Fiction Reviews


(2007) Ian McDonald, Gollancz, 18.99, hrdbk, 405 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8051-5


As you might guess from the title this story concerns Brazil and this country serves as the story's backdrop. In terms of the SFnal plot, the backdrop is not that important but I terms if the story -- as with all of McDonald's novels -- backdrop is everything. In the case of Brasyl the story is told, and the backdrop explored, through three separate strands that each have a commonality in that they ultimately reveal their own, as well as each others, underlying reality.

The first strand is set in 1732 at the time when Brazil was being colonised by European Portuguese. A Jesuit priest has been sent to apprehend a rogue colleague, the thing is that this rogue colleague has discovered that reality has multiple facets: a heretical belief that must be overcome and so understood, but with understanding comes embracement.

The second is set in the present-day (2006) Rio de Janeiro in which an ambitious reality TV show producer is out to find her next big success and seeks to do so by putting on a show trial of the footballer that cost Brazil the cup and allowing the viewers to decide his guilt or innocence. However someone is interfering with her life. When it turns out that this person is herself -- or rather another version of herself -- she knows that only one can ultimately survive.

The final strand is set in Sao Paulo of the near future in 2032. It is a city under close surveillance but the new forces that are stirring relate to advance quantum computers around which minor but strange things occur. A thief decides that stealing this quantum technology would be a neat idea and so gets permission to do so from the local mob leader.

Amidst all three strands there are a few individuals armed with Q-blades that can slice through anything as if air. Indeed when waved in the air they do seem to rent molecules apart. These blades are idestructable and can only be affected by another Q-blade.

Brasyl is typical of McDonald's novels in that the journey and (as said) the backdrop is important. With River of Gods it was India and the novel was liberally spiced with its culture. With Brasyl it is Brazil. As with River of Gods there is a useful dictionary of (real) terms to help you on the way and a selected reading list should you wish it. Scientist readers are advised to avoid this last until you have read the book as the first selected read is the list's one and only popular science book and this in part gives away the end plot. (So be careful your eyes do not wander when checking out the preceeding dictionary.) The other half of the plot resolution is a variation on an established SF concept, aspects of which have in recent years been explored by the likes of Baxter and Wilson. (Enough said: any more would constitute a spoiler.) Suffice to say that the book does have a destination albeit that this is the opening of a new chapter in the lives of some of the protagonists. So it continues the development of McDonald's work as seen with the afore-mentioned River of Gods. These two are different from his earlier works, such as Desolation Road, in which the journey exploring the backdrop was everything and the whole was nothing extra. Of course McDonald's descriptive writing is very powerful which is why his works get the acclaim they do and which is what draws many of his readers. Similarly Brasyl descriptive framing will speak to his past readers while this and the overall plot-arc will more than satisfy his more recent fans.

Having said all this, if you have not come across McDonald before then you need to know that he does not write hard SF adventure (though Brasyl does have hard SF elements underpinning it) but goes for a 'literary' style of story telling. Consequently Brasyl will get critical acclaim and I have no doubt that it will be short-listed for a number of awards in 2008.

Anything bad about the book? Well the idea of a story having a 'playlist' is something that takes me back to my student days. Does the author really think that many of his readers are going to seek out the songs? It comes across as more than a little pretentious but maybe this is just me: I'm the sort of person who listens to Desert Island Discs for what the guest has to say and not their music preferences about which I care not a jot. Having said that, musical references do seem to crop up in a number of his books so I guess this is one of his trademarks.

Anything absolutely brilliant about the book from the SF-loving scientist perspective? You bet! But hugely frustratingly I can't tell you as it would constitute a spoiler, suffice to say that the year of its publication (coincidentally I believe as there is nothing to indicate the contrary) just happens to be a major anniversary of a scientific concept that has been used countless times within SF. (UNLESS YOU HAVE ALREADY READ BRASYL do not click on this science spoiler.)

Well there you have it. Richly descriptive in terms of culture and characters, and with more than a dash of sense of wonder, Brasyl takes its Anglophone readers not just to another culture but through three time zones and beyond. I wonder what Brazilians will make of it? (If an edition comes out there could someone let me know.)

Jonathan Cowie

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