Review: Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

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(Gollancz, 2007. ISBN 978-0-575-08050-8)

(Review first published on the ASIM website, September 2007)

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I shouldn’t (and shan’t) judge the book by it, but I feel at least compelled to comment on it. Brasyl‘s cover is a cunning exercise in marketing: a silvered iridescent front cover enclosing a partially-gaudy, partially industrial-drab illustration, jungle fauna and slums. This illustration is glimpsed through the book’s title, which is cutaway (in, I think, placard font) from the book’s foil cover. It’s an impressive design, and can be interpreted on several levels: catching the viewer’s eye, hinting at hidden depths within the story, and (quite possibly) discouraging the purchaser from lending the book to clumsy friends. The cutaway letters are unlikely to take kindly to repeated insertion into an overstuffed backpack or handbag. But enough on the cover already (aside from a quibble that a gold iridescent sheen would be more thematically apposite). What of its contents?

Ian McDonald is a British SF writer, Manchester-born but raised in Belfast (where he still lives), who has produced over a dozen novels and short story collections in the past 20 years. I’m new to his work, but it appears that one of the principal themes in Brasyl, colonialism, has featured prominently in his earlier works such as the Africa-based Chaga series of novels.

Brasyl, McDonald’s latest work is, or at least appears to be, a stand-alone work, although there is likely scope to explore this world again.

Brasyl is a three-stranded story, with alternating chapters exploring plot lines in 2006, 2032-2033, and 1732-1733. There is no early indication of connections between these plot lines, which focus respectively on Marcelina Hoffman, a peppery, cynical producer of tacky, sensationalist reality TV shows for Rio de Janeiro’s struggling Canal Quatro station (be thankful that none of her shows have been picked up over here, yet); Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, would-be talent scout / entrepreneur seeking to carve out his own niche in near-future Sao Paolo; and Father Luis Quinn, an Irish-born Jesuit who’s been sent to Brazil as an admonitory [equivalent, according to my near-nonexistent knowledge of Catholic practice, to a kind of one-man Spanish inquisition], charged with investigating the conduct and spiritual state of a renegade priest stationed somewhere among the upper reaches of the Amazon’s northern tributaries.

The characters of Marcelina, Edson, and Quinn, as well as the varied subsidiary players in their respective timelines, are sharply drawn and sufficiently engaging. They’re introduced, too, in situations which sustain a sense of intrigue and curiosity. This is of added importance since, other than the near-future extrapolation of Edson’s story, there is nothing which immediately marks the book as a work of speculative fiction. It’s only gradually that the SF elements begin to intrude on the present, and then the past storylines: in this, McDonald does an excellent job of the ‘slow reveal’.

At times I found the level of detail in Brasyl obtrusive, largely because of the persistent and intense use of Brazilian localisms. This uncharitable reaction reflects my general ignorance of Brazilian society and even geography (so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of Brasyl’s scene-setting, though I can say that the depth of McDonald’s depictions is almost always convincing: there is clearly a lot of research underpinning the exposition); for other, more methodical readers, linguistic difficulties may be averted through perusal of the book’s useful glossary. I sense that McDonald has a great deal of empathy with the various plights of those in Brazilian society, and his interpretation of the near-future development of that society, in Edson’s timeline – the slums are still with us, the unreasonably wealthy are still with us – seems plausibly balanced between optimism and dystopia. (I was particularly taken, too, with the notion of getting a pair of shoes printed …)

It’s difficult, in reviewing this book, not to draw parallels with M. John Harrison’s Light. Both books have a similar triple-stranded construction, both are slow to establish points of linkage between their respective storylines (though links certainly exist), and both are intimately concerned with the weird implications of quantum computing. Neither book is a particularly easy read, though each is in its way quite rewarding. That said, they’re very different novels, both in writing style (Harrison’s prose, it seems to me, has a quality almost of etching, a sequence of sharply-scribed lines, while McDonald’s writing has more of the character of a thickly-daubed oil painting, colour piled on colour to convey details of setting, mood, and event) and in ultimate premise. Brasyl is concerned not with the quantum-detailed strangeness of Light‘s universe, but with the even stranger hypothesis that an effectively infinite number of universes exist, and may be inter-accessible in certain circumstances.. There are twists beyond that, too, in Brasyl, but I would be doing the book a disservice to disclose those twists here. In the end, McDonald achieves a highly effective summation, through fiction, of some of the truly huge notions encapsulated within modern quantum physical theory, and I think it’s to his credit that he does so through a consistent focus on the lives of a few pivotal individuals, rather than through a more broad attempt to paint the biggest picture possible.

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2007)

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