One of the wonderful things about science fiction is the way the good authors are able to encourage you to look at the universe and the way it works with new eyes while fulfilling all their obligations as a story teller as well. There are some authors who can spin great webs of knowledge that will have you scratching your head in wonder for days, but their books read like physics texts not stories, or their characters are so one dimensional that you don't really care what happens to them. You can pluck your characters from any period of time you want or send them across the universe, but if they don't capture a reader's imagination what's the point? There are two words in the genre's name, science and fiction, but far too often authors forget the latter leaving you wanting to forget the whole damn thing.
Thankfully that's not the case with Ashok Banker's new release, Gods Of War, simultaneously published by Penguin India for Indian readers and by Banker's own AKB imprint for international audiences on September 15th/09. Best known for his modern adaptation of the Indian epic The Ramayana, a science fiction novel might seem like an abrupt change of pace, but the deeper you travel into Gods Of War the more you'll realize Banker hasn't written a typical "hard" science fiction novel. In fact I don't think you could call this "typical" of any genre in particular, and its all the better for it.
For while Gods Of War begins with what most would call a fairly typical science fiction set-up, a mysterious space craft appears in Earth's atmosphere causing widespread consternation among the populace and its leaders, Banker soon lets us know we're going to be going where few have gone before. First he takes us on a quick hop around the world, Mumbai, Tokyo, Birmingham in England, and New Jersey in the United States, where we meet each of the five main characters whom we're going to be following throughout the book, and then he has us witness the next stage of the story through each character's eyes.
While all that sounds conventional enough I suppose, the fact that our five leads end up being the only people on earth conscious when everybody else enters into what looks like a type of suspended animation as they have fallen into such a deep sleep it's impossible to wake them is the first sign that some sort of higher power is at work. However that soon becomes the least of our character's worries as they each receive a visitor and then an invitation.
If it was disconcerting enough to be visited by someone they assume to be from the space craft hovering in orbit, you can imagine their surprise when it turns out their visitor is, Ganesha, the elephant headed Hindu deity. While it might make sense for the son of Shiva to appear to Santosh, the ten year old boy from the slums of Mumbai, what on earth does he want with Ruth the red necked lesbian who works in a ship yard in Jersey; Salim, a Muslim business man from England; and the twin magna artists Yoshi and Akechi from Japan whose differences are more significant than their similarities.
It seems no matter what they believe, or who they are Ganesha wants the same thing from each of them. To come with him to the ends of the universe in a desperate attempt to save the world, if not all of creation itself, by stopping a war that's being fought for control of what they are told might as well be the City of Heaven. When they reach their destination they discover they aren't the only beings who have been invited along, as there are creatures of all shapes, sizes, smells, and sounds from all over the universe involved as well. Yet what is it they were watching when they witness the war taking place in and around the City of Cities - the home of the Gods? Who would have the nerve to attack the gods?
In Gods Of War Ashok Banker shows us the great battle line that exists in our world today between faith and science. The war may not actually be taking place in as graphic a manner as he depicts in this book, but what else would you call the actions of people who use the name of God as their justification for rape and murder but an attack on the Gods themselves? Yet in spite of the heavy theme of the book, Banker never forgets he is a story teller, and its within that framework that he delivers his message.
We get to know each of the characters in the book as intimately as possible and we see the story unfold through their eyes. It's because he takes that care his message is so powerful. As readers we are absorbed from the moment we first meet Santosh in Mumbai until the last page because whether we like the characters personally or not, they have become so real for us that it's like we are their sixth companion. While we may not fully grasp the significance of what's happening, or fully appreciate what each character is experiencing, there are enough universal elements to allow us to relate to each of them on some level. Emotions are emotions no matter who you are, and Banker's ability to describe people's emotional reactions to circumstances act as a bridge carrying us into the heart of the action.
Yet in spite of its large scale, he somehow manages to keep the story remarkably personal so that we take in each detail of what his characters are feeling and experiencing. Banker has an unerring knack of being able to bring any scene he describes to life in vivid detail, and although there are times in this book we may wish he wasn't quite so good at this job, the fact that location after location graphically comes to life in our mind's eye pulls us deeper and deeper into the story. In some ways its like watching an epic film unfold as scene after scene comes alive on the page.
Gods Of War proves once again that not only can Ashok Banker describe the great sweeping events of history, but he can do so in such a way that we are all able to relate to them on a personal level. He takes a complicated theme, and instead of dumbing it down or trivializing it, he integrates it into his story in such a way that it comes to life. This is a wonderful story, by a remarkable and gifted storyteller.
(Originally posted September 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.