There is a line early in the story "Sanjeev and the Robotwallah": "For all his robot-wisdom, Sanjeev did not know." It refers specifically to questions put to a boy who becomes obsessed with the lore of robots, the go-to answer man in his village, the one who will know the past and what is coming down the line. But in a broader sense, it is about every person in every story in Ian McDonald's impressive new collection, Cyberabad Days. It is about the distortions that come from learning a great deal about only one part of a subject, ignoring—
These stories are set in the same universe McDonald created in his superb 2007 novel, River Of Gods—
The first story in the collection is emblematic of McDonald's interests. "Sanjeev and the Robotwallah" is set during one of the massive wars ripping India back into separate principalities. Sanjeev himself is a child when the story opens. When the war brushes by his village he sees the fantastic robots for the first time and falls in love with them, with their shapes and capacities, their carapaces and statistics. In another era, boys like him would have become similarly enamored of cars. These robots—
His family moves to the major city (and capitol of the new state) and begins trying to make a living. Sanjeev manages to become the houseboy for the local contingent of robotwallahs, teenage warriors who inhabit the mighty machines through the direct interface programs and go out to fight the war. These boys, strung out on the drugs that enable their reflexes to keep up with the capabilities of the machines, adopt Sanjeev, more a pet than a compatriot. Except for one of them, who seems to sense a kindred spirit in Sanjeev, and who even lets Sanjeev try out his robot.
Perhaps because Sanjeev's love affair with the robots is a thing of childhood, perhaps because he did not come of age fighting in the war, perhaps, finally, because Sanjeev is capable of differentiating between himself and the object of his obsession, he finds himself able to make finer distinctions (or perhaps just harder ones) when the war ends. The robotwallahs, whose approval he once lived for, are trapped in the cycles of war and death and the almost ghostly possession of the robots, to the point where the question is what is possessing who. When the war ends, they lose who they are, and drift off, trying to fit themselves into the new reality. But for Sanjeev, moving on is never a question, especially not when confronted with the farthest edge of a pointless obsession.
McDonald's ability with language is a match for his imagination, and he brings something to science fiction so often absent that it is understandably assumed the form cannot support it: lyricism.
"I look back now from age and loss and see those babbling days with Sarasvati as the Age of Gold, our Satya Yuga of innocence and truth. We stumbled together towards the sunlight and found joy in every fall and bump and grin. Our world was bright and full of surprises, delights in discovery for Sarasvati, pleasure in her evident delight for me. Then school forced us apart. What a terrible, unnecessary thing school is. I feel in it the enduring envy of parents for idle childhood." (From "Vishnu at the Cat Circus")
He develops rhythms as the prose hurries along, and out of the play of syntax and synonym a kind of natural voice emerges that carries us into this time and place, making us feel intimate with these people, which is especially effective when the essence of tragedy envelopes the reader. As the stories proceed, it is impossible to ignore the substance of McDonald's vision of India.
Most of these stories are told about youth. Children, adolescents, young adults. There are stories of love affairs ("The Djinn's Wife") and unexpected friendships ("An Eligible Boy"), loss of innocence ("Kyle Meets The River") and the reattainment of grace ("The Little Goddess"). Through all of them, McDonald keeps the India of the future ever-present, with its artificial intelligence industry and its soap operas and its vanishing monsoons and its all-too-familiar politics couched in the strangeness of a different culture, a culture saturated by an ancient and complex history. McDonald takes us through cycles—
He takes us to dizzying heights, and then grounds us back in the here-and-now of the very, terribly human:
"You never think your life is special. Your life is just your life, your world is just your world, even lived in a Rajput palace defended by machine monkeys against an implacable rival family." (From "The Dust Assassin")
Choosing the young to carry these stories was savvy. There is an ancient weariness in the world of these tales, but it ought never be forgotten that for each generation all these old things are new. The possibilities of tomorrow come from the variations discovered by fresh perspective and there is nothing fresher than innocence and youth. Even while such unhindered delight crumbles under the weight of acquired wisdom, the brightness of possibilities take root. We need that brightness. Ian McDonald seems to have plenty to share.