This collection of seven stories and a thirty-one thousand word original novella revisits the vivid world of near future India that McDonald so successfully depicted in River of Gods (a BSFA Award winner). Readers will discover a new, muscular superpower of one and a half billion people in an age of artificial intelligences, climate-change induced drought, water wars, strange new genders, genetically improved children that age at half the rate of baseline humanity, and a population where males outnumber females four to one. This future India has fractured into a dozen states from Kerala to the headwaters of the Ganges in the Himalayas. Includes one Hugo Award nominee and one Hugo Award winner.
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About the Author
Ian McDonald is the author of Planesrunner, Be My Enemy, and Empress of the Sun, in the Everness series. He has written thirteen science fiction novelsincluding the 2011 John W. Campbell Memorial Award winner for Best Novel, The Dervish Houseas well as Brasyl, River of Gods, Cyberabad Days, Ares Express, Desolation Road, King of Morning, Queen of Day, Out on Blue Six, Chaga, and Kirinya. He's been nominated for every major science fiction award, and even won some. McDonald also works in television and in program developmentall those reality shows have to come from somewhereand has written for screen as well as print. He lives in Northern Ireland, just outside Belfast, and loves to travel.
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By IAN McDONALD
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One SANJEEV AND ROBOTWALLAH
Every boy in the class ran at the cry. Robotwar robotwar! The teacher called after them, Come here come here bad wicked things, but she was only a Business-English aeai and by the time old Mrs. Mawji hobbled in from the juniors only the girls remained, sitting primly on the floor, eyes wide in disdain and hands up to tell tales and name names.
Sanjeev was not a fast runner; the other boys pulled ahead of him as he stopped among the dal bushes for puffs from his inhalers. He had to fight for position on the ridge that was the village's highpoint, popular with chaperoned couples for its views over the river and the water plant at Murad. This day it was the inland view over the dal fields that held the attention. The men from the fields had been first up to the ridge; they stood, tools in hands, commanding all the best places. Sanjeev pushed between Mahesh and Ayanjit to the front.
"Where are they what's happening what's happening?"
"Soldiers over there by the trees."
Sanjeev squinted where Ayanjit was pointing but he could see nothing except yellow dust and heat shiver.
"Are they coming to Ahraura?"
"Delhi wouldn't bother with a piss-hole like Ahraura," said another man whose face Sanjeev knew-as he knew every face in Ahraura-if not his name. "It's Murad they're after. If they take that out, Varanasi will have to make a deal."
"Where are the robots, I want to see the robots."
Then he cursed himself for his stupidity, for anyone with eyes could see where the robots were. A great cloud of dust was moving down the north road and over it a flock of birds milled in eerie silence. Through the dust Sanjeev caught sunlight flashes of armour, clawed booted feet lifting, antennae bouncing, insect heads bobbing, weapon pods glinting. Then he and everyone else up on the high place felt the ridge begin to tremble to the march of the robots.
A cry from down the line. Four, six, ten, twelve flashes of light from the copse; streaks of white smoke. The flock of birds whirled up into an arrowhead and aimed itself at the trees. Airdrones, Sanjeev realised, and, in the same thought: Missiles! As the missiles reached their targets the cloud of dust exploded in a hammer of gunfire and firecracker flashes. It was all over before the sound reached the watchers. The robots burst unscathed from their cocoon of dust in a thundering run. "Cavalry charge!" Sanjeev shouted, his voice joining with the cheering of the men of Ahraura. Now hill and village quaked to the running iron feet. The wood broke into a fury of gunfire; the airdrones rose up and circled the copse like a storm. Missiles smoked away from the charging robots; Sanjeev watched weapon housings open and gunpods swing into position.
The cheering died as the edge of the wood exploded in a wall of flame. Then the robots opened up with their guns and the hush became awed silence. The burning woodland was swept away in the storm of gunfire; leaves, branches, trunks shredded into splinters. The robots stalked around the perimeter of the small copse for ten minutes, firing constantly as the drones circled over their heads. Nothing came out.
A voice down the line started shouting, "Jai Bharat! Jai Bharat!" but no one took it up and the man soon stopped. But there was another voice, hectoring and badgering, the voice of Schoolmistress Mawji labouring up the path with a lathi cane.
"Get down from there, you stupid stupid men! Get to your families, you'll kill yourselves."
Everyone looked for the story on the evening news, but bigger, flashier things were happening in Allahabad and Mirzapur; a handful of contras eliminated in an unplace like Ahraura did not rate a line. But that night Sanjeev became Number One Robot Fan. He cut out pictures from the papers and those pro-Bharat propaganda mags that survived Ahraura's omnivorous cows. He avidly watched J- and C-anime where andro-sexy kids crewed titanic battle droids until his sister Priya rolled her eyes and his mother whispered to the priest that she was worried about her son's sexuality. He pulled gigabytes of pictures from the world web and memorised manufacturers and models and serial numbers, weapon loads and options mounts, rates of fire and maximum speeds. He saved up the pin-money he made from helping old men with the computers the self-proclaimed Bharati government thought every village should have to buy a Japanese Trump game, but no one would play him at it because he had learned all the details. When he tired of flat pictures, he cut up old cans with tin-snips and brazed them together into model fighting machines: MIRACLE GHEE fast-pursuit drones, TITAN DRENCH perimeter-defence bots, RED COLA riot-control robots.
Those same old men, when he came round to set up their accounts and assign their passwords, would ask him, "Hey! You know a bit about these things; what's going on with all this Bharat and Awadh stuff? What was wrong with plain old India anyway? And when are we going to get cricket back on the satellite?"
For all his robot-wisdom, Sanjeev did not know. The news breathlessly raced on with the movements of politicians and breakaway leaders, but everyone had long ago lost all clear memory of how the conflict had begun. Naxalites in Bihar, an overmighty Delhi, those bloody Muslims demanding their own laws again? The old men did not expect him to answer; they just liked to complain and took a withered pleasure in showing the smart boy that he did not know everything.
"Well, as long as that's the last we see of them," they would say when Sanjeev replied with the spec of a Raytheon 380 Rudra I-war airdrone, or an Akhu scout mecha and how much much better they were than any human fighter. Their general opinion was that the Battle of Vora's Wood-already growing back-was all the War of Separation Ahraura would see.
It was not. The men did return. They came by night, walking slowly through the fields, their weapons easily sloped in their hands. Those that met them said they had offered them no hostility, merely raised their assault rifles and shooed them away. They walked through the entire village, through every field and garden, up every gali and yard, past every byre and corral. In the morning their bootprints covered every centimetre of Ahraura. Nothing taken, nothing touched. What was that about? the people asked. What did they want?
They learned two days later when the crops began to blacken and wither in the fields and the animals, down to the last pi-dog, sickened and died.
Sanjeev would start running when their car turned into Umbrella Street. It was an easy car to spot, a big military Hummer that they had pimped Kaliblack and red with after-FX flames that seemed to flicker as it drove past you. But it was an easier car to hear: everyone knew the thud thud thud of Desimetal that grew guitars and screaming vocals when they wound down the window to order food, food to go. And Sanjeev would be there, What can I get you, sirs? He had become a good runner since moving to Varanasi. Everything had changed since Ahraura died.
The last thing Ahraura ever did was make that line in the news. It had been the first to suffer a new attack. Plaguewalkers was the popular name; the popular image was dark men in chameleon camouflage walking slowly through the crops, hands outstretched as if to bless, but sowing disease and blight. It was a strategy of desperation-deny the separatists as much as they could-and only ever partially effective; after the few first attacks plaguewalkers were shot on sight.
But they killed Ahraura, and when the last cow died and the wind whipped the crumbled leaves and the dust into yellow clouds, the people could put it off no longer. By car and pickup, phatphat and country bus they went to the city; and though they had all sworn to hold together, family by family they drifted apart in Varanasi's ten million and Ahraura finally died.
Sanjeev's father rented an apartment on the top floor of a block on Umbrella Street and put his savings into a beer-and-pizza stall. Pizza pizza, that is what they want in the city, not samosas or tiddy-hoppers or rasgullahs. And beer, Kingfisher and Godfather and Bangla. Sanjeev's mother did light sewing and gave lessons in deportment and Sanskrit, for she had learned that language as part of her devotions. Grandmother Bharti and little sister Priya cleaned offices in the new shining Varanasi that rose in glass and chrome beyond the huddled, peeling houses of old Kashi. Sanjeev helped out at the stall under the rows of tall neon umbrellas-useless against rain and sun both but magnetic to the party-people, the night-people, the badmashes and fashion-girlis-that gave the street its name. It was there that he had first seen the robotwallahs.
It had been love at first sight the night that Sanjeev saw them stepping down Umbrella Street in their slashy Ts and bare sexy arms with Krishna bangles and henna tats, cool cool boots with metal in all the hot places and hair spiked and gelled like on one of those J-anime shows. The merchants of Umbrella Street edged away from them, turned a shoulder. They had a cruel reputation. Later Sanjeev was to see them overturn the stall of a pakora man who had irritated them, eve-tease a woman in a business sari who had looked askance at them, smash up the phatphat of a taxi driver who had thrown them out for drunkenness, but that first night they were stardust and he wanted to be them with a want so pure and aching and impossible it was tearful joy. They were soldiers, teen warriors, robotwallahs. Only the dumbest and cheapest machines could be trusted to run themselves; the big fighting bots carried human jockeys behind their aeai systems. Teenage boys possessed the best combination of reflex speed and viciousness, amped up with fistfuls of combat drugs.
"Pizza pizza pizza!" Sanjeev shouted, running up to them. "We got pizza every kind of pizza and beer, Kingfisher beer, Godfather beer, Bangla beer, all kinds of beer."
They stopped. They turned. They looked. Then they turned away. One looked back as his brothers moved off. He was tall and very thin from the drugs, fidgety and scratchy, his bad skin ill-concealed with makeup. Sanjeev thought him a street-god.
"What kind of pizza?"
"Tikka tandoori murgh beef lamb kebab kofta tomato spinach."
"Let's see your kofta."
Sanjeev presented the drooping wedge of meatball-studded pizza in both hands. The robotwallah took a kofta between thumb and forefinger. It drew a sagging string of cheese to his mouth, which he deftly snapped.
"Yeah, that's all right. Give me four of those."
"We got beer we got Kingfisher beer we got Godfather beer we got Bangla beer-"
"Don't push it."
Now he ran up alongside the big slow-moving car they had bought as soon as they were old enough to drive. Sanjeev had never thought it incongruous that they could send battle robots racing across the country on scouting expeditions or marching behind heavy tanks but the law would not permit them so much as a moped on the public streets of Varanasi.
"So did you kill anyone today?" he called in through the open window, clinging on to the door handle as he jogged through the choked street.
"Kunda Khadar, down by the river, chasing out spies and surveyors," said bad-skin boy, the one who had first spoken to Sanjeev. He called himself Rai. They all had made-up J-anime names. "Someone's got to keep those bastard Awadhi dam-wallahs uncomfortable."
A black plastic Kali swung from the rearview mirror, red-tongued, yellow-eyed. The skulls garlanded around her neck had costume sapphires for eyes. Sanjeev took the order, sprinted back through the press to his father's clay tandoor oven. The order was ready by the time the Kali-Hummer made its second cruise. Sanjeev slid the boxes to Rai. He slid back the filthy, wadded Government of Bharat scrip-rupees and, as Sanjeev fished out his change from his belt-bag, the tip: a little plastic zip-bag of battle drugs. Sanjeev sold them in the galis and courtyards behind Umbrella Street. Schoolkids were his best customers; they went through them by the fistful when they were cramming for exams. Ahraura had been all the school Sanjeev ever wanted to see. Who needed it when you had the world and the web in your palmer? The little shining capsules in black and yellow, purple and sky blue, were the Rajghatta's respectability. The pills held them above the slum.
But this night Rai's hand shot out to seize Sanjeev's hand as it closed around the plastic bag.
"Hey, we've been thinking." The other robotwallahs, Suni and Ravana and Godspeed! and Big Baba nodded. "We're thinking we could use someone around the place, do odd jobs, clean a bit, keep stuff sweet, get us things. Would you like to do it? We'd pay-it'd be government scrip not dollars or euro. Do you want to work for us?"
He lied about it to his family: the glamour, the tech, the sexy spun-diamond headquarters and the chrome he brought up to dazzling dazzling shine by the old village trick of polishing it with toothpaste. Sanjeev lied from disappointment, but also from his own naïve overexpectation: too many nights filled with androgynous teenagers in spandex suits being clamshelled up inside block-killing battle machines. The robotwallahs of the 15th Light-Armoured and Recon Cavalry-sowars properly-worked out of a cheap pressed-aluminium go-down on a dusty commercial road at the back of the new railway station. They sent their wills over provinces and countries to fight for Bharat. Their talents were too rare to risk in Raytheon assault bots or Aiwa scout mecha. No robotwallah ever came back in a bodybag.
Sanjeev had scratched and kicked in the dust, squatting outside the shutter door, squinting in the early light. Surely the phatphat had brought him to the wrong address? Then Rai and Godspeed! had brought him inside and shown him how they made war inside a cheap go-down. Motion-capture harnesses hung from steadi-rigs like puppets from a hand. Black mirror-visored insect helmets-real J-anime helmets-trailed plaited cables. One wall of the go-down was racked up with the translucent blue domes of processor cores, the adjoining wall a massive video-silk screen flickering with the ten thousand dataflashes of the ongoing war: skirmishes, reconnaissances, air-strikes, infantry positions, minefields and slow-missile movements, heavy armour, and the mecha divisions. Orders came in on this screen from a woman jemadar at Divisional Headquarters. Sanjeev never saw her flesh. None of the robotwallahs had ever seen her flesh though they joked about it every time she came on the screen to order them to a reconnaissance or a skirmish or a raid. Along the facing wall, behind the battle harnesses, were cracked leather sofas, sling chairs, a water cooler (full), a Coke machine (three-quarters empty). Gaming and girli mags were scattered like dead birds across the sneaker-scuffed concrete floor. A door led to a rec room, with more sofas, a couple of folding beds, and a game console with three VR sets. Off the rec room were a small kitchen area and a shower unit.
"Man, this place stinks," said Sanjeev.
By noon he had cleaned it front to back, top to bottom, magazines stacked in date of publication, shoes set together in pairs, lost clothes in a black plastic sack for the dhobiwallah to launder. He lit incense. He threw out the old bad milk and turning food in the refrigerator, returned the empty Coke bottles for their deposits-made chai and sneaked out to get samosas which he passed off as his own. He nervously watched Big Baba and Ravana step into their battle harnesses for a three-hour combat mission. So much he learned in that first morning. It was not one boy, one bot; Level 1.2 aeais controlled most of the autonomous process like motion and perception, while the pilots were more like officers, each commanding a bot platoon, their point of view switching from scout machine to assault bot to I-war drone. And they did not have their favourite old faithful combat machine, scarred with bullet holes and lovingly customised with hand-sprayed graffiti and Desi-metal demons. Machines went to war because they could take damage human flesh and families could not. The Kali Cavalry rotated between a dozen units a month as attrition and the jemadar dictated. It was not Japanese anime, but the Kali boys did look sexy dangerous cool in their gear even if they went home to their parents every night. And working for them cleaning for them getting towels for them when they went sweating and stinking to the shower after a tour in the combat rig was the maximum thing in Sanjeev's small life. They were his children, they were his boys; no girls allowed.
"Hanging around with those badmashes all day, never seeing a wink of sun, that's not good, for you," his mother said, sweeping round the tiny top-floor living room before her next lesson. "Your dad needs the help more; he may have to hire a boy in. What kind of sense does that make, when he has a son of his own? They do not have a good reputation, those robot-boys."
Then Sanjeev showed her the money he had got for one day. "Your mother worries about people taking advantage of you," Sanjeev's dad said, loading up the handcart with wood for the pizza oven. "You weren't born to this city. All I'd say is, don't love it too much; soldiers will let you down, they can't help it. All wars eventually end."
Excerpted from CYBERABAD DAYS by IAN McDONALD Copyright © 2009 by Ian McDonald. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents America Is Not the Only Planet by Paul McAuley....................9
Sanjeev and Robotwallah....................13
Kyle Meets the River....................31
The Dust Assassin....................51
An Eligible Boy....................79
The Little Goddess....................109
The Djinn's Wife....................155
Vishnu at the Cat Circus....................199
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
While it's set in the same future India as McDonald's vivid River of Gods, a world of old and new gods, soap operas, water wars, mech wars, gender imbalance, and new genders, it is in no way necessary to read that novel first. I read three of these seven stories before I read the novel, and they were satisfactory on their own. However, I do think the one story original to this collection, the concluding novella "Vishnu at the Cat Circus", will have added pleasures if you've read the novel. Each story concentrates on one or more aspects of McDonald's India, and they mostly take place at various times before the novel's events. "Sanjeev and the Robotwallah" covers the War of Separation when India breaks up into several countries from the nation we know. It's about a brief time in a man's life when, as a Japanese anima obsessed youth, he teleoperated the robots of that war. It's a type of war that may be physically safer, but the boys find, like many a veteran of the past, that society may not have much more use for them after the peace. "Kyle Meets the River", while a decent story, is the weakest of the book. I think that's because its plot owes too much to the recent Iraqi War and the story's initial appearance in the themed Forbidden Planets anthology. India is viewed from the perspective of an American boy, his parents living in the Cantonment, a diplomatic compound of Westerners helping to build the newly independent nation of Bharat. Young Kyle first spends a lot of time viewing the massive artificial ecosphere simulation that features in River of Gods before he sees the equally strange world of India beyond the compound's wall. However, with the frequent terrorism in the Cantonment, Iraqi's Green Zone is unnecessarily brought to mind in a way that adds nothing to the story. "The Dust Assassin" has the air and plot of a fairy tale. The Jodhra and Azad clans have been at war - a literal shooting war at times - in Jaipur for a long time, sometimes over water. The Azads wipe out the Jodhra clan except for Padmini, our young heroine, who goes into hiding with her nute retainers - a third gender artificially created and complete with its own methods of sexual gratification. Assured by her father before his death that she is a literal weapon, she undertakes martial arts training. But vengeance may lie in other directions -- if she even wants it anymore. "An Eligible Boy" is an interesting, humorous and rather melancholy story centered around one of the key aspects of McDonald's future India: the vast gender imbalance caused by sex selective abortions eliminating millions of Indian women. In this topsy turvy, caste corroding world, men are the ones who must desperately appeal to the few women around. Our hero, Jasbir, has cosmetic surgery done and, at the suggestion of his roommate Sujay, who codes software for the soap operas the Indians are mad about, gets romantic tips from one of the starring artificial intelligences. Romance is found, lost, and, perhaps, missed all together. "The Little Goddess", one of the best stories in the book, takes a seemingly autistic girl and makes her the chosen incarnation of the goddess Kumari Devi in Nepal. But it is the world she must navigate after being expelled from her position that is most fascinating. Here McDonald concentrates on the Brahmins - genetically engineered humans, superior in intelligence, more physically robust, but aging only half as fast as normal humans - and the Krishna Cops who try to keep America happy by patrolling the cybersphere for illegally advanced artificial intelligences. "The Djinn's Wife", another fine story, also concentrates on those artificial intelligences, so-called aeais. Here one develops a romantic fixation on a classic Indian dancer. This being India, she even marries him. But the defining characteristic of aeais, their consciousness distributed in space and their concentration equally multiplied, conflicts with a female need for exclusivity. "Vishnu a
So I recently read /Cyberabad Days/, and I noticed some things. Overall, I got the impression that McDonald¿s view of future-India is pessimistic. Yes, there¿s shiny fun technology, but the country fell apart into separate states and this situation isn¿t always working so well; there have been conflicts. And, the thing that¿s getting to me the most:Women in this future.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: she causes a fatal allergic reaction to the last remaining person in the rival family when she kisses him at their wedding, which she¿s been manipulated into by a member 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 suspect there¿ll 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.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
This book is a continuation of Ian McDonald's wonderful and award winning novel, River of Gods. Although it is a series of short stories, it reads like a novel, starting with "Sanjeev and the Robotwallah", the story of a poor boy's fascination with telepresence robots fighting the wars between the breakaway Indian territories, and moves to "Kyle Meets the River", where a Western child escapes his secure compound to see the real India. Each story is a gem, but builds up to larger and larger stories of the transformation of society by gene engineering and ubiquitous computing. My favorite story is probably "The Little Goddess" about a Nepalese girl who is a Tibetan goddess as long as she does not bleed. She later moves to India as a potential wife for the Indian men who outnumber their women by four to one and becomes an AI smuggler. But the last story, "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is a breathtaking tour de force of a gene engineered Brahmin who has an extended lifespan at the cost of a much reduced physical maturity. I highly recommend these stories to anyone who loves the science fiction of near future predictions of a world completely changed by technology.
Whomever wrote the cover review forgot to include that Cyberabad Days also won a Special Citation from the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award. It's a GREAT collection of stories with a central theme of India the mover of the World. Enjoy!!
A good book that is a pretty convincing thought experiment about what the the recent future could hold. Some of the stories need to end about 10 pages earlier than they do. The final story "Vishnu and the Cat Circus" really makes the entire book. Has a bit of a steep learning curve to appreciate the Hindi/English slang, but I still have no idea about the geography for the book. Definetly read if you like futurism and Convergence Theory.