This is Ian McDonald’s second foray into an India of the mid-21st century. His 2004 novel River of Gods was a stunner, set in a massively populous land mass fragmented into several nations, chief among them Bharat and Awadh. It is a society as steeped in ancient tradition as in extreme technology. While rituals and religious faith are stronger than ever, aeais (artificial intelligences) are indistinguishable from human beings, and everyone has anywhere-anytime access to electronic and sensory data from across the world. Of course, some things haven’t changed: massive glass towers coexist with squalid slums, and cricket remains king.
Cyberabad Days is a cycle of stories set in the same milieu. Little Sanjeev dreams of joining the robotwalas, teenage punks high on drugs who manipulate the robot war machines on the battlefield, the ultimate video game. In another story (a clear reference to the presence of US forces in Iraq), the Ranas, the rulers of Bharat, are not being able to establish a strong government after the civil war (the Sundering) that broke up India, and US troops are camping all over the country, attempting to bring about peace. Racism simmers among the young boys studying in the Cantonment school, and Kyle’s best friend Salim is victimised. Due to American paranoia, full military might is called out when Kyle sneaks away to meet Salim. Yet, in the end, technology allows them to remain friends in their marvellous cyberworlds.
In The Little Goddess, McDonald tells the story of a girl selected to be the Kumari Devi of Nepal, and worshipped as a living goddess, only to be cast out the moment she starts menstruating or bleeds in any other way. She escapes to Awadh and becomes a smuggler of aeais into Bharat, whose US-stooge government is about to sign a bilateral treaty which disallows aeais above a certain complexity. Her last mission is a failure, but she is left with five mega-powerful aeais in her head, which finally, actually, makes her a living goddesss.
McDonald takes today’s Indian conditions and makes a huge imaginative leap to create a wondrous place that teems with the world’s best software expertise, yet where foetus sex selection has led to a 5:1 boy-girl ration and men simply can’t get women to marry. Rajasthan maintains its regal Rajput traditions, but the weapons the warring clans use are genetically engineered. And McDonald makes no concessions for the Western reader. If you don’t know what a jharokha or garbhgriha is, too bad. Cyberabad Days is a totally cool trip for science fiction fans, and, I am certain, a lot of others.