Cyberabad Days, a new story collection by Ian McDonald, takes us deep into the world of a twenty-second-century India that's riven by water wars, blooming with glittering, high-tech cities, and shaped by ancient tradition.
This collection brings together several stories that take place at the periphery of McDonald's acclaimed 2004 novel of future India, River of Gods. McDonald has long been fascinated in his fiction with the way high technology mutates – and is mutated by – culture in developing worlds. In several stories here, he imagines when India's obsession with male superiority is combined with biotech to produce a population where males outnumber females 4 to 1.
And he explores what might happen if those same biotech innovations were brought to bear on caste. The result, in novella "Vishnu At the Cat Circus," are genetically-enhanced Brahmin children with souped-up brains. Programmed to live twice as long as other castes, these GMO Brahmins also age twice as slowly, creating a generation of young men grotesquely lodged in the bodies of 9-year-olds.
Indian traditions mingle with biotech to produce a new kind of gender, too: In "The Dust Assassin" we're introduced to the Nutes, neither male nor female, the result of a blurring between the South Asian tradition of sexually-ambiguous Hijras and hormonally-induced biological ambiguity. In a nation where men outnumber women so profoundly, it seems natural that new genders would be invented.
McDonald shows us how the "demographic crisis" touches all human relationships. In the sweet, weird "An Eligible Boy," a perennial bachelor gets help from his "aeai" programmer roommate in his quest to meet a woman. We're whirled through a bizarre world of dating services that offer a small crop of women to desperate men who get beauty treatments and wait by the phone for women to call them back. Jabir's only hope is that his roommate Sujay's aeai, an amalgam of charming "soapi" stars, can train him to be the kind of man that women want. It turns out his aeai companion has other plans for him – plans that, from a reader perspective, are refreshingly strange and unexpected.
Probably the strongest stories in the volume are "The Djinn's Wife" (a Hugo winner) and "The Little Goddess" (a Hugo nominee). Both concern the evolving relationships between humans and aeais. In "The Little Goddess," a Tibetan woman who spent her childhood performing the role of a goddess in a temple discovers that her schizophrenia-influenced neurology makes her the perfect cognitive mule for smuggling illegal aeais across the country. And in "The Djinn's Wife," a dancer becomes the first human to marry an aeai. Though she can't touch him, he can burrow inside her brain to give her the best hands-off orgasms ever. And when they fight, he can literally turn the entire networked city against her.
McDonald has done his homework on India, and his predictions about the country are well-informed enough that a Bollywood production company optioned his novel River of Gods. But if there's anything about this collection that might give readers pause it's the idea of it being authored by an Irish guy who knows India only as a tourist. Fiction is a realm where we permit imaginative leaps, of course: Women write about men; and Indian filmmaker Ismail Merchant produced some of the most memorable movies about white British people ever made. So it stands to reason that McDonald could and should turn his eye to India without ever having lived there. Still, this detail may make readers uneasy for the same reason many were unsettled by white British filmmaker Danny Boyle's recent film about Mumbai, Slumdog Millionaire.
If, however, you are simply looking for weird and smart science fiction that will surprise you, I recommend Cyberabad Days. It's a chance to see the future from a perspective that rarely shows up in Western scifi.
Cyberabad Days [via Amazon]