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Review of THE GANDHI RING by Bruce Hartford
Westwind Writers, 2006
Back in the day, we loved Huey Newton’s slogan: “The spirit of the people is greater than the Man’s technology.” We wanted to believe it; and we did believe it. That belief kept people going in the face of fire hoses, police dogs, bullets, wiretaps, grand jury witchhunts, assassinations and police occupations of their communities. Hartford was a civil rights activist in the 1960’s and he brings those experiences and understandings into his big sprawling novel of the contradictions faced by people without power (in this case manufactured Artificial People) looking for ways to win their rights.
Hartford’s rewrite of Huey’s slogan might be: “The spirit of the people is greater than the Man’s technology, especially if we steal some of his technology for our side.” The Gandhi Ring is part classic science fiction (lots of reliance on technology, especially cyber-enhanced heroes and villains and sophisticated artificial intelligence), part noir (one of our heroes is world weary PI Joshua Sun), part political thriller (lots of criminal-police complicity, double dealing by various agencies of the State), and a classic MacGuffin—a funeral ring purporting to contain the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi. What keeps it political, however, is that ultimately it’s a novel of people, not of technology.
A ring goes missing; the spoiled rich blonde who owns it hires Sun to find it. Turns out some people believe the ring contains Gandhi’s ashes. Why do so many people want it, some of whom are prepared to kill for it? Hartford hauls us through a future San Francisco, high and low, legal and illegal, as he tries to find it for his client while Shoshana, the other major character, tries to find it for the Movement.
Shoshana is an Artificial Person (of course they get called apes) who becomes a leader of the AP civil rights movement. She’s young, she’s beautiful, and she embodies deep spiritual commitment to non-violent resistance. Her growing commitment leads her to bolder and bolder action and, of course, into working with and at cross purposes to Joshua.
The story is told both by Joshua and Shoshana. Hartford gives us lots of characters to like and despise, not all of whom are who or what they appear to be. I was particularly fond of a group he calls the Cheyenne, a band of high tech/low tech warriors reminiscent of the soldiers of Zion in the Matrix Trilogy. Think geeks with weapons and fierce community solidarity. His protagonists embody the conflict between cynicism and idealism, and others, like the Cheyenne, embody other philosophies (in their case involving considerable, if measured, use of force).
Hartford has an ear for speech, and he gives us believable jargon of different groups—the “seen, seen” of a Movement audience responding to a speaker; the cloying courtesy of the yakuza kingpin; the malicious bureaucratic language of the corrupt security agents; technical buzzwords.
This is a big book; Hartford’s got a lot to say. He gives us a mid 21st century San Francisco dystopia, some not-too-sanguine history of the near future, an allegory on the civil rights movement, and a study of non-violence as a political strategy against official and unofficial violence, as well as a complex story. There are other stories hinted at: the AIDS crisis and its aftermath; homelessness; organized crime; the surveillance state. There are more stories here, if Hartford were to choose to tell them. We hope he will.