Review: In Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days, the slumdogs inherit the Earth

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

What is Cyberabad? In 2009, it's the Silicon Valley of India. In the fictional mid-21st century of Ian McDonald's new collection, Cyberabad Days (Pyr, $15), it's the whole subcontinent, from Sri Lanka to Kathmandu. It's also the virtual universe of aeais (artificial intelligences). And it may be a cyberspace into which humanity uploads itself.

McDonald's India is very different from ours. It no longer exists, having broken into several warring new nations. Too, it practices such extreme sex selection that men outnumber women four to one. It's wracked by drought. And it's the world's info-tech leader, with aeais that can pass the Turing test.

In its seven stories, Cyberabad Days traces the changes in India through the evolution of aeais and nations, the interactions of men and women and the onset of climate change. In the terrific opener, "Sanjeev and Robotwallah," the huge battle robots of anime are now real, piloted by telepresent teenage robotwallahs in collaboration with aeais. The robotwallahs are the rock stars of the war ... but wars end. In the subtle "Kyle Meets the River," Kyle Rubin's dad is helping to build the new capital of the new nation of Bharat. When Kyle sneaks out of the foreigners' well-protected compound to meet his local friend, he provokes an international incident.

The failing monsoons have made water the most precious commodity in Cyberabad, and control of this resource creates dynasties. In "The Dust Assassin," two of these powerful families clash like Montagues and Capulets, but their Romeo and Juliet meet a very different fate. Females, once unwanted, have also become a rare and valuable commodity. A man desperate for a wife consults an aeai in "An Eligible Boy," a work that puts some sharp SF twists in the Cyrano tale. In the Hugo nominee "The Little Goddess," the unique trait that makes a girl a goddess can also make her the ideal storage unit for aeais. And, in the collection's superb centerpiece, the Hugo and British Science Fiction Association Award-winning novelette "The Djinn's Wife," an aeai and a human fall in love only to make troubling discoveries about each other.

Cyberabad Days includes one previously unpublished work, the novella "Vishnu at the Cat Circus." It tells the story of a man who, genetically engineered to be the future of the human race, may instead be an evolutionary dead end. The author pulls all his threads together here—artificial intelligence and global warming, gender relations and nation-building—and the novella strains under the demands. McDonald's aims are novel-scale, but "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" is too brief to contain them.

Despite the stress lines in his closing novella, McDonald succeeds in making his collection something more than the sum of its parts, weaving the individual tales into a fascinating history of an India unborn. Ambitiously extrapolated and beautifully written, Cyberabad Days doesn't just demonstrate the unique virtues of SF. It makes them a pure pleasure for readers. And it shows why Ian McDonald is one of SF's best authors.