Roundtable: Ian McDonald's Developing Economies Stories

With the publication of The Dervish House, it has now been six years since the Ian McDonald’s River of Gods came out. Along with Brasyl, and the short story collection Cyberabad Days these books form a distinctive body of work from an interesting author. I’d like this panel to take a look back on this group of writings and see what sort of impact or influence it has had or is having on the sf field. 

To that end I was fortunate enough to assemble a panel of worthies that includes noted short story authors Cat Rambo and Rachel Swirsky, writer and translator Fabio Fernandes, McDonald’s editor at Pyr Lou Anders, and writer and editor Paul Graham Raven.

To start off, maybe you could talk a little bit about how you first encountered McDonald’s writing, and how it struck you at the time?

Cat Rambo

I loved “The Child Goddess” when I encountered it in a Year’s Best collection. To me it took slightly stale cyberpunk and injected it with new energy. At the same time, the wealth of detail made it a very pleasurable read. I picked up Cyberabad Days next, and found it all phenomenal.

Lou Anders

I opened up a Locus and read a review of River of Gods and thought it sounded amazing. I was really upset, because given how much I had to read for work, I knew I couldn’t dive into a novel of that length and complexity any time soon. The next week, it arrived in my mail as a submission, so I did get to read it, and acquire it for Pyr and US publication. With River, we followed the UK edition, but we were the first edition for Brasyl, Cyberabad Days, and The Dervish House. We have also reprinted Desolation Road and brought out the first US printing of Ares Express. And later this year, we’ll bring out Ian’s first YA (but I can’t say anything about that yet). But I’m really, really glad River arrived when it did.

Cat Rambo

His first YA! You tease, you!

Lou Anders

Sadly not allowed to say anything about it beyond… I finished it last Friday and it rocks so much.

Fabio Fernandes

The first Ian McDonald story I read was the novelette “Toward Kilimanjaro”, in the now deceased Brazilian edition of Isaac Asimov’s Magazine, in the early 1990s. I loved the way he revamped a Ballardian classic trope (one is quickly reminded of The Crystal World).  Soon after that, I got a copy of Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone, and then I was hooked – I found in him a late cyberpunk author who managed to write in the same key of Ballard, Zelazny, and Gibson, keeping his own voice at the same time. Every now and then I pick up this story and read it again, and it never seems to lose its flavor.

Paul Graham Raven

So much for my vain hope that the YA fad had blown over, then… 😉

I think my first encounter with Ian McDonald’s work would have been stumbling across River Of Gods in hardback not long after I started working in public libraries (around late 2004 or so). It was something of a revelation, I suppose; at that point I was still largely ignorant of the short fiction scene, and had no idea that anyone was still writing near-future/cyberpunk stuff. And what a contrast to the noirish monochromes of the original cyberpunks! River Of Gods, much like its jacket (the original UK S&S edition, at any rate) was all lush pastel colours, bursting with life… and while it’s far from utopian in character, the lives it portrays are very human in their hopes and fears. Sure, you’ve got big corporations and governments throwing their weight around, but by contrast to the faceless zaibatsus of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, McDonald is always at pains to make it clear that such systems are comprised of individuals at every level, and those individuals have a sense of their own agency, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and opposition.

Now I think about it, though, I wonder if part of that appeal isn’t also a jolt of deep recognition that a late-Gen-X/early-Gen-Y British reader wouldn’t necessarily get from the very American/Reaganomics themes of Gibson’s work. India is, of course, an alien and exotic-seeming place, but thanks to the legacies of British colonialism it also has a number of similarities to middle-class experiences of Britain: soap operas, cricket, keeping up appearances (and with the Joneses), the largely unquestioned dogma of social mobility, and so on. I know McDonald has been accused of reappropriating a culture which isn’t his own, and you could certainly defend that argument at a purely logical level (after all, he’s a white Western male writing about India, a place he has only experienced as a visitor, albeit a long-term one); furthermore, I’m aware that my own protestations on his behalf are also coloured by my own privilege (white Western male who’s never been to India at all, though who would very much like to go); but still, as much as there was a clear sense of otherness in the lives of his characters, that otherness feels to me to be based in their experience of day to day life rather than the superficialities of regional stereotyping. But that’s easy for me to say, of course…

Politics aside, though, I think River Of Gods reintroduced me to the notion that science fiction could talk about people who lived in a world not too (temporally) distant from or different to my own… and even after thinking about it for a little while, I’m not sure who I could add to a list of authors who do so quite as effectively. McDonald’s first interest and prime passion is people, and I think that’s what makes him such a powerful writer. So much so that I might even read a YA novel by him… 😉

Lou Anders

“Not bad for a firang who has oodles of imagination and chutzpah.” The Times of India

Rachel Swirsky

Some scattered thoughts:

I admit that I haven’t read The DaVinci Code, but from what I’ve heard about the plot from parodies and such, I read The Dervish House as being a riff on The DaVinci Code, using Islamic art history instead of Catholic art history. I’d be curious to know what other people thought about that theory–it seemed kind of obvious to me, but maybe I’m on the Moon, especially since I haven’t read Dan Brown.

I was struck by the affection that McDonald seemed to have for both his characters and locations. He described a number of people with shady morals, some of whom did unlikeable things in the book, but he did it with a gracious and generous hand, and this made it easier to immerse in and enjoy the book. I think that can be especially important for novels with multiple POVs, that they all be sympathetic–not in the sense that one thinks they’re nice, of course, but that they’re all sympathetically conveyed by the author. I always enjoy ensemble cast novels when they’re well done and I thought McDonald used the technique to his advantage.

If I have time to pick up another McDonald during this discussion (which I might, although Nebula reading looms), what should I grab?

Lou Anders

I have described it as “an Islamic DaVinci Code…only better” a time or two. As to second novels, River of Gods is the novel most frequently spoken of as having entered the canon of essential works. Brasyl is magnificent as well.

[To see the rest of the discussion click here and you should see navigation links in a drop-down menu at the top of the page and individual page links at the bottom.]

5 thoughts on “Roundtable: Ian McDonald's Developing Economies Stories

  • March 9, 2011 at 11:07 am
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    (I do think some of the arguments are based on uncharitable [and in my view, unsupported] readings of this essay.)

    Thanks for saying that, Rachel. I totally agree – although as to the gender politics (and I haven’t read The Windup Girl yet, just a lot of his short fiction), I’m not sure they still aren’t troubling.

    And thanks to all for an interesting discussion of one of my favourite authors!

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  • March 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm
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    Very interesting discussion. I wish there’d have been time to explore this theme of “exoticism” (particularly from Fabio’s novella description of “the city is not much of a character in the story” and that the setting is more or less a more generic near future city rather than an attempt to confront the reader with “exotic” Sao Paolo). On the theme of “getting some non-fiction in my literary fiction” — I like this idea. Thanks for a good roundtable!

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  • March 9, 2011 at 6:32 pm
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    “Chaga” (aka “Evolution’s Shore”) is another, and earlier, Mcdonald novel, set mainly in Kenya. It’s really good, although perhaps the author’s style shows less streamlining than in “River of Gods”, and with a well-rounded main character.

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