Saturday, June 19, 2010

Vishnu at the Cat Circus

Novella by Ian McDonald

My personal favorite of the 2010 Hugo Award novella nominees.

Vishnu is a bioengineered genius in a future India ravaged by drought and the technological singularity. Now the proprietor and ringmaster of his "Marvelous Magical Magnificent Cat Circus!", he makes a living telling stories and showing off his trained cats.
"All they do is run in a circle? Brother, with cats, that is an achievement. But you're right; running in a circle, nose to tail, is pretty much the meat of my cat circus."

The story he tells within this frame is the bulk of the novella. It is the story of his life, from his parents falling in love while escaping killer robots, to his nearly deadly sibling rivalry with his naturally brilliant brother and both of their rise to the top of business and politics (and Vishnu's implied fall to the bottom). Vishnu's life might be approaching too much detail, but it is pretty interesting, and even more interesting is the background technological advancements and the exploration of an underused cultural background. McDonald's near-future history of India is one of the biggest draws in this novella in particular, and in the Cyberabad Days collection in general. But this is my favorite bit of extrapolation in the collection. Not only does it go a bit farther, it covers some new and unique ideas.

But the best part by far is Vishnu's interspersed bits of present-day storytelling to the hypothetical audience. He is humorous and more interesting in voice than his younger, more naive self, and his talk to the audience is used for meta-commentary to the reader, not only about symbolism, but about story structure and the reality of heroics.

This is a dark series of predictions, but it is fairly funny and extremely interesting. There is lots of recurring water imagery, as well as the metaphor of striking a diamond correctly to split it, or incorrectly and ending up with a pile of shiny, useless dust. But the main theme, to me, is how we forget about and ignore the poor as our march towards progress increases the divide between the haves and have-nots. And how there might not be that much they can do about it, they might just be screwed.

Although the last paragraph doesn't especially impress me, I love the conclusion overall. We aren't sure whether Vishnu will succeed or not, and we certainly don't get his metafictionally-promised big confrontation with a villain capable of a long, drawn-out dramatic death scene. But we have despair, and hope of a partial solution and some great meditation on heros, villains, and resolution. And maybe that is enough. 4.5 feline incarnations out 5.

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