Go behind the Bollywood future of Cyberabad Days with Ian McDonald

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

British SF writer Ian McDonald's new story cycle, Cyberabad Days, is set in the same vibrant, turbulent, crisis-ridden 2040s India as his acclaimed novel River of Gods (2004).

McDonald says, "When I finished River, I realized that there was much more to my near-future India than just that book. There were parts of my research I'd never used, and there were ideas, concepts, vital parts of the world of the story, that demanded space and voices of their own. I conceived River as an experience of what-it's-like-to-live-in-a-future, so the world was much deeper and richer than a pure plotty story required. The events that lead to the Balkanization of India, the Water Wars and the Sex Wars and the genetically enhanced Brahmins, who live twice as long half as fast, their stories hadn't been told. In some ways Days is an unfolding of what's going on in the rest of the world—and many of the stories are set not in Bharat, but its neighbor and rival, Awadh, in that ancient capital Delhi. So Days is a companion volume to River in one respect, but in another it's a sequel."

McDonald adds, "The title Cyberabad Days is a deliberate echo of the Arabian Nights. The stories are fairy tales of New Delhi. River was an Indian—novel, fat, many-voiced, wide-screen; Cyberabad Days is tales. Mumbai movies tell stories in ways that challenge our Western aesthetics and values. They're not afraid of sentiment, they're not afraid of big acting, or putting in song and dance, because Bollywood cinema's not supposed to be a mimetic art form. It's not about realism—that most pernicious of Western values—it's a show. I wanted these stories to have a similar feel. There are dance routines in the 'The Djinn's Wife' (and it ends in a Bollywood melodrama bloodbath). There are indeed princesses who fall from power and exact revenge on their enemies. There are brothers whose feud plays out over decades."

In these stories, McDonald engages with the topical essence of modern India, satirizing, for example, the preference of many families for sons and the resulting imbalance of numbers between the sexes. "This was one of the first things I worked out for River. At the time I thought it was a nice fictional idea that seemed likely given the cultural bias toward males. Later I discovered it really is happening, and in China as well. The demographic shift is quite small, nowhere near the four-to-one ratio I posit. But once again, it's the law of large numbers. Even a 2 percent variation between males and females works out at millions of surplus males. By confining it to the middle class, I found I had a terrific tool for writing social comedy. It's no coincidence that Jane Austen translates so well to Bollywood; it's the comedy and drama of marrying right. The gender imbalance was also a good way of exploring social order. Details of caste are still important; you only have to read the matrimonials on for that, and it struck me as a great tool for social mobility. Lower-caste girls, village girls, really can marry up the social network. And middle-class girls, as 'An Eligible Boy' shows, can be ... choosy. That novelette—the title is, of course, a play on Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy—is a Bollywood rom-com, perhaps not so much Jane Austen as Cyrano de Bergerac. With a happy ending."

Cyberabad Days also explores the soap operas that are a staple of Indian TV, with the twist that in the 2040s these are "written" and "acted" by AIs that are also in a sense Hindu gods. "Soap operas are part of the natural divine order. They are essentially Hindu, featuring minor deities whose lives are very much like our own, filled with joys and envies and squabbles, to whom we pay (daily!) obeisance. They're small-scale gods, the Lares and Penates of 21st-century life. There's a distinct Hindu hierarchy here, reality TV star to soap star, soap star to pop star (I'm talking about you, Kylie), pop star to movie star (yes, Madonna—or, rather, no: think Swept Away), on every level as you spiral up you attract more attention—the worship of the devotees—and become more divine, remote, mysterious and wonderful. Pay attention to soap. It's the bedrock of modern living. It occupies that thrilling middle ground between reality and fantasy, in which magazines have serious articles speculating about the characters in soaps, and also articles about the loves of the actors who play them. It's not hard making this sort of thing up. It's all out there. It's documentary; all I have to do is remember to write it down."

But McDonald also has his eye on larger issues India must face in coming decades, such as a possible fragmentation into squabbling states. "India is the world's largest democracy, and a pretty successful one at that, but there are severe internal pressures on unity. India's not one place and people, it's dozens of languages, regions, cultures and societies. The idea of India holds it together, which, when you consider it, is a brilliant political invention. Historically there never was an 'India' as such; there were dozens of petty empires and princely states, and it struck me as a fairly natural progression for a massive nation developing fast and unequally to fracture along social, cultural and geographical lines. Having said that, there was a certain amount of authorial fiat in it: I wanted a war over the scarce resource of water, and the best way to engineer one was to Balkanize the country. Now it seems all too reasonable. Certainly India is horribly vulnerable to water stress: Between dwindling snowmelt from the Himalayas and geo-climatic threats to the monsoon, if even one of those fails, the country is in deep s--t. If both fail, the consequences are terrifying."

But McDonald ultimately is confident about India's ability to weather the storms that nature and history throw at it, to assimilate change and remain India, even while changing radically. "I don't go for that 'eternal unchanging India' stuff, but Indian culture has evolved over thousands of years to provide stability and family survival in a ferociously competitive society, and it's a culture that as easily and readily absorbs other cultures as it exports its own. That expatriate culture in turn evolves and transmutes and feeds ideas back to India. The Brits brought cricket; now India is the planetary home of the game."