21 February 2007

Locus Reviews Ian McDonald

by Gary K. Wolfe

from Locus Magazine, February 2007

Brasyl, Ian McDonald (Pyr 1-59102-543-5, $25.00, 480pp, hc) May 2007. Cover by Stephan Martiniere.

In all likelihood many of the readers who were suitably impressed by Ian McDonald's brilliant 2004 novel River of Gods, with its sprawling portrait of a near-future India, have been anticipating something similar in his new novel Brasyl, as though McDonald — long among the most eclectic of major British SF writers — might finally be settling down into a franchisable identity of some sort. If so, they haven't been paying much attention to the way McDonald does things. It's true that he's long been interested in exploring different cultures, examining the effects of colonialism, and moving SF beyond its familiar Anglo-American futures, but rather than applying a Micheneresque formula to these settings, he's more likely to let the setting determine his narrative strategy. The densely populated and culturally paradoxical panorama of River of Gods derived visibly from what McDonald saw in modern India, just as Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone (1994) derived from a particular view of Japan and Chaga (1995) and its follow-up novels and stories from a particular (and very sensual) view of Africa. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that Brasyl is no more like River of Gods than Brazil is like India. What is surprising, perhaps, is the degree to which McDonald approaches his topic from an entirely different SF modality: whereas River of Gods suggested a closely extrapolated post-cyberpunk way of modeling the future, Brasyl combines some pointedly Dickian reality shifts with the quantum notion of multiverses (his use of this rather oversubscribed term derives mostly from the work of David Deutsch), and with the corollary notion that what we view as reality may be nothing more than a program running on a universal computer. In other words, his conceptual framework here is closer to Greg Egan than to Gibson or Sterling.

None of this, of course, is immediately apparent as McDonald's three story lines — one set in the present, one in 1732, and another in 2032 — evolve and eventually converge. In fact, the novel opens in the present as a comically manic satire on reality TV, as we are introduced to an ethically challenged producer named Marcelina Hoffman who sees her job as concocting ever-more outrageous stunt programs for the camera, such as setting up an auto theft in order to track the subsequent police chase on camera. (Marcelina's programming boss, who speaks largely in internet chatroom abbreviations, is another wonderfully comic invention.) When Marcelina learns that the goalie whose missed block lost the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay — still regarded as a national catastrophe among Brazilians — might still be alive, she concocts a scheme to track him down and place him on trial on national television. But her search for the elusive Barbosa (who in real life died in 2000) leads her into an increasingly bizarre and ominous network of mysteries — she finds herself being followed, her apartment is broken into, and, most disturbingly, she learns that another version of herself seems to be subverting her investigation, and may be even trying to kill her.

The second narrative, set in a surveillance-happy 2032, revolves around Edson de Freitas, who with his brother runs a rather second-rate talent agency but who's also not above petty theft (which can be challenging in a world in which virtually everything is chipped and trackable by spy-planes and satellites). Edson has fallen hopelessly in love with Fia Kishida, who shows a remarkable talent for de-encrypting these security codes, but he soon learns that Fia has something of a secret life as well; it turns out that Edson's mentor and sometime sex-fantasy partner Mr. Peach (the two of them often dress up in superhero costumes for their assignations) had been an adviser for Fia's doctoral dissertation in computational physics, in which she argued that mind is a function of a multiversal quantum computer entangled among all possible universes. Like Marcelina trying to track down Barbosa, Edson finds that his attempts to learn about Fia leads into ever-deepening mysteries and even a murder or two, again involving a mysterious double of Fia, who may be part of a secret group called the Sesmarias which polices events across universes.

The third narrative, which may be the most richly textured in terms of evoking the notion of Brazil as a truly alien place, concerns Father Luis Quinn, arriving in Brazil in 1732 on a Heart of Darkness-like mission to track down a rebellious priest named Diego Gonçalves, who has apparently begun building an empire deep in the interior, based on his own eccentric (and frightening) view of Catholic theology. Accompanying him on his journey is a French scientist named Robert Falcon, who is fascinated with an early version of a punch-card based weaving system, invented by his brother Jean-Baptiste, which he calls a Governing Engine. (Such a device was actually invented by Jean-Baptiste Falcon, years before Jacquard was born.) Both Quinn and Falcon are disturbed by the violence and slavery of Brazilian society, and it is this subplot of the novel which most clearly delineates the heritage of slavery, genocide, and colonialism which haunts even the Brazil of the other two sections. But again, their mission reveals mystery upon mystery: a strange madness disease runs rampant through the pack animals, the explorers come across a destroyed villages where atrocities have been committed, an isolated tribe called the Iguapa seems to have some secret knowledge of multiple realities. Gonçalves's slave empire, with its massive floating basilica, turns out to be a nightmarish spectacle which puts not only Conrad's Kurtz to shame, but also Francis Ford Coppola's.

Gradually, clues appear which lead us to suspect that all three timelines are linked: a fearsome knife called a Q-blade (for quantum) which can slice through anything at the atomic level, shows up in 2032 (even then its origin is uncertain), but then again in the present and even in 1732. The mysterious Sesmarias, descendants of generations of paratime secret masters going back to H. Beam Piper and beyond (and recently treated in a somewhat similar manner by Damien Broderick in Godplayers), seem also to have agents in each of these disparate time-frames. But what really unites the novel is not its familiar SF conceits, however cleverly deployed they may be, but rather its vividly realized tripartite portrait of a place which, as McDonald repeatedly reminds us, is like no other, and which seems like an almost eerily appropriate setting for shifting realities and histories. A few years ago, in an academic book titled Brazilian Science Fiction, M. Elizabeth Ginway employed a term invented by the Brazilian critic Roberto de Sousa Causo to describe an emerging tradition of high-tech postcolonial SF then emerging in Brazil. "Tupinipunk," an amalgam of cyberpunk and the name of an indigenous tribe, was characterized by "iconoclasm, sensuality, mysticism, politicization, humanism, and a Third World perspective". With his very enjoyable Brasyl, McDonald may have given us the first tupinipunk novel to appear from outside the borders of Brazil itself.

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This is one of over forty reviews from the February 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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