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Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald

01/12/2009. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy Cyberabad Days in the USA - or Buy Cyberabad Days in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 313 page enlarged paperback. Price: 12.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08408-7.

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One thing that novice writers are always told, 'write about what you know'! In most areas of creative writing this is sound advice. It doesn't, however, mean that you have to stick to events in your own life or there would not be shelves of excellent historical or crime novels in bookshops and libraries. Knowledge comes from research, travel, extrapolation and talking to people. Science Fiction is always a tricky one; after all, we can only know the future in retrospect, regardless of what astrologers will suggest. However, extrapolation based on knowledge is something that theoretical statisticians, economists and meteorologists do every day. So why not writers as well?

It is probably the injunction to write about what you know that leads to the majority of SF novels to be very Anglo-American centric. The main characters think, speak and behave like the people in the author's country of origin. It is thus very refreshing to find an author who is prepared to break away from those expectations. In his novel, 'River Of Gods', Ian McDonald created a cast from which Westerners were virtually excluded. It was set in a future India, dealing with problems that India is likely to face. The impression is of an India at the centre of world events. It is colourful, courageous and utterly convincing.

'Cyberabad Days' is a collection set in the same time and place. They are stories of the people of this future India, each one touching on an aspect of this new society. Due to the problems brought on by climate change, India, always prone to drought and the vagaries of the monsoon has severe water problem. The country has disintegrated into a number of smaller states, two of whom rely on the Ganges river for life support. There are wars between states.

In 'Sanjeev And The Robotwallah', Sanjeev is a boy who, from the first time he sees a Battlebot, is fascinated and the teen-agers, not many years older than he is, are real cool. He wants to be like his idols. When the robotwallahs offer him a job he is in heaven, even though all he is expected to do is clean up and keep house for them. But he is paid good money and can be around them as they control the robots, not from within the machine as he first thought, but remotely. They are good in the way that many teenagers are good with computer games. Then the war ends and the robotwallahs have nothing to do. It is a kind of rite of passage story with Sanjeev discovering that his heroes are also human.

'Kyle Meets The River' is a story about prejudice against the unknown, including against technology, and the vulnerability of parents. The river is the Ganges. Kyle lives in a gated community in Rajapur, the capital of the new country of Bharat. His father is a construction engineer, his best friend is Salim who is the only Indian boy to attend the International School within the community's walls. To most of the other boys, Salim is different and like everyone outside, dangerous. Salim, though, has the new technology with which he and Kyle can visit a virtual world and watch evolution in progress. Kyle's mother is dead set against this game. When things come to a head, Kyle has to make choices and discover what is really important.

'The Dust Assassin' is a kind of futuristic fairy tale with a sting. Two wealthy families are at war, literally, over the control of the water resources. The daughter of one family is told by her father that she is a weapon. When the Azads attack, they kill everyone except Padmini. Remembering her father's words, she tries to find the way that she can kill Salim Azad and avenge her family's honour. Things do not quite work out how she envisaged them. To a certain extent, the title leads the reader along the right path, especially after a seer tells Padmini's future.

'An Eligible Boy' looks at the problems that arise from a historic desire to have sons. In the disgraceful parts of India's past, girls have been killed at birth or aborted when their sex was known. Now, girls are a rare commodity. The parents of boys have to pay the dowry and probably only one son will find a wife. To this end, there is the shaadi, which is a dating party. Jasbir is his family's eligible boy. To help him, he has a virtual mentor, who whispers in his ear, via a tiny Internet link, the correct questions to ask and the correct answers. The problem is, some modern women have found ways to play the system - they want more than being a nice compliant wife. The story exposes some of the pitfalls for young men who are now in surplus. In the marriage stakes, women now have the upper hand.

'The Little Goddess' is a story about exploitation. The belief of the gods is still present in this India, strong in some areas. The narrator is chosen to represent the goddess as a young child when she exhibits the symptoms of schizophrenia. She will be the goddess until she bleeds. She is exploited for religious reasons until she cuts a finger in an accident. Then she is rejected, turned out with nothing. However, a bride-buyer is willing to exploit her previous status and finds her a husband. He is a Brahmin, a genetically tweaked person who ages at half the rate of normal people. She flees from him on her wedding night. At this time, some of India's states are introducing the Hamilton Acts. This means that level 3 AIs are to be destroyed. Not all states sign up so our narrator agrees to smuggle AIs across the border into Bharat. Her mental condition makes her ideal as she can carry several at a time inside her head. However, the noose tightens on the smugglers and if she is caught, she will be killed.

'The Djinn's Wife' looks at a different aspect of the emergent technology. We are used to seeing people walking around with Bluetooth receivers in their ears. Phones have Internet connections. Combine the two and you get an Internet connection that is transmitted straight to the brain snuggled behind the ear. Dancer Esha Rathore attracts the attention of A. J. Rao a level 3 AI. He is also an actor is in India's most popular soap, 'Town And Country'. Through this device, they can communicate and, to her, it as if he is a real as any other person. The story highlights the problems of immersing oneself too much in a virtual reality, particularly as the Hamilton Acts are aimed at preventing just such liaisons.

'Vishnu At The Cat Circus' deals with the problems that designer children can have as they grow up. Vishnu is the second child of parents who must have the next best thing. He is born a Brahmin. His genes have been tweaked so that he will live twice as long as normal people, but will mature physically at half the rate. At twenty, he has the appearance of a ten year-old but the mental processes of a young man his chronological age. His brother resents him but is a genius in communication technology in his own right. As the story unfolds, Vishnu realises that his brother's plans are perhaps a step too far.

All the stories here could be regarded as a warning against taking some current strategy too far. They are excellent, well-crafted stories aimed to provoke the thoughtful reader.

Pauline Morgan

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