Sunday, January 22, 2012

2007 BSFA – BRASYL by Ian McDonald

McDonald returns to the same formula he used in River of Gods (and later in The Dervish House) and places interesting speculative concepts in the context of a developing country. I think I’ve already made it clear that I’m a fan of this formula: it forces sf writers to confront issues of historical and cultural context that I’ve complained can be absent from the genre. A book like Rainbow’s End isn’t really that different from McDonald’s work, but McDonald’s settings give his novels a liveliness that is absent from Vinge’s familiar SoCal. That said, whenever an author employs a formula like this, they have to be wary of using it as a gimmick. In Brasyl, McDonald is a lot closer to falling into that trap than in his other works.

McDonald tracks three different stories throughout the novel. One takes place in roughly the present day (2006) and involves a reality show producer in Rio de Janeiro named Marcelina Hoffman. Reality programming is a weird phenomenon that feels like something out of sf satire from the ‘70s, so it fits in rather well. Hoffman is the purveyor of the especially dangerous, edgy and salacious type of reality show, and as she works to get a show on the air that would humiliate a geriatric footballer, she begins to notice that someone with her likeness is sabotaging her. In 2032, we meet a young cyberpunk named Edson, who works out of the favelas (slums) of Sao Paulo, and trades different identities to commit petty crimes. He falls in love with quantum computing anime girl and also notices a weird doubling that throws his life into chaos. Finally, we swashbuckle into the early-eighteenth-century Amazon with a Jesuit priest named Luis Quinn and a French scientist named Robert Falcon. Quinn is on a mission to find another missionary who has gone Kurtz with some of the Indians upriver, and he encounters an Amazonian plant that seems to allow people to see into other realities. The stories do eventually interconnect (via some quantum theories that McDonald seems to be found of) into a vast conspiracy that hints at something every bit as vast and epic as River of Gods.

It’s a fun story, and, if you’ve read my Stephenson reviews, you know I’m a sucker for the cyberpunk meets history angle. In fact, this does feel at times like a Stephenson knock off – a blend of Snow Crash and the Baroque Cycle – but a really good one. McDonald even shares Stephenson’s frenetic and irreverent prose style. If you’re a Stephenson fan who’s looking for more, go read this novel right away.
Still, because it felt a little derivative (albeit, of something daringly original…this book still feels very different from 99% of the sf out there), and because I never quite engaged with the characters (I’m just never going to be able to sympathize with a reality show producer, no matter how well-drawn she is as a character), I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as River of Gods.

Most importantly, I feel like the setting is wasted a little bit. Brazil has taken knocks in the past for not living up to its vast resources and geopolitical advantages; McDonald often quotes the saying that “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be.” So, as a failed “country of the future” there should be a lot to say about the country’s future. We never get much of a sense of that. There are vivid details of the beautiful settings from Rio’s dramatic hills to the big cities’ gang-controlled slums (the great film City of God is referenced heavily) to the majesty of the Amazon. It’s all there, as is capoeira, and samba, and football. But, you could still rewrite it into the US without any significant alterations to the plot. It all feels a bit like window-dressing. I guess I wanted something epic on a world politics level in the same way that River of Gods was.

I feel like I’m doing the thing again where I spend my whole review complaining about a book I really liked. There’s a ton of fun action here, the setting is cool, and there’s some high-level existentialist quantum-physical sf stuff before it’s all said and done. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it’s my clear favorite of the three books I read published in 2006 (the others being Rainbow’s End and Nova Swing). It’s just overshadowed by some of the other landmark novels of the decade, including McDonald’s own.

Grade: B+

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