Tributaries

I was a little surprised to realise, the other day, that I’ve been talking about River of Gods for two years now. There are a number of reasons why this is the case: publishing accident (the US edition has only just come out, after all); awards buzz (which I wouldn’t be surprised to see continue with a Campbell nomination next year); and, not least, the fact that it’s simply a good book worth talking about.

But it also doesn’t hurt that Ian McDonald has started publishing stories set in the same future. There have been two to date–“The Little Goddess” last year and “The Djinn’s Wife” this year, both novellas, both in Asimov’s—with, I gather, a few more to come. I usually resent, or at least am healthily sceptical of, authors returning to the same well too many times—there are very few worlds other than our own that really support multiple stories—but McDonald has, so far, gotten away with it. In part this is because I know there’s a new novel, a new world, coming soon, so I know he’s unlikely to draw this well dry; and in part, so far, it’s simply because he’s told more good stories worth talking about.

And he hasn’t just recreated the novel. The points of comparison are many, and the fractured future India is recognisable (if less intense: the tipping point has not yet been reached) but these stories can’t do what River of Gods did. The writing is as fluid and vibrant as ever, but simply by virtue of the fact that these are individual stories rather than a knot of ten tales bound together, they show less of the world, and are more immediately graspable. And I think McDonald knows this, because he turns it into an advantage: both are told in the first person—one direct, one reported—thus constraining their focus, personalising this future in a way that the novel can’t match. At the same time, however, neither story can be fully decoded without a certain familiarity with the bedrock of the novel. Both are clearly picking up ideas that River of Gods touched on, but perhaps didn’t explore in as much depth as they could stand; but because one person sees less of the world than ten, there are some things we never find out. This is from the start of “The Djinn’s Wife”:

I was born in Ladakh, far from the heat of the djinns—they have walls and whims quite alien to humans—but my mother was Delhi born and raised, and from her I knew its circuses and boulevards, its maidans and chowks and bazaars, like those of my own Leh. Delhi to me was a city of stories, and so if I tell the story of the djinn’s wife in the manner of a sufi legend or a tale from the Mahabharata, or even a tivi soap opera, that is how it seems to me: City of Djinns.

(Both stories, I feel obliged to say, are blighted by the patronising italics evident in the above quote. There’s no reason for them—both narrators are natives—and given the extent to which McDonald mixes up idioms and jargon, as anyone who has read River of Gods will be able to appreciate, such highlighting becomes rapidly annoying, and at times outright absurd.)

The last comparison is the most significant. The Djinn of the title is, as we expect, an aeai, AJ Rao—a diplomat, but also a player in India’s prime-time soap opera hit, Town and Country. In River of Gods, that show and all its players turned out to be part of a superintelligent aeai, tools by which that being attempted to understand how humans story their lives. In “The Djinn’s Wife” Town and Country is the background, the reflection of the surface tale—but knowing its deeper purpose gives events greater resonance. AJ Rao’s marriage to Esha, a dancer, is told in larger-than-life terms at least partly because the narrator (we do learn their identity, at the end of the story) is used to seeing life as large, as soap. So the couple meet; they court; they have the wedding of the season; they are pulled (are driven) apart. They act out the expected stages of their romance for us. How much they have been stage-managed is an open question.

Similarly, the little goddess, a future reincarnation of the Kumari Devi, is drafted to serve as the end of someone else’s story. She has, for the early years of her life, no story of her own: no caste, no village, no family, no home; not even, unless I missed it, a name. She is raised to believe that the myth of others is her myth, and when she loses her divinity (on first bleeding) it’s a hard fall. She, like Esha, ends up in Delhi, but not as a dancer. Instead she signs on at a marriage market. Men outnumber women four to one in this future: now it’s husbands that pay the dowry. But the little goddess turns out to have a disappointingly low market value, until she catches the fancy of a Brahmin, one of the genetically blessed children of this India, a boy-king who lives twice as long as the rest of us, aging half as fast. A new god, we are told, and the irony is not lost. He is gifted with the youth that betrayed the little goddess to her humanity.

It’s clear, then, that both “The Djinn’s Wife” and “The Little Goddess” are not just limited slices of this future, but are about situations that embody a similar sense of constraint; or, looked at another way, that they are both about cases that test the boundaries of their society. River of Gods featured only one marriage, and that of cold convenience, between the strait-laced Krishna Cop Mr Nandha and his quiet country wife Parvarti. These stories play variations on that theme: in “The Djinn’s Wife”, we are asked if love can find a way, while in “The Little Goddess” we are asked to consider the fate of those who don’t fit the system.

As in the novel, these questions are authentically bedded in Indian culture. The protocols that deal with them already exist (an elderly relative tells Esha that marrying Rao is “like marrying a Muslim, or even a Christian [...] not a real person”), but McDonald challenges them with new situations, connecting the human dilemmas of his stories intimately to the changing technologies available. The little goddess, for example, is warned that “the kind of special it takes to be Kumari means you will find it hard in the world”, and so it proves. To withstand the trials of being a goddess, she withdraws into herself to the point of becoming autistic, and develops a dissociative disorder that separates her self and her otherness for the sake of her sanity.

Yet “The Little Goddess” turns in the end on the difference between disorder and adaptation; while for Esha and Rao, who learn to make love in unorthodox fashion, part of what dooms the relationship is a resistance to change. The fate of both progatonists is determined by how far they are willing (or unwilling) to integrate with the aeai that surround them on a daily basis, how far they accept the future that permeates their lives. They are, in that sense, not just variations on Parvarti, but variations on Aj, the driftwood girl at the heart of River of Gods—the girl who was, like Town and Country, a tool for aeais trying to understand humanity.

These stories balance their big brother in one final way: their location. River of Gods took place primarily in Varanasi, the capital of Bharat. In “The Djinn’s Wife” and “The Little Goddess” we see events leading up to one of the novel’s key events from the other side, the neighbouring state of Awadh. Both stories end in tension, on the brink of a water-war, near or after the day when Awadh signs the USA’s Hamilton Acts and outlaws any aeai above a 2.8 (indistinguishable from human 95% of the time; it is the godlike gen-threes, seeking refuge in the data-havens of Bharat, that drive River of Gods). In doing so they make Esha’s husband an instant rogue and the little goddess an instant fugitive. The world intervenes. We have free will, these stories seem to say, but we don’t have free choice. Our stories are part of one story: we are all tributaries. We flow together, our fates bound up in the current.

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5 Responses to “Tributaries”

  1. Abigail Says:

    I’ve said this elsewhere, but I did think that “The Little Goddess” recreated River of Gods, particularly in the similarities between the story’s main character and Aj (with heavy dollops of Parvati thrown in). It felt very much as if McDonald was using leftover pieces of the novel to retread ground that had already been sufficiently covered. I don’t see that the story is inherently more personal than the novel – in fact, given the main character’s protective detachment, it is far less emotionally engaging than the novel. I’ll have to give “The Djinn’s Wife” a look.

  2. Niall Says:

    As I said, I think I was just constantly aware of all the background that was being left out; partly because of the first-person perspective, partly because we were seeing things from Awadh rather than Bharat. And yes, the main character is emotionally detached from the world, but I didn’t feel that I was emotionally detached from her; in fact I felt very comfortable in her head. So that again made me feel like I was seeing things from a new perspective. That said, you’re right about the similarities with both Aj and Parvarti. The stories work better as a set, I think, because you can see it really is variations on a theme, not just recycling.

    P.S. The above may be complete nonsense because I’m thoroughly jet-lagged. BUT IN JAPAN!

  3. Lal Says:

    I can see why italics would be distracting in the context of a first-person narrative, but I remember reading a story where the ‘foreign’ words were not in italics and sometimes it wasn’t clear if the word was foreign or misspelt (since the word resembled an English word that fit the context of the sentence).

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