Brasyl by Ian McDonald | Book Review


A while ago I read McDonald’s collection Cyberabad Days, short fiction set in the same future India as his 2004 novel River of Gods. I was very impressed with this collection so I picked up River of Gods and his latest novel Brasyl a couple of weeks back. River of Gods is a six-hundred page monster, I don’t think I am quite ready for that, so I decided to have a go at Brasyl first. A novel that has been nominated for this year’s Nebula award got to have something going for it. Because of the way this book was written I found it very hard to write a spoiler free review on it. If you haven’t read this book yet be advised there is probably a few things in the text you don’t want to know about yet.

As the title suggests, McDonald again takes us to an unfamiliar setting for many fans of the science fiction genre. The novel consists of three stories set in Brazil in 2006, 2032 and 1732, each of the chapters following that order. In 2006 in Rio de Janeiro we meet the overambitious and rather shallow TV-producer Marcelina Hoffman, someone who will do pretty much anything to attract viewers. She is responsible for some of the sleaziest reality shows yet to hit Brazilian TV. Marcelina lives on a diet of botox, coke, capoeira and the thrill of chasing her next commission. Her latest idea involves finding the disgraced goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa blamed for the loss of the deciding match in the 1950 world cup, held in Brazil. A match it seemed, Brazil could no loose. Marcelina intends to find out if Brazil is ready to forgive him. On national TV of course.

The seconds strand of the story is set in São Paulo in 2032. In this future Brazil Big Brother is everywhere and surveillance and (privatized) security have reached insane proportions. Not that this has stopped crime of course, as Edson de Freitas knows very well. Edson thinks of himself as a businessman who has managed to rise above his favela origins. A lot of his deals are still illegal though. When one of his brothers steals a highly fashionable handbag, with a number of nifty security features built in of course, Edson comes to his brother’s aid. With the help of a team of quantum computer specialists they manage to keep Edson’s brother out of the hands of the police. In the process Edson meets the mysterious Fia, a girl he instantly falls in love with.

Jesuit priest Father Luis Quinn asked for a task most difficult to perform in the service of his order. When he arrives in June 1732 in the plague stricken Portuguese colony of Brazil it seems he is prepared for anything. A skilled linguist and master swordsman should be up to the task his order set him. In Brazil’s unmapped interior the Jesuit priest Diego Gonçalves has set op his own little kingdom. Rumours of slavery, murder and heresy have reached the head of the order. Quinn is to investigate and if necessary deliver the wayward priest to justice. Accompanied by the French scientist Robert Falcon, Quinn heads upriver to investigate. Apocalypse Now in the 18th century (sorry, haven’t read Heart of Darkness yet).

The question of course is, what do these three stories have to do with each other? A question that will plague the reader though most of the novel in fact. Not until the last 80 or so pages do the pieces fall into place. Sure, McDonald drops hints here and there in the story. The emergence of a quantum knife, a device that cuts though any material at the quantum level, in Quinn’s time, the fact that Barbosa died in 2000 in our world but is apparently still alive in Marcelina’s, Fia’s resurrection in Edson’s story… All these hints don’t make sense until McDonald reveals the larger framework in which these stories are set. This is a rather sudden event, for me it jarred the flow of the story. After al these little hints McDonald decides to lay it out for the reader in the space a a couple of pages. Structurally this book has issues.

The factor that combines the three stories turns out to be the Quantum Loop Gravity theory. I understand absolutely nothing about it other than that is an attempt to unify quantum mechanics and gravity into a single theory. It is a different approach to the same problem string theory tries to solve. One interpretation of Quantum Loop Gravity holds that at the quantum level space is just connections between bits of information. That everything is connected information in time. Or to put it in a more recognizable form, everything is one big quantum computer, running a multitude parallel universes. This has some scary, almost Matix-like consequences each of the characters faces in his own way. Personally I was most impressed with the way McDonald let’s us share Quinn’s understanding of the situation from his 18th century perspective. Using a more philosophic and religious approach, Quinn’s understanding of the situation is probably easier to follow than the lecture Marcelina receives.

Structurally it may have issue, this book also has a lot going for it. One of the things I admire most about this novel is the way McDonald changes his style to match the character and year he is writing about. Parts of Quinn’s story read like an 18th century travel journal for instance. McDonald’s prose is never light reading, there seems to be a rhythm to it, the reader has to catch for the story to really flow. Once you do, it is not a book you easily put away. Reading a few pages here and a few pages there won’t really work with Brasyl. An added difficulty for the reader is the way McDonald completely immerses the reader into Brazilian society, local customs and history. His story is laced with words of Portuguese, Tupi or African origin, some of which I am quite sure I can’t pronounce. Adding this Brazilian vocabulary gives the book the feel of a, for western readers, exotic setting but for people completely unfamiliar with the place it may be confusing, even to the point of disrupting the story. There is a glossary in the back of the book, I think I could have very well read this book without it but at some points it does help.

The characterization is also very strong. Each of the characters goes through a very profound change in their lives in the books. A change that shakes the foundations of their lives in fact. In that respect I probably liked Marcelina’s story best. From a very self-absorbed and superficial woman, who’s ethical standards are completely dependant on the show she is producing, she changes into a warrior for a cause she believes in. With Quinn, McDonald takes a different approach. We get to see him more from the point of view on Falcon, changing from a determined priest into a raving madman and then to a prophet. Edson, I must admit this part of the story was my least favourite, is so focussed on Fia that it takes him quite a while to learn something about himself. Once his eyes are opened, the things he used to want are no longer important to him. Three very different characters with very different outlooks on life and reality, all of them somehow contributing to the reader’s understanding of the scientific and philosophical idea that is the core of this novel.

I will admit I haven’t read any of the other novels running for the 2009 nebula award but I would certainly understand if McDonald got it. Brasyl is very carefully written and well researched. It displays the quality of McDonald’s writing very well. Like Cyberabad Days it is a challenging read, one I didn’t truly appreciate until what I had just read had time to sink in. I think McDonald managed to raise my expectations of River of Gods even further.

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