Whew! I finally finished River of Gods by Ian McDonald this weekend.
I categorize River of Gods as a “Great story but a PITA to read book”.
Here’s the deal: I shouldn’t have to work to read a science fiction novel. To me “a great read” just flows…I start reading the first chapter and 17 hours later I close the book and say “wow”. The books I love to read don’t make me tired. I literally can stay up for days reading them. But not River of Gods. The damn book made me work and I could only read a few chapters at a time! Heinlein never made me work. Neither did Clarke, Asimov, Card. Ludlum, Clancy, or le Carré. I think I like Scalzi and Cheeseburger Brown for the same reason.
Usually when this happens (like with William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive) I just give up and put them back on the shelf. But I decided to power through…and in the end, I’m glad I did. River of Gods is a good book! It has a great story, interesting plot lines, cool characters, and is on a topic that fascinates me.
The premise of the book is based on Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. Namely within the next 50 years (2047 to be exact) the rate of technological change will continue to accelerate at such a rate that man & machine will merge. Of course I wasn’t able to get any sort of clear picture of this until about 75% through the book. McDonald puts together a fascinating set of twists on the topic which I won’t spoil here…
The environment and characters McDonald paints result in something that feels a lot like Blade Runner, Neromancer, Diamond Age, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and Contact all mixed together in India. Not a bad mixture in my opinion. Well done.
So what’s my beef with this book? Because most of the book takes place in India (in 2047) McDonald decided to obfuscate the beginning of each chapter (and the beginning of the book in general) behind a huge amount of Indian language and cultural references. As I read each chapter I had to guess and infer what was going on. McDonald actually succeeded in enabling the key points to come out as I read on, but I really tired of having to go through this routine every chapter.
I suppose if I would have noticed the GLOSSARY before I FINISHED THE BOOK it might have helped. But (a) I am not in the habit of looking for glossaries in science fiction novels and (b) even if I had seen it, it still would have been a pain to keep referring there as I read.
In the end I enjoyed the book. I learned a bit about India. But it was kind of like running on a treadmill at the Pro Club: worthwhile, but painful.