Ian McDonald Interview

This winter, River of Gods was my introduction to Ian McDonald and I have to say, I was blown away. Here’s what Christopher Priest at The Guardian had to say:

In terms of ideas, intellectual scope, detail, inventiveness, risk-taking and sheer scale, McDonald’s novel is one of the most ambitious I have read in recent years. It is also a staggering achievement, brilliantly imagined and endlessly surprising, the characters intriguing and psychologically convincing, their dialogue brisk and naturalistic, the grasp of Indian customs and nuances impressive, the sex scenes unusually spicy, the politics subtle and plausible, and much else besides.

However (and there is often a “however”, even in the most friendly of reviews), this is not the totality of the book. Everything above is true, and truly meant, but it also has to be said that River of Gods is fiendishly difficult to follow. From the outset the reader is thrown into a tautly described and enormously complicated mise en scène, with little help to find the way.

Personally I like my fiction a bit challenging. I like following along as it unfolds and the “aha” moment when everything comes together. Since River of Gods, I purchased Brasyl as a gift for my father and I received Desolation Road as a birthday gift. I’m looking forward to digging into that real soon. As I do with many authors I discover I enjoy, I turned to YouTube to see if I could find any nuggets worth passing on and I found this:

I like his comment on steampunk and what his willingness to mash up cyberpunk with Indian Bollywood culture to see what would happen. There’s actually a second part of this interview here.

If you haven’t read anything by McDonald, I urge you to give him a try. If you have, then you’re probably nodding your head. If that’s the case, then chime in with your fave Ian McDonald book.

I may just have to put down Ishmael and crack open Desolation Road tonight.

Comments ( 8 )

  1. ReplyNate
    I liked the sabercats
  2. ReplyHawey Wells
    Amen brother. Brasyl was me into to his work, and it haunts me still. You've got it as well. Don't stop.
    • ReplyJonathan
      I love finding awesome authors with a considerable back list. It provides the security of knowing there is good reading ahead.
  3. ReplyMatt Rivett
    "River of Gods is fiendishly difficult to follow" Agreed... I'm on page 450 with 130+ pages to go, and this novel is a slog. Ian McDonald's sort of like the progressive rock equivalent of a writer, a 'writers writer' as opposed to a 'musicians musician'. The reason I read him is his nuanced inventive descriptions and passages, character thought-process etc... I'm definitely not reading this hulking thing for its story or plotting. (I'm sure if you cut away the fat, it's there somewhere, but it gets lost). Where he breaks down, however, is you can go at times a 100 pages before encountering the same character, which with a manifold of 10 or so characters, makes River of Gods, more or less, a giant mess of book. I sadly don't much care for any of the characters. I don't get enough time to know them. I would say it's a very intriguing read, but by no means enjoyable. Its also horrifically self-indulgent ala Neal Stephenson, data dump after data dump (Yes, yes, you've lived/been to India, I get it). I might entertain "the Dervish House" but it'll probably be awhile before I muscle up to McDonald's stuff again.
    • ReplyJonathan
      Matt, I was worried River of Gods would be an incomprehensible mess after the first chapter or so, but it worked for me. The setting of a story is as important to me as the characters (all of which I found sympathetic to a degree), so I very much dug McDonald's take on India. More power to you for sticking with it solely for the nuances. While I agree that the gaps between revisiting characters could be long, I found that each story line sucked me in. I'm not sure when the Ensemble chapter kicks in, but that felt like being swept along in a strong current to a satisfying conclusion. I'm sure the format might be reprehensible to some, but after finishing River of Gods there was much for me to consider and I enjoy that. Maybe my take is that of someone who isn't a SF reader from way back, but, then again, I enjoy the hell out Neal Stephenson as well. I appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to comment. Took a swing by your blog. Love the piece on The Borrowed World of Pandora - Roger Dean album covers pretty much rule.
      • ReplyMatt Rivett
        I'm glad to here there's an ensemble chapter at some point. From the sounds of it, there's payoff at the end, so I'll be muscling through. Ian is really a fantastic writer, concept-wise as well, so I don't mean to dig on him too heavily... it's just I find his balance a bit off, but I do appreciate what he was trying to accomplish (which is quite epic). And thanks for checking out my blog!
  4. Replyosofine
    Wow, he gets a bit flustered and flirty with that Croatian interviewer! Lol! Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is one my favorite novellas of all time. Unfortunately, Neal Stephenson's review quoted at the top of the back of the paperback turned me off from reading it for quite a while after I had added it to my bookshelf. Stephenson review blurb starts, "Cyperpunk's first lyrical poem..." and I mistakenly assumed that to open it would require the rare mood that I have to be in to curl up with Ginburg's "Howl" or "Kaddish". It is not a poem, it is a prose novella. McDonald is a master of language and imagery, but there is a big difference between poetic writing and a poem. I blame the book's designer and my own failure to not "judge a book by it's cover" more than I blame Stephenson, however. The book is as close to perfect as anything I have read. It also has the incredibly rare quality of originality. Reading the above comments about River of Gods and having experienced the frequent, long tangents (exquisite though many of them are) that McDonald's longer works of fiction are prone to, I highly recommend SCPWS as an example of what McDonald is capable of when pared down to a short form. The core construct of the novella is also simply, a very cool idea. I'm currently re-reading "Kirinya", which I didn't like very much the first time I read it. I loved "Chaga" and was upset with what he had done to the character's I'd grown to love in the first novel. Now, reading with a good distance from the last time I read "Chaga" (I'm currently without a copy of that novel, and it's been at least 8 years since I last read it) I can read "Kirinya" as a stand-alone novel and I am enjoying it a lot more. That said, it is very clearly the second part of a trilogy and suffers at both ends by having to continue characters and events from the first novel and ending with at worst a cliffhanger and at best major unresolved plots. Apparently, McDonald had started a third novel (the novella, Tendelo's Story, is set in the same world but otherwise has almost nothing to add to main series - not that it isn't a good read!) called Ananda which has been "back-burnered" for years now. I fervently hope that he finishes Ananda and provides closure to this fantastic series! If I knew how to get in touch with him, I would beg him to finish the thing, but he doesn't seem to be very accessable to his fans. If you ever get a chance to talk with him again, please ask him about the status of Ananda. :) McDonald is a gem of a writer. I wish more people were aware of his work. I have been frustrated in the past when his books have gone out of print in the U.S. I have ordered used copies and given them as gifts. I wonder how he feels about electronic publishing? I will always prefer a hard copy of any book, but if I can't get one that way I hope that it is available in a well-edited, proofread, formatted electronic file. [Note about "Kirinya": while I dislike it when series that feel the need to re-hash the previous books in detail in every volume as though expecting that a significant number of readers will pick up a random volume without having read it's predecessors - and really, who does that? - Kirinya could benefit from a few more contextual reminders about about certain minor character's - Dr. Dan, in particular comes to mind, but also Mombi and Rose. Another Note: I have found 3 riffs off of Joni Mitchell lyrics in "Kirinya" but no credits or acknowledgment. I would love to ask him if he was playing "Blue" over and over as he was writing it. Also, why not acknowledge it/her?]

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