The last time I read Ryman (1989’s The Child Garden), I enjoyed the work quite a bit, but I was somewhat put off by his combination of a very sincere and warm humanism with bleak subject matter. Well, I have much the same to say about Air.
In 2020, the world is prepared to install a global wireless system that links directly into people’s minds, called “Air.” It sounds like a pretty great technological development, but when it comes to some of the more isolated areas in the world, areas like Ryman’s fictional central Asian republic of Karzistan, where villagers have little exposure to tv, let alone the internet-in-the-brain, the people are not ready. The first test is disastrous, leading to many deaths throughout rural Karzistan, including two in Kizuldah, the village that Ryman focuses on. Chung Mae is a middle aged fashion consultant in the village, and she gets trapped in Air during the test and has one of the test’s victims fused into her brain. But, she comes out of the experience determined to prepare her fellow villagers for the changes to come. A variety of forces within the village oppose her at different turns, due to petty jealousies and some controversial behavior on her part, but she continues to succeed with big heapings of peasant pluck.
In this era of expanding internet and globalization, it’s certainly a timely story, and Ryman has a lot of fascinating ideas on the subject. It’s a great topic for a book, and Ryman’s heroic humanism is well-suited to the setting – we see each of the villagers' hidden strengths and flaws, and even when they seem to be acting incredibly stupidly or viciously, Ryman gives us believable and even relatable motives for their actions. On that level, the novel works quite well.
The village does feel a little too perfect perhaps, and I do suspect that Ryman oversells central Asian isolation, if only by a little. I don’t think I’d call the book patronizing, but it can get…cutesy. Ryman also can’t help but get into some surrealistic and absurd imagery. It’s dialed way back from The Child Garden, but it’s still there (especially in one very bizarre plotline that I won’t give away), and it clashed with the social realism of the setting and its problems. Maybe Ryman’s shooting for magical realism, but the balance just doesn’t seem right, even if that’s case.
Still, it’s a well-written book with intriguing and relevant themes, and Chung Mae is a fascinating character. There’s a lot to recommend the book, I just felt like there was some clutter (and a pretty slow beginning to boot).