I don’t know if anyone has done a study of free will and determinism in science fiction, but if they haven’t, they should. I have an impression that most science fiction writers would prefer free will, but most science fiction universes are deterministic. Of course, this is partly because the Newtonian universe is deterministic: set something in motion and so long as you have all the requisite information you will know exactly where it ends. Science may have become less and less deterministic since then – relativity, chaos, etc – but that basic machine-like vision of the universe still tends to hold sway. Time travel stories are almost always deterministic, of course, and it is surprising how often science fiction stories, ouroburos-like, curl back upon themselves even if there is no overt time travel.

These thoughts are prompted by River of Gods by Ian McDonald (Simon & Schuster, 2004), in which he sets his story in probably the least deterministic culture on Earth, but when you analyse what is going on the story itself is deeply deterministic. This sets up a tension which works really well in terms of the narrative, but I found that paradoxically it drew my attention to the deterministic resolution of the story and that left me feeling uncomfortable, as if the story wasn’t really resolved.

Let me say straight away that River of Gods is undoubtedly McDonald’s longest novel, and very probably his best. I’ve heard it described as McDonald doing Rushdie, though that strikes me as a knee-jerk response to McDonald’s oft-remarked on habit of taking on the colouration of other writers. And it was pretty obvious that, for instance, Sacrifice of Fools was him re-doing Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy; though that didn’t stop it being a powerful and original work in its own right. River of Gods is nothing like that, all it really owes to Rushdie is the Indian setting and the fact that it is set around the centenary of Partition (though the publisher makes more of that that McDonald actually does).

It’s a big, fat book with a big, fat cast of characters. There are ten important, central viewpoint roles, which is perhaps too many. The first part of the book, in which they are introduced one by one, takes over 70 pages, a long time to hold on to our memories of those characters introduced first, and a long time to wait before their individual story threads can start to intertwine. It doesn’t help that he opens with one of the least attractive of the characters, though few of them are really attractive. Interestingly, although by the end of the book only two of them have been killed, all have suffered some major loss, and yet the book does not feel like a tragedy.

What McDonald has done very cleverly is use the characters to show the complexity of the world. It is a long time, now, since science fiction writers were able to make one significant change to set their story in motion, and then have everything else, from politics to social habits, appear indistinguishable from 1950s America. But there is still something impressive in the very depth of McDonald’s world creation here. We have global warming affecting the monsoon in India (a country that has already, and inexplicably, fractured into independent statelets); but the resultant drought doesn’t just mean painting scenes of arid landscapes, though the way the different classes in society respond to water is subtle and illuminating, it affects the politics of the country, it brings about war, it changes power structures. And that is only one of the strands of complexity in the novel.

The strand that is most closely entwined with the over-arching plot is the development of Generation 3 AIs (I was being particularly dumb when I started this novel, I was many pages in before I realised what ‘aeais’ were). This, significantly, is not just a technological issue, as science fiction writers a generation or two back would have made it. Fear of technology is a commonplace, so America has some years before forced through an international ban on anything more than a Generation 2.5 AI. But, in a development of today’s outsourcing of call centres to India, more advanced AIs have been developed by semi-criminal organisations in India, with (of course) the tacit backing of the USA. So this plot strand already incorporates developments in crime and in international relations. The AI development has also allowed the emergence of neuts, a body of the sexually dispossessed who have themselves surgically transformed into something neither male nor female. It has also allowed for the creation of what are called ‘Brahmins’, the genetically manipulated children of the rich and powerful who develop mentally at a very quick rate and physically at a very slow rate, so they can reach the peak of their intellectual powers and still have the body of an apparent ten-year-old. So the technology has also affected the social and sexual make-up of the country. What’s more, and most significantly in terms of the plot, AIs are used in the creation of the world’s most popular soap opera; in fact even the actors playing the roles in the soap opera are computer programs.

The way all these various aspects of a believably messy world interrelate through the experiences of the ten central characters is one of the joys of this novel. But then he has to go and pull his deterministic trick at the end, through the almost literal deus ex machina of an alien body in near-earth space that has been a structural anomaly in the shape of the novel right from the first time it is mentioned. It is still a good science fiction novel, but I can’t help feeling that if he had been prepared to sacrifice this device (which is, after all, one of the driving forces of the plot) it could have been a great novel.

First published at Livejournal, 1 December 2004.