Brasyl (Gollancz S.F.)
by Ian Mcdonald
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575082885
Date: 28 August 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The Gollancz mass market edition of McDonald's superb and highly acclaimed novel Brasyl. My review of the original hard cover release is being rerun this issue.
"Ian MacDonald's River of Gods, painted a vivid picture of a near future India, 100 years after independence. It revolutionised British SF for a new generation by taking a perspective that was not European or American. Brasyl will do the same for South America's largest and most vibrant country.
A story that begins in the favelas, the slums of Rio, and quickly expands to take in drugs, corruption, and a frightening new technology that allows access to all the multiple worlds that have slipped into existence in other planes every time we make a decision.
This is rich, epic SF that opens our eyes to the world around us and posits mind-blowing alternative sciences. It is a landmark work in modern SF from one of its most respected practitioners."
Following up his brilliant award-winning 2004 novel, River of Gods (reviewed back in our March 2006 issue by Harriet Klausner), is no mean task for British author Ian McDonald. This acclaimed work exemplified McDonald's increasing importance as one of our most incisive writers of literary science fiction. Since River of Gods, McDonald's reputation has been further enhanced by two Hugo nominations for novella length works. Now Ian McDonald returns with Brasyl, an extraordinary thematic narrative that I have no doubt will be featuring on many an award shortlist in the coming year.
Brasyl is constructed around three interwoven story strands, each of which takes place in a separate time period but also within the same geographical setting. The book begins in present day Brazil with an instant hook, a truly breathless and exciting car chase, but one which ends with an unexpected twist. We meet our first protagonist, Marcelina Hoffman, an ambitious and headstrong reality television producer, working in a creative climate of crass cultureless daytime TV. This is a cut-throat industry, in an almost literal sense and Marcelina is more than happy to pursue and pitch any idea that will allow her to claw her way to the top.
Jumping forward thirty or so years, McDonald depicts a near future Brazil where reality television has gone stellar – for the sky is full of surveillance satellites and the city and its millions of inhabitants are watched continuously. The criminal classes have devised ingenious methods to avoid and confuse this twenty-four hour scrutiny. In this future, our protagonist is Edson, a young wide-boy, assured and adapted to his world, yet hungry for knowledge and betterment.
And jumping back, we find ourselves in the same geographical place but this time three hundred years earlier. Here McDonald shows us a country being smothered in missionary zeal and under the yoke of exploitative European imperialism. Here our protagonist is a flawed Jesuit priest, Father Quinn, an ex-brawler with a guilty conscience and a personal mission. He is sent by his order upriver and deep into the jungle where – Apocalypse Now style – he is to 'deal with' a priest who is rumoured to have set up a mission that preaches a blasphemous gospel.
Each of scenarios would be ripe for story-telling, but what, one might wonder, links them? And in what way is this a science fiction novel? In simple terms, Brasyl is a novel about quantum realities and as the narrative develops, the three strands weave together, spilling into one another in the most remarkable ways. Marcelina learns that another Marcelina is living out her life, disrupting her work and alienating her family. It certainly isn't her... but then again it most certainly is. Edson falls in with a crew who illegally use quantum computers for criminal activities, only to find himself on the run with a woman he thought was dead; and Father Quinn, out-manoeuvred by the rogue priest, is captured by a native tribe, who via shamanistic methods are able to cross the boundaries that divide realities. One sentence summations cannot convey the brilliance with which Ian McDonald's blends his three narratives together – and definitely not without spoilers. But certainly, this author's skills are on full Technicolor, surround sound display here, and his innate feel and obvious love for language gives Brasyl a vibrant Latin beat that pulsates persistently at the very heart of the novel.
Indeed sound seems ever-present in Brasyl as McDonald expresses through his words the brash, overwhelming volume and the gaudy extremes of the country – whichever time period we happen to be in. At one point in the Quinn storyline, a character observes that "Brazil turns hyperbole into reality," clearly, McDonald observes, a trait that it retains today and one which it will take with it into the future.
Brasyl – the title suggesting a recognizable, though alternative reality is an intensely absorbing experience. It took me far longer to get through than novels I've read that are three times the length – but accordingly Brasyl is comparatively three times as rewarding. One is left with the impression of genre novel right on the cutting edge of the quantum blades wielded as weapons within its pages, a book that loudly proclaims the arrival of the future, of a designer fiction, fashioned for a premium market and of a book that surely will be hailed as loudly as McDonald's previous works.