October 14, 2019

Review: Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald.

Near future Sci-fi is an especially cherished genre. Via such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, we can eagerly await such things as living on the Moon, or by reading such tales as 1984, we can shudder at Orwell’s anti-utopian world, and hopefully heed its warning. Cyberabad Days: Return to India of 2047 by Ian McDonald, serves up both in heaping doses.

This tome is out this month courtesy of Pyr Books. A collection of short stories, all dealing with the India of the near future created by McDonald, are meant to provoke both fear and wonder. Smartly done, they ride the cyber-punk wave just ahead of tomorrow’s headlines. India is depicted as fractured superpower, a place where anything and everything goes in a world suspicious of banned cyber-tech. As is often the case today, 10th century superstitions go side by side with 21st century technologies.

The eight stories within run the gambit. I would almost suggest reading the last tale, Vishnu at the Cat Circus first, as it gives you the best background and feel for this alternate India. It deals mostly with genetically perfected near gods (and goddesses) who live out their days through the last generation of true humanity.

Another tale, An Eligible Boy, was featured also in the recently reviewed in Fast Forward II, also by Pyr books. In it we are introduced to online dating, futuristic Indian style. Sex selection has led to a glut of bachelors, hence the title. Incidentally, there are more than two sexes in this future universe…

Farther along, in the story of Sanjeev and Robotwallah, we meet the endearing concept of virtual robot warfare. Children, already raised as tech savvy, serve as “mech-pilots” to fight out savage street combat. This isn’t as far fetched as it may sound; already, wars are fought by proxy, using Predator and Global hawk aircraft… can personal battle drones be far behind?

But it was the story The Little Goddess that truly captivated us. A Hugo nominee in 2006, this is the one story that partially takes place beyond India, in Nepal.  The near future tale may be fictional, but the child goddess Kumari isn’t. We first heard this tale in 1997, during a visit to Kathmandu, Nepal. A Hindu sect there venerates a girl as the Kumari, the living incarnation of the goddess Durga (the depiction of the Durga is fairly intimidating; she usually has a fresh garland of skulls about her neck!)

The Kumari is selected from the local goldsmith’s guild, and then subjected to several semi-secret trials depicted in the book. The Kumari must show no fear, and exhibit several attributes, such as correctly identifying the belongings of the former Kumari. She also cannot bleed, and there in lies the rub. She is treated to virtual goddess-hood until puberty, where upon the spirit of the Kumari is said to have formerly left her upon first menstruation. She is then whisked to India, where she usually becomes a shunned prostitute eking out a marginal living. Apparently, there is a legend that it is bad luck for a Hindu to marry an ex-Kumari, and a support group doesn’t yet exist for recovering ex-child goddesses. This story amazed me during my brief stay, and I made it a point to stroll past the Kumari Chowk where she resides, although she didn’t give one of her rare yearly audiences during my stay. This short story is one the only Sci-fi pieces (or stories, period!) that we’ve come across that deals with the Kumari and the aftermath of her life. Obviously, the author knows his Indian subcontinent background!

Read Cyberabad Days as a good primer for the author’s future India universe, then seek out his full length River of the Gods. Or here’s a cool idea; traveling to the India-Nepal region soon? This would be a cool reading companion for a lazy, Goa beach afternoon. I always like to tie in our travels with something topical, and Cyberabad Days would be unique.

Got a taste for more Ian McDonald? Check out the author’s  website.

Next Week: The Moon phase and the Gunship; a little known astronomical saga from the Special Ops world of the first Gulf War.

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  1. [...] But it was the story The Little Goddess that truly captivated us. A Hugo nominee in 2006, this is the one story that partially takes place beyond India, in Nepal. The near future tale may be fictional, but the child …Original post by webmaster [...]

  2. [...] works with our reviews over the years of the post-cyber punk thrillers Desolation Road, Cyberabad Days, (our favorite Ian McDonald read thus far) and The Dervish House. Mr. McDonald has a way of weaving [...]

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