This Asimov-meets-Ved Vyas-meets-George Lucas saga makes for some fast-paced reading.
The glossy cover with the blue gray skies, floating asteroids, space ships and flashing laser beams is reminiscent of the much loved works of sci-fi one grew up on. However, when Lord Ganesha makes an entry into the narrative (and goes on to play a stellar role), Ashok K. Banker's Gods of War reveals itself to be a different ball game altogether from the regular science fiction. Cutting through metaphorical, metaphysical, religious, existential and political planes in his storytelling, the novel hovers tantalisingly on the eternal question of whether at the end of all physics is god and vice-versa. Fraught with contrasts in the tonal quality of writing, the book could be vaguely disconcerting.
While some of the hypothetical ideas involving high-end astrophysics require an adult intellect for adequate comprehension, the author, paradoxically, crumbles down to juvenile fantasy ever so often. Which brings us to the baffling question: which age group is this book meant for?
Edge of creation
Though a large chunk of the novel is set on the edge of creation, a limbo-like place that is no place (Lokaloka), the scene begins with a space ship coming to park high up in space above planet earth. It is nicknamed the Jewel by humans and the reader is instantly reminded of the Overlords in Arthur C. Clarke's classic, Childhood's End. When the entire global population (save five) go into a strange humming trance, you know with a sinking heart that there is deep trouble to follow.
Trouble there is and of a major sort as the five heroes (four heroes and one heroine, actually) are propelled into a Save the Cosmos mission by the elephant-headed god who is both mentor and commander-general to the army of five. What follows is a story that streaks out of the three-dimensional existence familiar to humans and spills out into unknown spatial and temporal realms. Consequently, there is much smoke, sparks, fire and enough pyrotechnics to leave one dizzy, dazzled and dumbfounded. Races, chases, holograms, the Noah's Ark-like spaceship Jewel, which sucks in sample regions of parallel worlds (ably synthesised by Lord Ganesha), a view of paradise with a description straight out of a Tolkien movie, biological warfare, mind connectivity, new age terrorism, a creature residing in the eleventh dimension gobbling universes (and reminding the reader of Borg, the pseudo-race cybernetic beings of “Star Trek”) and various other mindbogglers come to a crescendo and explode into a war that would make the battle of Kurukshetra and the Charge of the Light Brigade seem like bedtime stories for toddlers.
In depicting an age with New New York as a futuristic autonomous geographical zone made up of a population with a righteous slant of mind and splintered from the parent United States, the author may well be prophesising a very plausible future scenario. Banker paints a desolate picture of the future where the gods, finite and vulnerable, have been overcome and it is up to mankind save itself from becoming battle fodder in, what the author calls, the apocalyptic War of Wars. The book, however, ends on a note of hope paving the way for the promised sequels.
The characters of the five and that of Ganesha are two-dimensional but passably authentic. Santosh, the 10-year-old slum dweller from Mumbai; Salim, the socialist trader from Birmingham; and the fierce right-wing patriot Ruth are interestingly juxtaposed while the Japanese mangaka twins Akechi and the hermaphrodite Yoshi make a fascinating study in contrasts. The reader is likely to suffer from repeated bouts of déjà vu as previously encountered books/movies hover, ghostlike, on the fringe of memory. However, no matter how strong (and obvious) the influence of the great masters of science fiction, Banker synthesises inspiration from various sources to come up with a composite whole that is surprisingly original. Add to that a racy text, tremendous build up of tension, informative scientific data that blends seamlessly into the story line, wild leaps of imagination and you have an engrossing page turner. Banker has a sharp eye and ear for regional slang and mannerisms and he flits from the slums of Mumbai to the streets of Tokyo with effortless ease and élan.
It is in etching the swearing lesbian ship-welder Ruth, however, that Banker seems to go overboard with the American stereotype. The author's note at the beginning, a fervent plea for world peace is out-of-sync in these times where one man's martyr is another man's terrorist and perceptions of war and peace come with fuzzy edges. Added to that, the plethora of appreciative e-mails (feedback from friends after reading the finished draft) smells suspiciously of sycophancy (how come there is not a single line of criticism?). Irritating typos and long, convoluted, clumsy sentences clutter the text begging for a sharper editing job. Delete these bits and also the (unnecessary) over-use of cuss words and you have a fine work of modern day science fiction. The author known for his unique interpretation of mythological works is in his element here and this Asimov-meets-Ved Vyas-meets-George Lucas saga makes for some fast-paced reading. An interesting week-end book for the entire family.