After a novel as thorough as River of Gods (2004), any add-ons have to earn their keep. The stories collected in Cyberabad Days do so by fleshing out the timeline of the future, and (perhaps less nerdily) fleshing out perspectives excluded from River of Gods — and not just in the sense that none of the characters live in Bharat, the seat of the novel’s action. So, for example, in the first story, “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” (2007), we see the collapse of our India into the nation-states of McDonald’s novel, and the arrival of the “lighthoek” personal computing devices that will become ubiquitous; and we see it through the eyes of a village boy who becomes a combat-robot fan, is drawn into the circle of the child-soldiers who remote-pilot them, and confronted with the terrible mundanity of war. Convincing youthful perspectives are a feature of the book, actually, from the bratty Westerner in “Kyle Meets the River” (2006), whose father is involved in (redundant) nation-building efforts after India fractures, to “An Eligible Boy” (2006) caught, by changing demographics, in a wife-drought. The first-person, subjective account is also common, with slightly more mixed results: Hugo-winner “The Little Goddess” (2005) reads even better this time around, smoothly exploring McDonald’s future from the perspective of another kind of outsider, a young girl chosen as the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, while “The Dust Assassin” (2008) is probably the closest thing the collection has to a weak story; it’s not long, but feels too long for the ground it covers. “The Djinn’s Wife” (2006) conceals the identity of its narrator until its final page, and in doing so plays with the idea of McDonald’s India as “exotic”, as a location for outlandish tales. Each story’s protagonist, however, is their own person; each provides an angle we haven’t had before, each explores new facets of the social and technological changes that run through this future.
Put another way:
India is her people and we are all only, ultimately, the heroes of our own lives. There is only one hero’s journey and that leads from the birth-slap to the burning-ghat. We are a billion and a half heroes. (297)
(Or indeed: “if it were a different man preparing to blow up the same bridge it would be a different story. Most idea-driven SF that purports to treat of character misses that.”)
The blockquote is from near the end of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, the collection’s only original work; although to compare it to any of the other tales in the book feels rather unfair, since at a shade under 100 pages it truly is a short novel, not a short story, and surely would be published and considered as such in any other genre. Couched as the seemingly-garrulous life story of an aging Brahmin, one of the genetic elite of River of Gods — engineered to live twice as long and age twice as fast as regular humans — it is both a brilliant study of another convincingly different character and, because a crucial part of that difference is the ability to see “the connectedness of things … the biggest picture” (236), the most complete description McDonald has produced of this future history. I did feel just a little pandered-to by this, actually; the transparency of what elsewhere is left to inference, the pulling-together of many threads, the revelation of What Happens Next. But to linger on that feeling would be to sell “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” very short indeed, since it’s surely forgivable in a swansong to a setting as rich as this, and since (among other things) the story is, without ever being heavy-handed, precisely about the act of storying a future, of standing back as an author (or a critic) and trying to get a sense of the whole (the sense that River of Gods refuses to allow its characters), trying to make sense of the whole. Easily worth the price of admission, as they say; one of the best things I’ve read all year, in fact.