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Un-convincing vision of India's future
on 6 November 2009
I read Cyberabad Days after immensely enjoying Brasyl and finding this for a decent price second-hand, and was quite disappointed. My overall problem is believability in the pessimistic future McDonald presents, which can be broken down into several separate problems. The foremost of which, for me, was the treatment of women.
In "The Little Goddess", the woman is made a Goddess as a child, for seven years, then winds up in a place where she is waiting to be married. (Women are in great demand, as there are four times as many men after sex selection was made possible.) After fleeing her husband, she works for another man, smuggling AIs, until she winds up fleeing police with 5 AIs in her head and decides to set herself up as a roadside goddess, using the knowledge of these AIs to appear wise. Quick aside: I wanted this story to start there, not end.
In "An Eligible Boy", we see a scenario where men show up at dating agencies, hunting for brides. In "The Djinn's Wife", the main character was sold as a girl, trained to be a dancer, is now reasonably famous with an AI in love with her, and in a fit of jealousy at another woman's success announces that she and the AI are getting married. She eventually betrays him, as the relationship fails.
In "The Dust Assassin", a young woman is told repeatedly she's a weapon against a rival family business, and eventually the way in which she's a weapon is revealed: a romantic act that she has been manipulated into by other members of her family.
I can't remember now which one, but in a story there's a mention of the "small" number of career women.
There's kind a trend here. Women are steered, lives slotted into other people's, rather than driving their own plots. Women are wives, or are wanted/used in other ways. I'd like to read the Little Goddess' story after McDonald's story ends, because that's the act of most agency she showed and I want to know how she leads her life after it.
I am pretty sure that right now, there are women in India who direct their own lives. In forty years' time, I rather suspect (hope, at least) that even more women are in control of their careers, that women are more than pretty in-demand wives. I'm sure there will also be women who are not, but does McDonald really have to tell their stories above all others? There's a woman in "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" who had a career, yes; she also had cosmetic surgery and desperately wanted to birth the best babies. Where are the women who live outside the expectations or machinations of others? There is one, the main character's sister in that same story, but she is only a side character. She's killed off, too, because of her choices. It disappoints me that McDonald's future is so negative about women; I also don't believe it.
Another part of the future that I don't believe is the separation of India into smaller states. None of the stories offered an explanation why. There are metaphors in "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" that hint at internal divisions, perhaps driven by outside influences, but I wanted more explanation. Even more problematically, I wanted to see differences between the various states, to see convincing reasons why they are still separate. Two of the new states featured prominently in the stories and I couldn't tell them apart.
Neither was I particularly impressed with the AIs in the stories. They tended to act just like humans with petty desires and so on (although I suspect the Level 3 AIs would act differently, but they sadly lack page-time). There's an AI soap opera, for instance.
Two small syntax issues:
- McDonald has a tendency to drop commas when he's showing excitement or myriad sights/sensory impressions at once, a technique that is occasionally fun, but wears thin. Especially when every single viewpoint character does it. Variety in narrative voice is a good thing.
- Another little annoying thing he does with language is write `aeai' instead of `AI', which really started to grate after 200 pages. There are other alternate words, some of which I didn't mind; `gupshup' for `gossip' annoyed me, though. I guess this is very much a personal preference thing, but I wonder at the necessity, especially of `aeai'.
He also has a third gender, nutes, who are (with two exceptions) in traditionally feminine industries and tend to the faaabulous. The idea of a third gender really interests me -- Thailand's katoey, for instance -- and I wanted the complexity of this to be examined more. Instead they're mostly a cross between stereotypical gay men and old clichés about eunuchs. Decorative exotic flavour, not part of an interesting story.
Going back to the pessimism I mentioned at the beginning, I found myself overall doubting McDonald's vision of India's future. It's hard to explain exactly why, except for that pessimistic/critical tone just not ringing true. To be honest, I wanted to read a vision of India's future written by an Indian person, because I suspect they'd have a different -- and more nuanced, more true -- slant on their country. I could never quite shake the impression that I was reading stories by a white man, and that's not a complimentary comment in this context.
Which is why it annoys me that McDonald gets all this praise for being "visionary" and "revolutionary" by writing about non-Western futures. I'd rather read Zelazny's Lord of Light, and that's about a group of non-Indians pretending to be Hindu gods. At least it wears its problematic nature on its sleeve. It also treats the source material with intelligence. McDonald's writing is more subtly wrong: he writes about this exotic, faraway place with the level of detail that will enthrall and convince many readers, yet his extrapolations feel like harmful lies about India.
I'd also rather read books/stories by Nalo Hopkinson, Geoff Ryman, Nnedi Okorafor, Vandana Singh and Maureen McHugh, to name five writers whose work I've enjoyed, who write convincingly and thoughtfully about non-Western futures. They are hardly alone. McDonald is really not revolutionary at all.