Ian McDonald's "Cyberabad Days" -- short stories in 2047 India that blend technology with spirituality, love, sex, war and humanity

Ian McDonald is one of science fiction's finest working writers, and his latest short story collection Cyberabad Days, is the kind of book that showcases exactly what science fiction is for.

Cyberabad Days returns to McDonald's India of 2047, a balkanized state that we toured in his 2006 novel River of Gods, which was nominated for the best novel Hugo Award. The India of River of Gods has fractured into a handful of warring nations, wracked by water-shortage and poverty, rising on rogue technology, compassion, and the synthesis of the modern and the ancient.

In Cyberabad Days, seven stories (one a Hugo winner, another a Hugo nominee) McDonald performs the quintessential science fictional magic trick: imagining massive technological change and making it intensely personal by telling the stories of real, vividly realized people who leap off the page and into our minds. And he does this with a deft prose that is half-poetic, conjuring up the rhythms and taste and smells of his places and people, so that you are really, truly transported into these unimaginably weird worlds. McDonald's India research is prodigious, but it's nothing to the fabulous future he imagines arising from today's reality.

All seven of these stories are standouts, but if I had to pick only three to put in a time-capsule for the ages, they'd be:

1. The Djinn's Wife: this Hugo-winning novelette is a heartbreaking account of a love affair between a minor celebrity and a weakly godlike artificial intelligence. The special problems of love with an "aeai" (AI) are incredibly, thoroughly imagined here, as are the possible glories. Here, McDonald perfectly captures the stepping-off-a-cliff feeling of the new kinds of romance that technology enables, and of the wonderful, terrible sense of the wind rushing past your ears as the ground screams towards you.

2. Sanjeev and Robotwallah: a story that will be anthologized in two of this year's "Best Of" anthologies, Sanjeev and Robotwallah is the story of a young, displaced boy who finds temporary glory in acting as batsman for a squadron of amped-up teen mecha pilots. The pathos here arises when the war ends and the glamorous warriors are retired, leaving Sanjeev in limbo, his aspirations smashed with the lives of the older boys. Like all of McDonald's stories, the ending is bittersweet, rich and unexpected.

3. Vishnu at the Cat Circus: the long, concluding novella in the volume is an account of three siblings: one genetically enhanced to be a neo-Brahmin, one a rogue AI wallah who is at the center of the ascension of humanity's computers into a godlike state, and one who remains human and bails out the teeming masses who are tossed back and forth by the technological upheaval. A story of character, Vishnu blends spirituality and technology to look at how the street might find its own use for things, when that street is rooted in ancient traditions that are capable of assimilating enormous (but not infinite) change.

Cyberabad Days has it all: spirituality, technology, humanity, love, sex, war, environmentalism, politics, media -- all blended together to form a manifesto of sorts, a statement about how technology shapes and is shaped by all the wet, gooey human factors. Every story is simultaneously a cracking yarn, a thoughtful piece of technosocial criticism, and a bag of eyeball kicks that'll fire your imagination. The field is very lucky to have Ian McDonald working in it.

Cyberabad Days


  1. Thanks for the tip. Hey Cory, can you start your own alternative to the Oprah Book club? You can be like the anti-Oprah, heading a reading group for us technophiles, with rollercoaster weight gain/loss cycles optional.

  2. @2: These all stand alone, absolutely. They are set in the same place/time as the novel, but don’t involve the same characters, etc.

    @3: Well, there’s always the #books category here!

  3. [quote]Well, there’s always the #books category here![/quote]

    I’m too lazy to type the extra characters and my bookmark file is already nearing critical mass.

    Can’t wait to read the Bhagavad Gitmo. Off to the bookstore!

  4. OMG, I think I am going to explode with happiness. After Sterling’s new one, now this! I have always loved McDonald (who along with Geoff Ryman and Paul McAuley are everything that is good about modern British sf) – and both River of Gods and Brasyl were wonderful. I just hope that one day he writes the long-threatened conlcusion to the Chaga / Kirinya sequence (sorry, that Evolution’s Shore to you Leftpondians, who apparently wouldn’t buy books with African names!).

  5. Much as I enjoyed River of Gods for its texture and writing, I could’t quite shake the fact that it has exactly the same plot as Mona Lisa Overdrive. And I do mean exactly.

  6. David Mitchell??? He’s not really an sf writer though, is he? First few novels were decent-enough Murakami Haruki rip-offs, then he produced a bit a Marge Piercy-style thing which mainstream critics and readers went nuts over but most of us sf readers just went ‘ho-hum’ over…

  7. Nice cover art. Cory, I can only speak for myself, but I would really enjoy a collection of shorts that all take place in the DAOITMK Universe. Or a big fat novel. With space ships. Didn’t you say you needed to write a space opera? The cover art for that book could be great.

  8. @Flying Monkey:

    It’s hard to neatly cram Mitchell into the hardcore British SF box, but you could say the same of Jim Crace (another limey) or Margaret Atwood (a Canuck, so British by proxy, much like Cory). And I thought Mitchell was ripping from Italo Calvino, but most good writers steal from multiple sources. (taking notes on who to steal from in the future)

    More than anything, Mitchell’s narratives borrow heavily from the ‘big sky’ tradition of magic realism, a certain unknown mysticism which in ways is anathema to hard science. Such conceit can be frightening to reading technicians who are engorged by diagrams of nuts and bolts, but Mitchell’s prose itself is brilliant and worth admiring as a work standing alone outside of genre descriptors.

    At least we agree on McDonald as common ground.

  9. This sounds awesome, must look for it.

    I love Sci-Fi short stories, it takes me back to the time I read all of those Asimov and Philip Dick shorts, which I love profoundly.

  10. #9 – I love the cover art too. It’s by one of my favorite artists, Stephan Martiniere:


    The actual image is here:


    I admit I’m a sucker for great cover art, and recently caught up on the Sun of Suns trio of books primarily because of Martiniere’s cover art. I loved the books, too.

    I also wish there was some kind of SF (or every genre) guide that would rate or categorize books by the type and amount of content. Some SF stories are political intrigue, some action thriller, some “big idea” hardcore SF, some existential pondering, etc. It would be nice to have a descriptive rating system to zero in on the ones I’d prefer, sort of like detailed musical descriptions/comparisons help me choose my music.

  11. @10 Pilcrow – don’t mistake my dismissal of Mitchell as an sf writer as meaning I don´t appreciate him at all or am frightened by him! He’s a good writer, if not quite as original or indeed as great a stylist as some (including you!) would claim. I wouldn’t say Jim Crace was an sf writer either, though he’s happy to mix it up. And Margaret Atwood is hardly a genre sf writer, is she? But she has certainly written sf and uses elements of the genre a great deal.

    I am not a ‘hardcore’ sf devotee, and come on, neither McDonald not Ryman are hard sf – they both come out of the literary sf tradition if you have to put them anywhere in particular, and are both basically at base, concered with social and political possibilities rather than technologies themselves. I read anything and everything and in fact would regard the European experimental fiction of the mid-C20th, which links into but is not identical to Latin American magical realism, as my prefered area if I had to chose. Calvino is thus one of my absolute favourite authors of all time and I can see there are some threads linking Calvino and Mitchell – particularly in Cloud Atlas, but it’s not that strong and Calvino was a genius – Mitchell isn’t in that class (yet) IMHO.

    I´m constantly surprised that western critics didn’t see the Murakami Haruki connections – they were probably covering up for the fact that they hadn’t really noticed Murakami up until that point – but Ghostwritten and No.9 Dream are total Murakami clones! Most at first didn’t even seem to appreciate that Mitchell lived in Japan for many years…

  12. @FLYING MONKEY: I’ll just have to blind nil bet that you’re right on Murakami Haruki, having only attempted one of his books in my reading, and failing at that because of my aversion to the stilted prose lost/found in translation. Are there any translations that you would recommend… who is Haruki’s William Weaver?

    I don’t disagree that Mitchell is borrowing from many sources, with Murakami Haruki likely prominent among them. But that is what good writers do, though few will admit as much. I tend to view literature as an evolving and forking tree rather than random buckshot fired from the shotgun of history. Hell, every writer on the planet is still robbing Shakespeare blind, and his legend only deepens from the indebtedness.

    When a writer produces a work inspired by another writer, it is not a disservice. Calvino wouldn’t have been Calvino had it not been for Borges. And Kafka. And others.

    Number9Dream was my least favorite of Mitchell’s works to date (the goat story sucked balls) but the final chapter was a masterfully rendered experiment in literary white noise and would not have been possible without the prior, jumbled narrative.

  13. Thanks for the heads-up.
    Ian McDonald is one of my favorite authors.
    I wish someone would make a movie out of his fantastic book, “Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone “.

  14. Great book…I finished this a couple weeks back (just in time to make ready for “Caryatids”), and really enjoyed it. The shared world with “River of Gods” is thought-provoking and engrossing. Can’t recommend it enough (though I’d suggest reading “River of Gods” first, if you have the chance. They’re not tightly bound, but there is background material that might make more sense if you’ve already read RoG.)

  15. Chubbz Molinoire, who is a bon-vivant par excellence, always sez that sci-fi is for wankers.

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