Brasyl by Ian McDonald

 A review of two halves. We had both Hobbit/Mark and Banger/Art review Ian McDonald’s latest. Both reviews were written seperately and without collusion; they both seem to have things to say about the book.

First up: Hobbit’s review:

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

Published by Gollancz UK, June 2007

ISBN: 9780575080515

512 pages (382 pages ARC copy)


Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit


It may be no surprise to some of you that I can sometimes be a little slow on the uptake. Things that are staring me in the face do not make that immediate connection of recognition whereas others see them straight away. This was brought to my attention most recently when I suddenly realised that with the latest book from Ian McDonald I belatedly recognised a pattern through his work. Having written about a future India in his last book, River of Gods (2004), and Africa (in Chaga, 1995) Ian now writes about Brazil. This at first glance seems to be producing a series of future travelogues. Of course, being SF, and therefore being damnably clever, things are not as simple as that. In Brasyl he visits not just one Brazil, but three: a Brazil (or Brasil or Brasyl) of the past, present and future through a quantum connection.


To do this then we have three narrative strands. In the present (or at least a 2006) we follow the story of Marcelina, a hotshot reality TV producer who, at the start of the book, is trying to set up a car-theft-chase through the streets of Sao Paulo to be filmed by TV.


We then travel to a Brasil / Brasyl of the future: Edison is a quantum programmer in the Sao Paulo of 2032. Here the hyperurban environment leads to computer hacking and espionage.


Lastly, in contrast, we visit a relatively untamed Brasil: Father Luis is a Jesuit Priest of the eighteenth century at a time when French missionaries were bringing the word of God to the natives of Brasil.


Three rather disparate tales, then, all show different facets of this enormously diverse country. What links the three stories together is the actions of the Order, a secret organisation spanning across multiple strands of a quantum universe to maintain the status quo. All three of our tales here affect and effect changes that the Order would rather not have happen. Marcelina, as part of her career development, discovers that a cause celebrite from the past is not where he should be and also there appears to be another Marcelina; Edison becomes enamoured with a woman whose expertise with quantum computing leads them into danger; Luis has to travel up the Amazon with a geographer as part of an expedition as well as to remove a threat to the tenuous hold the Roman Catholic church has on eighteenth century Brasil.


Part Blade Runner, part Fast and Furious, part Philip K Dick, part Neuromancer: the influences are many and varied. However, what makes this book special, as perhaps should be expected from a writer of McDonald’s calibre, is the book’s fast pace and dazzling dialogue, hitting the ground running from page one. Things happen quickly and increasingly fractional. Whatever era being written, the book is filled with Brazilian/Portuguese language which can make the understanding of events a little unclear at first (though there is a Glossary at the back) but also gives the book a drive and a beat that propel the reader through the book. The three different eras allow Ian to stretch his narrative imagination, combining battle scenes with sword fights with metropolitan street races, cyberspace punk with urban hip. The characters are interesting though not always easy to like.


Perhaps central to all of this though is the big SF idea: that the universe is nothing less than a quantum computer, creating infinite possibilities and outcomes. This is why the Order exists: to guide this infinitism to some degree of order, to make sense out of chaos and keep covert a big secret: perhaps THE big secret.


A big SF idea: very current, very sexy. With such a big, complex proposal then, an easy conclusion is not possible: if you’re looking for a neat conclusion where everything ties up at the end, this book is not for you: in fact, as every possibility is possible, the ending was rather open and could lead to a sequel, or at least an alternate variant (perhaps as Brasyl is to River of Gods.) Some may therefore be a little disappointed at the end, but for me, perhaps like a journey to the real Brasil, the view given by Ian along the way is dazzling.


Clever: nicely plotted, skilfully worded. One of my favourite reads of 2007 so far.


Mark Yon / Hobbit, May 2007



 Then Banger’s:


Brasyl by Ian McDonald

Pyr hardcover 2007


Rio had always been a city of shifting realities, hill and sea, the apartment buildings that grew out of the sheer rock of the morros, the jarring abutments of million-réal houses with favela newlywed blocks, piled on top of another. And where the realities overlap, violence spills through.

As fans of science fiction and fantasy, we often (but not always) encounter foreign worlds that challenge the conventions of our lives, our communities, our cultures. Stories of colonizations, first contacts, or far-flung futures place before us scenarios that are unfamiliar and often unsettling. Even so, the worlds are frequently familiar as variations upon the themes that exist within our cultures, or are safe because they are fictive.

What the heck is Brasyl, anyway? Isn’t it Brazil (if you’re English or American) or Brasil (if you’re Brazilian or Portuguese)? The title of Ian McDonald’s latest novel suggests an uncanny otherness, a Derridean connection to and distinction from that country in South America which we may or may not know much about. As an Irishman writing to a predominantly “Western” audience, McDonald acts as tour guide to a New World that will seem familiar to us in many ways, but alien in others. Further complicating the experience, Brasyl meanders like the Amazon between three storylines set in very different time periods.

The novel opens in 2006, where Marcelina Hoffman is one of Rio’s most innovative – and therefore, unscrupulous – reality television producers. After she pitches a show in which the disgraced goalkeeper from the 1950 Brazil World Cup team is put on public trial, her career and personal life begin to unravel at the hands a doppelganger. Who is this other Marcelina, and why is she trying to destroy her life? In 2032, Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas is a streetwise young man with a nose for business and a proclivity for role-playing. He falls for cyberpunk hottie Fia Kishida, a rogue quantum physicist who gets killed by some hoods wielding glowing blue blades – then appears again, alive and still pursued by the same hoods. Meanwhile, in 1732, Father Luis Quinn, admonitory for the Catholic Church, travels up the Amazon to investigate a priest whose missionary work has sparked rumors of heterodox acts. Accompanied by scientist and inventor Dr. Robert Falcon, the two find themselves in a novel inversion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for the renegade priest they seek has his own conception of orthodoxy – and a ruthless plan for his own City of God.

The three plot threads run on parallel lines, each one a different subsection in every chapter, a different time, a different Brazil. In Brasyl, McDonald combines quantum theory with postcolonial theory to create a multiversal conception of existence in which a great battle between hegemonic order and multivariate freedom is waged across universes. All of the story’s heroes – Marcelina with her creation of television realities; Edson with his “diversified” businesses, talents and identities; Quinn bearing the guilt of his past – are defined by their willingness and desire to conceive of alternatives to their worlds, and this willingness and desire marks them as dangerous to those who wish to impose only one version of reality to the multiverse. Stressing the value of such a comprehensive conception of existence, McDonald’s narration requires the reader to come to this realization by experiencing it through the three parallel storylines. This is not just a literary conceit on McDonald’s part: one cannot simply read, for instance, Marcelina’s story to understand his point; instead, other, alternative narratives must be understood, so that through them one sees the larger picture, which is the freedom that such an understanding of the multiverse provides.

Despite the different time periods, there is a consistency to McDonald’s style throughout Brasyl, including sharp dialogue, free verse description, and a heavy use of Portuguese (a glossary in back contains most, but not all, of the vocabulary), that helps to draw the three stories together. After all, to many of us coming into the novel, all three worlds are virtually foreign, but through the immersion into Brasyl and that recognition of difference we soon discover similarities between the worlds presented. One sees the connections between the teeming jungles of the eighteenth century Amazon and the urban jungles of twenty-first century São Paolo and Rio, Falcon’s “Governing Engine” and Kia’s quantum computers. But differences remain – in fact, they are celebrated, for with difference comes freedom. Which Brazil exists in your world?

Brasyl is the best new novel I’ve read this year: a load of fun and an inventive politico-philosophical story, making it both entertaining and important. Read it now so that when it starts popping up on several short lists later this year you’ll know why.


© 2007 Arthur Bangs




Review with Ian McDonald HERE.



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