The Little Goddess • 2005 • Near future SF novella by Ian McDonald


Warning: Heavy spoilers for the story!

„I remember the night I became a goddess.“ (first sentence)

Synopsis:  The narrator was taken five years old to a temple in Kathmandu and recognized as a goddess’s incarnation. The next couple of years, she lives as a pampered avatar in the temple, ending only as soon as her feet would touch bare ground or she would draw blood.
This is her first expose to divinity, the traditional one.
What follows is a more modern interpretation of transcendence: Returning from the temple, she has to adapt to a normal life. As a child-bride, she‘s sold to a marriage coupler from India: India 2047, a fragmented state balancing between tradition and hypermodernism.

A transhuman gene-perfected man marries her, attracted by her former state as goddess. He‘s in the body of a ten year old boy but twice the age, and cannot fulfill his desires. This ends in a catastrophe in the wedding night, and she flees to Ashok, a former wedding candidate.

Ashok has a business of producing AIs nearing human intelligence. But India is under pressure, because the US have banned AIs above a certain intelligence threshold as they fear the singularity.
His deal is to use her as a smuggler for the AIs to a safe part of India. The AIs need to be embedded into her brain, to be extracted at the target city.

Now, she’s nearly a goddess again, incorporating two different minds in one body.
What‘s her future as an AI smuggler?

Review: The first part of this India 2047 novella goes into tradition and doesn’t feel like SF. It weaves the fundament of her, exposes her character, and places hints for her future.
Best of all is the sharp contrast between tradition and modernity which is about to sweep away the old ways while retaining all of the bad parts like castes.

In India, a new caste came up with transhuman rich people looking down on the former highest caste, the Brahmin, like they look down on Pahrias, the untouchable lowest caste. Even though the rules of the caste system is weakened by the low percentage of women – due to gene-control, only a fourth of the newborns are female, and they can marry up of their caste – the system itself is even better cemented.
This is only one form of social comment which the author perfectly weaves into his story: he doesn’t place it heavy-handed but lets the reader feel it by the story’s flow.
The mix of tradition and future environment can be found everywhere in the story. But it transforms from heavily traditional towards heavily cyberpunkish in the last part.
I can only awe at the way, McDonald finds to a combining conclusion of both ways.

The story’s magic doesn’t come from a high-octane plot, though it isn’t devoid of action. The basic SF elements are not new at all, transhumanism through gene manipulation and AI transported in brains have been used elsewhere. Where this story exceeds expectations is the struggle between tradition and futurism, finding its own answer on a believable, exotic background.

The novella is a spin-off of River of Gods which I have to read now.

Recommended for SF readers who like character- and concept-driven stories.

Meta: isfdb. I’ve read it it in the anthology The Very Best of the Best.

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5 Responses to The Little Goddess • 2005 • Near future SF novella by Ian McDonald

  1. Sounds intriguing! I’ve never read River of Gods.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. bormgans says:

    It’s also in the Cyberabad Days collection, with 8 other stories set in the same setting.

    Liked by 1 person

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