Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Sagramanda by Alan Dean Foster

One of the more interesting directions sci-fi has taken recently is an emphasis on emerging economies and non-Western societies. Hallmarks of this movement include River of Gods by Ian McDonald and his upcoming novel, Brasyl. Similarly inspired, Foster writes of a near-future India in the techno-thriller, Sagramanda.

We are introduced to a cast of players in Sagramanda, a huge megalopolis of 100 million people in India’s east. Taneer is a brilliant scientist who has developed a revolutionary technology a massive global corporation. He and his beautiful, ‘untouchable’ fiancée, Depahli, are in hiding because Taneer has stolen this developed technology with the intent of selling it on the open market for an unimaginable sum of money. Taneer’s father is searching for his disowned son to perform an honor-killing to end the shame brought on by his son’s association with the ‘untouchable’. Chalcedony Schneemann is the problem solver that has been hired to find Taneer and recover the stolen merchandise. Added to the mix are a farmer-turned merchant who helps to broker Taneer’s hopeful sale, a French serial killer, the chief police inspector searching for her, and a hungry tiger prowling the city’s margin.

We follow the various players through the seething streets of Sagramanda – some hunt, some are hunted, and they all converge at a clandestine meeting one night. Of course, not all of them leave it alive.

Sagramanda becomes a character all its own as we see a microcosm of India – the poor, desperately poor, the rich, the tourist, the huge population, the filth, the decadence, and the contrast of old and new – through the eyes the hunters and hunted. The portrayal of India is fascinating – especially for someone like me who has never been there. As I said about John Burdett in relation to Bangkok 8, I don’t know if Foster gets it right, but it feels like he does.

The underlying narrative to this story of Sagramanda is merely serviceable. Yes, it’s interesting, but it’s not particularly memorable and is quite often rather predictable. In a city of 100 million, there are a few too many conveniences of the plot to be believable. The value of Sagramanda is the representation of India – the vehicle is reliable if not remarkable.

Sagramanda rates a 6.5 on the 10-point scale. It’s a fascinating portrayal of near-future India with an average techno-thriller plot holding it together.

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