Cyberabad Days is a fully realized vision of a near-future India — indeed, of a near-future world in which India is a major player, even more so than today. Ian McDonald’s prose sparkles, the plots of the stories are uniformly tight, but it is the imagination, the picture of the future, that really works here. If you want that “sense of wonder” that science fiction is most famous for, this is the place to find it.
Cyberabad Days is set in the same universe as McDonald’s River of Gods, a highly praised novel that won the British Science Fiction Award in 2005, and received nominations for the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. In the seven stories of Cyberabad Days, linked by setting and technology but not by characters, McDonald imagines a mature India split asunder by politics and the ubiquity of artificial intelligence, but still a cluster of countries that constitutes a major world power. These are countries of immense contradiction, where the rich are richer than ever and the poor are completely left behind as technology changes, even completely transforms, those who can afford access to it.
The stories are arranged so as to gently introduce the reader to this near-future world. “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” begins the book with a tale of warriors who are really young men operating remote robots — and how quickly they become obsolete in a world changing at an incredibly rapid pace. Traditional warfare is also the theme of “Kyle Meets the River,” but it tells the story of how Western ideas are so alien to India that they become nonsensical. East and West cannot meet in this story; mingling is actually dangerous, or so the privileged members of the West believe.
The growing use and presence of aeais (we’d write it as AIs, meaning “artificial intelligences”) and other highly advanced technologies truly begins to come to the fore in “The Dust Assassin.” This tale, highly reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” is about one family’s revenge on another, which all but destroyed it. The revenge theme also reminds one of the Chinese proverb, “If you seek revenge, dig two graves.” No one truly survives this sad and bloody story.
The consequences of the use of abortion to choose the sex of one’s child are played out in “An Eligible Boy.” By the time of this story, that is, the middle of the twenty-first century, men hugely outnumber women in the middle class:
Economists teach India’s demographic crisis as an elegant example of market failure. Its seed germinated in the last century, before India became Tiger of Tiger economies, before political jealousies and rivalries split her into twelve competing states. A lovely boy, was how it began. A fine, strong, handsome, educated, successful son, to marry and raise children and to look after us when we are old. Every mother’s dream, every father’s pride. Multiply by the three hundred million of India’s emergent class. Divide by the ability to determine sex in the womb. Add selective abortion. Run twenty-five years down the x-axis, factoring in refined, twenty-first-century techniques such as cheap, powerful pharma patches that ensure lovely boys will be conceived and you arrive at great Awadh, its ancient capital Delhi of twenty million, and a middle class with four times as many males as females. Market failure. Individual pursuit of self-interest damages larger society. Elegant to economists; to fine, strong, handsome, educated, successful young men like Jasbir caught in a wife-drought, catastrophic.
The competition to catch a wife is enormous, which means that men must do every single thing they possibly can to make themselves desirable, from superficial ploys like radical dentistry to whiten the teeth to more sophisticated plots like using hidden aeais from moment to moment to suggest conversational gambits. And perhaps, when all else fails, there is another option to taking a female as a wife.
One of my favorite stories in this collection is “The Little Goddess,” about a girl who is appointed as — in religious thought, literally becomes — the incarnation of a goddess as a very young child, chosen by surviving a gauntlet of horrors we in the West would never consider deliberately exposing a child to. The rules for her reign are that she no longer has a family, but is attended by two servants, called Kumarimas. She is confined to her palace, and leaves only six times a year, when she is carried in a palanquin; she cannot touch the earth, for if she does so, she will cease to be divine. And she cannot shed blood, not from a scrape or scratch, certainly not from menstruation. The minute she bleeds a single drop, the devi leaves her and she becomes merely human once again and is to be returned to her family.
All is well for many years — really, until the hormones of a typical young woman start to kick in, despite drugs taken to delay her maturation. And even then it is not her physical body but her mental and emotional development that lead to her downfall, and she is once again human. But of what use in the world is a former goddess? She is a novelty. Untrained to take up any of the tasks of a woman in India, she cannot find a husband even in a woman-starved world. At least, that is, until she is purchased by a Brahmin, a term that we find has an entirely different meaning in this brave new world than it does in ours. And her solution to this problem is even more dramatic. There is not a single false step in this story, which is so rich in both culture and technology that, once read, it cannot be forgotten.
“The Djinn’s Wife” is the tale of a woman who marries an aeai, and precisely how that works. More, though, it tells us how certain countries are coming to distrust aeais, even to outlaw them, and gives us the political reasons for these actions.
The education in realpolitik continues in “Vishnu at the Cat Circus,” which was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula. In this story, one of the Brahmins grows up, with all of the talents built into him at their greatest. What does such a man do? What does he become? Where does he find his equals? What kind of progeny will he produce? There is so very much in this story, from sexual politics to the effects of global warming to psychology to technology to mathematics. Reading it is like watching a fireworks display, with something new and wonderful to think of — with something terrible and dangerous to be afraid of — in virtually every paragraph.
By the time you finish Cyberabad Days, you will feel that you’ve learned something about the real India. You haven’t, not really, because this India is not the India of our world. It could be, though; it very well might be on the path to becoming the powerhouse it is in this collection. This is science fiction at its very best, challenging intellectually yet stylistically well-executed. These stories make you think, imagine and wonder even as they entertain. This collection is not to be missed.