaries.
It is told in the style of a Sufi legend by the daughter of a Kathak dancer who fell in love with a diplomatic Aeai from a rival (read: enemy) state. Uncomfortable, and not as well handled as the other stories I think; the exposition, the point he tries to drive home, is just too transparent for my taste.

Vishnu at the Cat Circus
This is told as a reminiscent ramble by Vishnu whilst he touts and runs his Cat Circus. It’s the Age of Kali, post-apocalyptic, dystopian with a world in ruins after some kind of Singularity and the wars this caused. Vishnu is the 2nd of 3 children, a super-intelligent, super-everything, ageing at half the normal speed genetically engineered Brahmin. He tells a story of sibling rivalry, to the death, to the end of the world, to the end of history. And, by the parallels contained as well as the overlap and the involvement of the 3 children in the events this becomes an overview, a bird’s eyes perspective of the world that the other stories took place in, tying it all together in one larger story – which definitely runs to Novelette length.

So, you still want to know what I thought of my first Ian McDonald book? Well, the man can write, no doubt about that; he can build a world which works, and he can spin a good yarn.
As and when my reading habits allow (my eyes are always bigger than my ability to read, as my reading stack proves) there will be more of his, definitely.
This one here? Unusual book, well executed, comes recommended.


More Ian McDonald


Title: Cyberabad Days
Author: Ian McDonald
Reviewer: Markus Thierstein
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher:  Gollancz/Orion
Publisher URL: http://www.orionbooks.co.uk
Publication Date: 2009
Review Date: 111031
ISBN: 9780575084087
Price: UKP 12.99
Pages: 313
Format: Trade Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: India/Sociology

 

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