(2004) Geoff Ryman, Gollancz, £6.99, pbk, 390 pp, ISBN 0-575-07811-1
Bearing in mind that Geoff Ryman spends a fair bit of his time in England it is (only) a little disheartening that the hardback only came out in the UK in 2005 and the paperback in 2006. However in the meantime this novel has picked up the Arthur C. Clarke, Tiptree, Sunburst and British SF Awards, so straight away you know that this novel has something going for it.
Air concerns Mae who lives in an Asian rural village that sees a testing of a new super-internet that directly interfaces with the mind. During the test something goes wrong and Mae's thought processes get entangled with those of an old woman. At first this seems to be of little consequence. What is important, to Mae (and the reader), is that this new technology will have a profound socio-economic effect on the village and villagers who risk losing not only their traditional way of life but their culture too.
As for Mae herself, she is a tailor cum fashion designer for the locals who is stuck in a drab marriage and who has eyes on one of her neighbours. She also has rivals for status in the village. And so the scene is set for change...
Indeed 'change' how it affects us and how we manage it (or it us) is very much the theme of the book. It has obvious parallels with many concerns (both local and global) that abound today, not least of which is that the chief protagonist is a woman and so there are gender issues explored too.
Geoff Ryman has written an intelligent and powerful book and so it is not unsurprising that it has picked up a few awards. This and being set in the near future and, other than the concept of 'air' itself, with factual technology means that the book will also speak to a readership beyond that of those into SF. Having said that, those whose reading is firmly within the genre may find that there is little sense of wonder to sustain them and that the plot's day-to-day setting does not replace this. If your reading is widely based (beyond SF), and you enjoy character-driven stories then you may well love this book. Conversely those who find the oxygen a little thin in the rarefied heights of non-SF literary stories (it may be you are not big on things like the Booker shortlist) then you may find that Air does not have much to sustain you (which is probably why it did not make the Hugo shortlist). Therefore, if this review has not already suggested to you whether or not this is a book you are likely to like, then I would advise looking out for it in a bookshop and having a good old fashioned browse (or maybe at some stage Google will have a sampler online). Consistently written from start to finish, half a dozen pages will tell you whether or not you will really go for this big time. If you do you'll be hooked.
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