June 25, 2008

Book review: "Brasyl," by Ian McDonald

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Brasyl
By Ian McDonald
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-543-6

Regular readers know that I ended up lucking into a cool situation this month; I just happened to be able to get my hands on half of the ten books nominated this year for either the Philip K Dick Award (recognizing the best experimental science-fiction novel of the year) or the Hugo Award (acknowledging simply the best SF novel of the year, recognized by most as the most prestigious award in that genre). And as I've made my way through these five novels this month, as a long-term fanboy who has sorta lost touch with the genre recently, I've been reminded once again of one of the biggest and most bitter ironies of genre work in general; that there is just the tiniest difference between a simply okay project and a super ridiculous insanely great one, a difference sometimes so subtle that the author in question isn't even consciously affecting it, but was rather was just born with the ability or inability. And that's ironic, of course, because one of the well-known stereotypes about genre work is that it's easy to get published there; and that's true to a certain extent, or at least to the extent that it's easier for amateurs and fans and beginning writers to get published within genre fields, but it's also true that it's much harder to stand out within a genre than in traditional "mainstream literature" (which I argue is a genre unto itself, but that's a whole discussion we'll table for today), the lessons for being in the top of your field very subtle ones that are difficult to understand.

Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

I can think of no better example of what I'm talking about, in fact, than the Hugo-nominated Brasyl by Ian McDonald, so far easily the best of the now three nominees I've finished and reviewed. Because it's brilliant, frankly, it's freaking brilliant, as dense and trippy and plain entertaining as William Gibson in his '80s heyday, even sharing some of his stylistic tricks and plot devices, but also set thoroughly in the modern world and reflecting the exact cutting-edge issues that we all are dealing with in a rapidly globalizing 21st century. But now that I sit down to write my review, I find that I'm having a hard time in my head detailing exactly what about this book made me go gaga, versus the other two award-nominated SF books I've now reviewed (Jon Armstrong's Grey and Sean Williams' Astropolis: Saturn Returns); because frankly, all three books are thorough genre projects through and through, any of which can be held up by any fan in public while saying, "This is what science-fiction is." So what makes one so much better than the others, in my opinion? What are the tiny little things that make hardcore SF fans go crazy in the first place?

So let's start, then, with a pretty important detail, one that non-fans might not even realize is a hallmark of the genre; hardcore SF fans generally like their books to be kind of confusing at first, a game-like puzzle full of terms they don't yet understand, a plot we're in the middle of without knowing the background yet, and they like to be only slowly pulled into the necessary exposition of the story over the first half of that novel. And that's something I can honestly say is a big difference between Brasyl and the other two novels mentioned; that by picking his unknown technology carefully and referring to them lightly, he doesn't overwhelm the reader into throwing down the book in confusing disgust twenty pages into it (something I've heard online reviewers exactly say, for example, about Saturn Returns), but by setting it in a hot and sweaty Rio de Janeiro full of actual Portuguese hipster slang terms, he provides that exact sense of confusion and puzzle-solving joy that hardcore fans like. (Psst -- don't forget there's a glossary at the end.) And by actually setting the story among three different time periods of Rio's history at once (the 1730s, 2000s, and 2030s), without explaining until halfway through why he's done so, he also provides the game-like element so prevalent in such fellow great genre projects as Lost and Heroes.

And in fact, this brings us to one of the first big things about Brasyl to remind me of Gibson's work; McDonald is masterful at portraying cutting-edge technology as it might actually be deployed in the sweaty, dirty world of the working-class, a world where cheats and shortcuts are created as often as can be gotten away with, all of it wired together McGuyver-like with baling string and a couple of quantum processors. And in fact by setting two of these stories in 2006 and 2032, he essentially lets us have our futuristic cake and eat it too: he at once gives us a world just like our own but much cooler (think Gibson's Virtual Light), full of shirtless kids on motorbikes getting their secret directions from their GPS-enabled cellphone; plus a bonus "world of tomorrow" story (think Gibson's Neuromancer), where laptops have been replaced by 'iShades' and there exists huge giant floating city-states that simply circle the globe, circle the globe (which of course is yet another Gibson trademark from his '80s work). And by setting that third story in the 1700s, McDonald also manages to throw a steampunk tale in there (think Gibson's The Difference Engine), a tale that manages to stick a European "natural philosopher" (proto-scientist) in the Brazilian rainforest with a sword-fighting Catholic monk, both of them transporting an ornate wood and brass device for determining the exact circumference of the Earth once finally reaching the equator, and while tracking a rogue missionary who's gone crazy and started his own Colonel-Kurtz-style indigenous spartan cult out in the middle of the jungle. Sheesh!

In a lesser writer's hands, such material would simply fall apart so very quickly, would become just such a pulpy mess that literally would crumble in your hands; but McDonald, see, has actually made a whole career now out of this exact type of material and these exact types of stories, with a slavish fan base that already exists and a whole pile of awards and award nominations under his belt now. And indeed, what he is precisely most known for as a fantastical author is setting his stories in third-world situations, and making a majority of their plots hang on such details as "refugee cities" and the gray market that makes such million-person communities work; his most famous series, for example, the "Chaga Saga" from the '90s, at least partially deals with the AIDS crisis in Africa, while his 2004 cult hit River of Gods is set in mid-21st-century India. This is what makes McDonald so unique, his stories so special, even while reflecting the best of what the "cyberpunks" from the '80s had to say as well; he knows exactly how to wrap up cutting-edge concepts and items into a filthy, sweaty, very very real human milieu, knows exactly how to both take you there mentally and put a Matrix-like "Q Blade" in your hand once you arrive, without you breaking into laughter at the absurdity of it all.

Because like I said, McDonald takes you down some strange roads by the time Brasyl is done, and this is ultimately much more than a simple "the kids of tomorrow all have cool cars" tale; as mentioned, there's a very good plot-based reason that these three stories are told in such different time periods, all of them simultaneously, which I won't get into in any more detail today, but let's just say it's no accident that I've made several references to quantum physics in today's review. Make no mistake, this is a hard SF story, as satisfying to any hardcore fanboy or girl as to a general audience member wanting to read a fascinating story about cutting-edge squatter communities and obsessions with World Cup soccer. And this of course is yet another little detail that hardcore fans take seriously, that so many authors are always accidentally getting wrong, of trying to find a balance between the fun understandable elements and the "hard-science" part of it all. Make it too simple (which McDonald almost does here; you'll know what I mean when you read it yourself), and suddenly the genre fans are crying out in Comic Book Guy glee, "Worst! Teleportation! Explanation! Ever!," while make it too complicated and you suddenly have nobody but Comic Book Guys reading. (I mean no offense, by the way, to all you Comic Book Guys; I just mean that that isn't a large-enough audience to sustain an entire career.)

This is for sure a difference between Brasyl and the other two SF books I've now reviewed this month; Brasyl treads this line well, feeds you just enough background information while leaving as much as possible up to the imagination, while both Grey and Saturn Returns had a lot more problems trying to find this balance. I have to admit, this book was a real treat to read, something that got me excited about science-fiction in a way I haven't felt in years. I think it has a very strong chance of winning the Hugo this year*, and I'm now highly looking forward to getting caught up on his past work. It comes highly recommended today, to both existing fans of the genre and people who usually don't touch science-fiction with a ten-foot pole.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.9
Characters: 9.1
Style: 9.4
Overall: 9.6

Read even more about Brasyl: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*This year's Hugo winner will be announced in Denver on August 9th, at the annual World Science Fiction Convention which sponsors the award. The PKD Award has actually been given out already; it went to M John Harrison's Nova Swing, which by coincidence just happens to be the next SF book I'll be reviewing here. (Oh boy, is it good so far.) Oh crap, and now that I'm looking into it, I just realized that I read yet another Hugo nominee earlier this year, Charles Stross' Halting State, which I didn't care for at all. Anyway, that makes it officially at least six of the ten nominees I'll be reading this year, more if I can get my hands on copies of the last four.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:01 PM, June 25, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |