I fell madly in love with Ian McDonald with Dervish House, so I pounced when I found Brasyl at the bookshop the other day. Given his other novel is Cyberabad Days, he’s an author who is clearly very keen to explore non-traditional settings for SF written in English – in a way that, as far as I can tell, is as true to those non-Anglo locales as he can be.
(NB: isn’t the cover a riot? There’s a mask, and a lizard, and tail feathers, and stars, and circuitry, and a butterfly…)
As with Dervish House, I am uncomfortable with making sweeping assertions that this book does not take an inherently white/colonial perspective, because I just don’t know – I’m a naive Anglo and I’ve never been anywhere near South America. However, as with the other book, I can confidently say that it feels sympathetic: it’s not simply showing good bits or bad bits or exotic bits, but gives the flavour of a genuine society; and it’s not simply set in Brazil because that’s a good selling point (I don’t even know if it would be). Brazil is absolutely integral to the story, and set anywhere else this would be a very different book. The ethnic mix of the population, the cultural results of that mix – especially the language – the history of colonisation and, in one narrative stream especially, the fact of the Amazon itself are all entirely necessary. And the result is that, perhaps especially to a foreigner like myself, an enchanting and sometimes repellant society with intriguing familiarities and disturbing incongruities.
On the topic of location, one of the marvellous things McDonald does in his worlds is make them contained – they are all that is required. The Rio of 2006 and the Sao Paulo of 2032 are all that is necessary for the stories to proceed. No foreigners, no other locales, are required for an elaborate and intricate story. The only other time other countries are mentioned, basically, is in talking of the soccer teams who have beaten or been beaten by Brazil. (The section set earlier in time does have some foreigners, but we only know them once they get to Brazil.) That I noticed this insularity is perhaps indicative of my earlier reading, in particular, often having involved characters who go to exotic locations to have their adventures, but rarely interact with the locals (except perhaps to sleep with; Clive Cussler, I am looking particularly at you).
Brasyl has eight sections and three separate storylines following through them. In each section, the contemporary story – set in 2006 – comes first. Next the reader is taken to 2033, and then finally to the 1730s. Each storyline is, on the surface, quite different, although there are similar themes bubbling along under the surface, and there are occasional, intriguing, cross-over references. In 2006, we follow Marcelina, a hard-living and hard-nosed TV producer for a TV channel known for making outrageous programmes. Her life isn’t an easy one; fads and trends rule, careers are made or broken on the whim of the ratings, and the effort to keep up with Society requires enormous energy and grit. And the occasional back-stab. Existence goes on as normal, until suddenly it doesn’t, and Marcelina discovers someone is messing with her life. And things do indeed get messy. Marcelina is a fascinating character. She’s good at her job, which makes her quite unpleasant much of the time. The reader is allowed occasional insights into her mind: her love of capoeira, the martial arts/dance; the way she interacts with her real and her “alt dot” families; the way she views everything as potential TV. However, we are never allowed very close to her; she remains essentially unknowable – as she is to most of those around her. I loved reading her story, but I didn’t feel as… empathic as I might have. Interestingly, for all that it’s set in 2006, I have no idea how true to the Rio of today this story is; the city, the TV, the telenovelas, the obsession with fashion all sound entirely plausible, but could as easily be that slightly exaggerated ‘tomorrow’ that McDonald does so nicely in Dervish House and the 2030s part here.
The 2030s narrative follows Edson, budding entrepreneur, who accidentally gets involved with some rogue quantum-computer scientists. In many ways, this story helps to explain some of what is going on in the other two, and why these seemingly disparate stories appear here together, because quantum mechanics and quantum entanglement are at its heart. Edson’s interactions with quantum theorists allow McDonals to posit multiverse theories and explore the repercussions of the idea that the multiverse might in fact be a quantum computer. The info-dumps are skilfully places, always in an appropriate context, an ever so heavy that they detract from the narrative itself. Edson is a more approachable and likeable character than Marcelina; he’s more innocent, despite his background, and more open, despite the difficulties of his life. While he shares a “seize any chance that comes along” attitude with Marcelina, he seems to do so with more… joy, really, and less malice. We also see Edson fall in love, and I think that has a humanising impact. Edson’s story revolved around the trouble he gets into thanks to quantum computation, but really it’s all about relationships: with his family, his neighbourhood as a whole, the bewitching female scientist and the his long-time male lover. The futuristic elements of this section are subtle and believable, epitomised by the Angels of Perpetual Surveillance keeping track of everything and everyone via RFIDs, which I can well imagine some politicians leaping at; and I-shades, which are exactly what they sound like. I think Edson may have been my favourite character.
In many ways I found the eighteenth-century plot the most confronting of all. Still set in Brazil, this is a time of European conquest – military and cultural. It follows Luis Quinn, a Jesuit sent on a quest straight from the pages of Heart of Darkness, and Robert Falcon, a French scientist. There are crazed Europeans and slave raids, dreams of building in the jungle and mysterious tribes, and over it all the immense, imponderable bulk of the Amazon rainforest that, by the 21st century, barely plays a part. I really enjoyed this section, despite its unrelenting acknowledgement of the horrible actions undertaken by Europeans, and it did require some faith that McDonald would actually connect it to the other two narratives. Quinn, on a most difficult task, is the sort of man the Jesuits wanted: deeply committed to his God and to the task at hand. Falcon is the classic 18th century opponent: Christian, but foremost a scientist, obsessed with calculations and the natural world. Together they discover some brutal truths both about the jungle and the actions of the other Europeans in the area.
All three narratives do indeed have links, although they really only become obvious towards the end. There are some similarities in theme that tie them together – trust, friendship, quest, and Brazil, most obviously. I would recommend each story on its own merits even if they didn’t coincide, to be honest. It’s a wonderfully written book, with intriguing characters and a really marvellous sense of place.