Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison

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A Conversation About River of Gods

In most of my spare time last week I was rereading and working on a review of River of Gods, for Foundation. During this period I was, well ... 'tediously obsessed' would not be too strong a way of putting it. However, I thought the following conversation with immortalradical might be of interest to those who've read the book, as a little light (!) bank holiday reading, and he agreed, so here it is. It started with me quoting a particular passage:
How Thomas Lull knows he is un-American: he hates cars but loves trains, Indian trains, big trains like a nation on the move. He is content with the contradiction that they are at once hierarchical and democratic, a temporary community brought together for a time; vital while it lasts, burning away like early mist when the terminus is reached. All journey is pilgrimage and India is a pilgrim nation. Rivers, grand trunk roads, trains; these are sacred things across all India's many nations. For thousands of years people have been flowing over this vast diamond of land. All is riverrun, meeting, a brief journey together, then dissolution.

Western thought rebels against this. Western thought is car thought. Freedom of movement. Self-direction. Individual choice and expression and sex on the back seat. The great car society. Throughout literature and music, trains have been engines of fate, drawing the individual blindly, inexorably towards death. Trains ran through the double gates of Auschwitz, right up to the shower sheds. India has no such understanding of trains. It is not where the unseen engine is taking you; it is what you see from the window, what you say to your fellow travellers for you all go together. Death is a vast, crowded terminus of half-heard announcements and onward connections on new lines, new journeys. Changing trains. (p200)

NH: I think that, right there, is the aesthetic of this novel. Indian vs. Western; community vs. individual; interaction and experience and change as emergent properties of the world.

DH: This was actually one of my mild problems with the novel: that distinction (Indian as community, Western as individual) seems to me horribly simplistic and even facile. It works OK, but can never quite escape the fact that it doesn't quite convince. Fortunately, the other good things in the book mitigate this slightly artificial opposition.

NH: Well, it works for me because it's never stated that baldly in the novel proper. And I think I stated it the wrong way around; really it's 'community vs individual' and then umpteen variations on that theme, only one of which is Indian vs. Western.

DH: Perhaps. 'Indian versus Western' as a variation on 'community versus individual' is still a little simplistic, though. What I like about the rest of the novel is the way in which it defies such reductive distinctions. It may even be that you're imposing that opposition on the text, whereas in fact what's there is a much more complex debate about a much more nebulous concept--identity.

NH: There's a continuum, certainly. The way the gen-3 aeais (or the city-states of India) overlap and are interdependent, for example. But I think too much is made of the fact that everyone exists in their own world, in either literal or metaphorical fashion, and that what we understand as the world is in fact a patchwork of everyone's experiences, with nobody seeing the whole picture, to discount the opposition entirely. People at one end, the world at the other, everything else in between. Or something.

DH: But that's not individual versus community, is it? Because, in a very real sense, there is no community beyond what individuals imagine into existence. Which is why I suggested the novel is actually about 'identity' and its creation: do we concern ourselves only with our own identity, or do we seek to create a broader and wider identity into which we can fit more than our own selfish desires? Do we settle for the life of the vacuous runaway comedian or aspire to be the director of own business-with-a-social-conscience? (A poorly thought-out analysis, but it's been a while. :P)

Most of the characters have in one way constructed an identity for themselves, and also had one constructed for them (Tal's mixes being his private space away from the expectations society has of him, for example). So, again, I'm not sure we are looking at a book about individual versus community, but about individuals seeking to create identities for themselves, for the consumption of others, and for society as a whole. It's this latter creation that is hardest to maintain, and, it can be argued, with which India has more experience, both in constructing and watching crumble.

NH: You say 'imagine', but I'm not convinced that's the right word. Social groups exist; that everyone in them has a different perception of what a given grouping represents or how it works doesn't mean the group has no external reality. In the book, this comes out through M-star theory--every possible universe is real, cyberspace as much as any other.

It also feels to me a little like you're just defining 'identity' in a way that allows you to not use 'community'! But you're right about the importance of Tal, he's probably the character who most clearly illustrates the dichotomy--the whole concept of nutes 'Stepping Away', and then finding that actually, they can't separate themselves from the world. It's a shame yt's arguably the least well-drawn character, because I think yt might be quite key.

And your observation that most of the characters have the identities they have constructed for themselves and identities others have constructed for them is excellent, and I must think on it more.

DH: You're right that social groups have external reality, and your point about M-Star Theory is an excellent one. I agree--'imagine' is not the right word, and I knew that when I used it (hell, I've had an argument with Jeff Vandermeer about a similar usage of the word!), but 'community' in River of Gods certainly does not come into being on its own. It has to be not just created but maintained by those who seek to define it. Like a bonsai tree, but big. Erm ... Yes. Like I said my original review, there's something of both Forster and Rushdie here--an admiration for, and an exasperation with, India's insistence on denying categorisation.

Communities clearly exist in River of Gods, from the religious through to the scientific and political. I take issue not with the existence of community in the novel, but your idea that it is held in opposition to the individual. As you note using the example of Tal, I rather think that they are presented as in symbiosis, and it is the responsibility of each of the characters to recognise that they are both figures in their own right and components of something larger. I'm unconvinced that either the West or India has a monopoly on solving this equation--in fact, India may have more difficulty (but therefore, as I say, more experience) with it.

It isn't Western versus Indian, individual versus community ... it's Western + Indian, individual + community.

NH: One of the things I really like is the way the whole debate is linked into the concept of the singularity. It's one of the most satisfying and freshest dissections of what is, let's face it, rapidly becoming a cliche, that I've read. At one point Lull points out that 'intelligence is not an absolute thing, it's always environment-specific', which is absolutely goddamned spot-on right. Aeais are different, they will think differently than we do. And it makes a good abstract demonstration of the human tendency to lash out when scared or confused.

It's interesting that to set up this conflict McDonald has to leave out one of the most common tropes of cyber-fiction, though: uploading. There's one brief mention of it as a quite esoteric thing, but it can't be too common because then there would be competition (although there is one character going the other way, of course). And to loop back to the previous discussion, can you have synthesis of worldviews (humans as singular, aeais as multiple) without that linking factor? If there's no way through, aren't you stuck with an opposition?

DH: But to have synthesis you have to first have thesis and antithesis, and I still refute the idea that the book holds individual and community in that opposition. There's no need for that sort of solution to the problem if the problem doesn't exist in that form in the first place.

Like every other book about India, River of Gods features religion heavily. Like humans and aeais, there's no way Muslims and Hindus can ever come together and create peace and harmony. Rather, they have to each create an identity for themselves that does not put them into direct competition and confrontation. It's a typical Indian novel--one that looks not for one solution to the problem of community, but many. Because life is complicated like that--more complicated that the academic simplicity of Platonic dialectic.

NH: Put like that, it's a rather pessimistic book, isn't it? And more to the point, only one solution actually works, which is for the aeais to bugger off to their own universe.

DH: No, not unless you believe in the desirability of uniformity. Of course certain types of person cannot cross-polinate - diversity is the spice of life. ("The temple of another creed, Hindu, Christian or Greek, would have bored him and failed to awaken his sense of beauty." Dr. Aziz, A Passage to India)

So the aeais' solution is to create a community for themselves, and for humans themselves to imagine and respect that community, yes. But you're completely missing the point that the humans have created such communities, too--they're just less explicitly apart from each other. The nutes have their own clubs and rules, the Muslims their own places of worship and political groupings, the rich their own suburbs and style of architecture. India has traditionally been used as a way to examine chaos and collision ("India is a muddle"--Mr Fielding, A Passage To India), and the genius of River of Gods is that it that it translates this idea into science fiction. But you can't examine the aeai solution in isolation.

NH: It's not about believing in the desirability of uniformity, it's about whether dialogue is possible or not. What happens is not that the aeai create their own community that is respected by humans--what happens is that the humans have singularly failed to respect the community of aeai, so the aeai make one that the humans literally cannot access. They go where humans cannot, to escape. Similarly Parvarti becomes convinced that Hindu/Muslim coexistence is impossible and that she has to leave.

DH: But the position of the novel being largely that, in diverse communities such as this, you have to allow its sections that sort of space. I'm not sure there was a community of the aeai before they created one for themselves--which is again the point about each of us having to create an identity for ourselves. But this isn't a book about aeais--it's a book about human responses. And some of the most crucial plots concern humans beginning to understand what is happening to the aeais, and beginning to recognise the nature and necessity of what they are doing (Lull especially). It's as important that our identities are created or at least acknowledged by others as it is that they are created by ourselves.

I don't think that 'coexistence' and 'dialogue' are the same thing. But novels about India of this sort do tend to be more resigned to the necessity of division. I don't think that's necessarily pessimistic, or precludes the possibility of dialogue, negotiation, and even a wider unity. Although, in creating an India already segmented from the one we know today, I don't think the novel is telling us that unity is very close--partly, I think, because we still haven't grasped the 'necessity of division' thing.

NH: You may question whether there was a community of the aeai before they created one, but Lull more or less guesses that competition wasn't inevitable in the passage mentioned above, and Jivanjee confims it to Najia later. It's the Hamilton acts and the Krishna cops that broke the status quo; perceived the aeais as a threat to be destroyed, and then suddenly there are only three left and they have to look for solutions.

Obviously you're right, this setup is there to mirror the human concerns, not the other way around--but it's clearly one of the central metaphors of the book, and it seems to me that the aeais' form of coexistence is one that refuses dialogue. Remember, it's Aj's reaction to what it is to be human that triggers the final exodus. Maybe that's realistic, rather than pessimistic, but it's certainly not optimistic.

Can you expand on what you mean when you say that we haven't grasped the necessity of division?

DH: Well, competition not being inevitable has nothing to do with whether or not people perceive it to be inevitable: if they wanted to, the Muslims and the Hindus could probably come to some accord, but their own beliefs and perceptions of themselves are more important than their desire for a wider unity (if they have one). The fact that the aeais have become persecuted and ghettoised does not necessarily mean that they had a community before--what it means is that they were part of a wider community until such time as someone thought they were Different and therefore needed separating out. Indeed, what gave them their identity as a group that shared and interest was the way in which they were persecuted by the other group, which neatly brings me to the expansion you wanted.

India is very diverse and difficult to govern. So, what do humans decide to do? Split it up into competing factions. Aeais are different to humans and have different ways of thinking. So, what do humans decide to do? Persecute them. Hindus have different religious beliefs to Muslims, so what do Muslims decide to do? Hate them. Time and again, the instinctive response to disagreement in the book is not dialogue but further stratification. We can create as many identities for ourselves as we like, but until we also acknowledge and understand those identities that others create, our 'communities' will indeed deliberately set out to isolate themselves from each other.

NH: Well, exactly. And you're saying this is not a pessimistic outlook? So much for multiculturalism...

DH: Multiculturalism is a very Western concept, though, and one that is rooted in a culture that doesn’t hold religion as important as India’s culture does. Can Muslims and Hindus come together without diluting their competing beliefs (and if not, why should they?)? And can aeais and humans come together in a form other than the cyborg (which is, naturally, not quite human and not quite aeai)? We create identities and our identities have rules – otherwise they would not be identities, and our communities would be formless. This is a book that says 'This is what happens. Why?' In providing us with some reasons, it suggests that there are solutions. As I said in our very first discussion, this is no Stand on Zanzibar--because it embraces change as desirable, it can't be accused of saying 'and so shall it always be'. It just says, ‘So it is for now’.

He's a smart man, that Mr Hartland, and will undoubtedly be pleased to hear that I've ordered A Passage to India from Amazon. His original review (from which it seems I inadvertently stole an entire phrase) is here. I should also say that many of my thoughts on the book were shaped by greengolux' review at The Alien Online.
Tags: book review, ian mcdonald, india, river of gods

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  • Black Swan Green

    Everyone wants a reputation, with the possible exception of people who already have one. It's probably somewhat gauche to start off a review on this…

  • The Accidental

    About a quarter of the way into Ali Smith's lively tale of a disrupted family holiday and its aftermath, we learn exactly what it is that the mother,…

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