Air

by Geoff Ryman

Cover image

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Copyright: September 2004
ISBN: 0-312-26121-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 390

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Chung Mae lives in the village of Kizuldah in Karzistan, a fictional Central Asian country modelled after one of the poor, economically underdeveloped ex-Soviet republics. The village survives mostly on rice farming, the villagers farming terraced paddies on the nearby slopes, and Mae supplements that by researching fashion in the nearby "city" and recommending and obtaining dresses for the villagers. The village has only a few automobiles and phones, families live together for many generations, and most of the village families have known each other for hundreds of years.

Into this world comes Air, a new technology that is being brought to everyone in the world by the UN. Air is essentially a telepathic Internet and the villagers do have some experience with the traditional kind in town. No one is ready, though, for the first test run, a terrifying experience that leads to an accident that kills Mrs. Tung, Mae's elderly neighbor, and leaves her living a strange merged afterlife in Mae's mind. After the Air trial, Mae is determined to make her village ready when Air comes for real a year later and struggles to learn and teach her friends while dealing with personal upheaval, untrustworthy allies, village politics, and her strange mental companion.

One of the things that science fiction does better than any other genre is the technique of alienation: taking a familiar concept or event and recasting it as Other so that the reader can look at it with new eyes and see from an outsider's perspective. Air is a brilliant example of the technique. This is a story about the effect of technology on the inhabitants of third-world countries, clashes of culture, maintaining traditions under the onslaught of change, first-world attitudes towards the third world, and the pain and difficulty of progress, all themes that could thrive in a serious mainstream novel. Ryman could have written that novel. But the added SF elements throw the reader just enough out of identification with Western technology to identify with Chung Mae. They add enough strangeness to make preconceived notions about technology harder to apply, make it easier to see truth in a viewpoint that carries an edge of ancient mysticism, and help identification with the baffled and overwhelmed villagers. The result is a story with more emotional impact than I think could have been mustered without that separation from the world we think we know.

I'm going to rave about almost every aspect of this book, but I'll start with the way Ryman portrays the village culture and its interactions with the outside world. The setting may be an economic backwater, but it's anything but simple; Kizuldah is a deep, complex network of community with complex problems, long-standing alliances, and a way of life that is not easily changed. Ryman writes tradition, family ties, and village committments with a deft touch that maintains a quiet charm but puts real people underneath it for the reader to respect. Mae is a perfect viewpoint character for this. She fits well into the structure of relationships in the village and continues to honor it even when her desire to embrace change tries to tear her away, and through her attitude the reader learns to appreciate the merits of the traditional village culture even while it has to change.

When Mae starts interacting with the rest of the world via a more traditional Internet, Ryman also does an excellent job with slightly condescending Western attitude, Mae's determined self-deprecating politeness, and the mutual near-incomprehensibility of perspective. Mae's village captures attention through native arts, which mixes with some villagers wanting to make a political statement about a persecuted local minority. The resulting curiosity, fad interest, concern, and well-meaning incomprehension from those outside the country and idealistic agents of the local government is conveyed partly in chapters showing completely believable e-mail exchanges. My emotional reaction as a reader was complex: on one hand, the slight condescension was accurate enough to be embarassing, but on the other hand, Mae's attitude shows how the Western attitude may not be that important and placing too much emphasis on our reaction is another form of condescension.

Every part of this book raises thoughts like this just below the surface. None of them are belabored in the story; Ryman leaves them under the surface for the reader to dig into or not as they chose. Air has multiple formats that affect the way the brain interacts with it, and there's an argument over which should be used by the UN initiative that raises questions of corporation lock-in and quality of interface that sound just like current battles over Microsoft. Mae's attitude towards her rice paddies is neither purely bucolic nor purely modern, capturing some of the complex appeal of tradition. Technological descriptions are done with English translations of the Karzistani words, giving the reader an idea of how hard it is to even talk about high technology in a language with no words for the underlying science. Mae remains firmly grounded in her culture, determined and defiant but not becoming a Western feminist hero. A local unethical genetic engineer beautifully illustrates the complexity of grey-market genetic experimentation in countries poor enough to want the money. And there, as with everything else in this novel, Ryman avoids easy villains and black-and-white morality; characters who sound like obvious villains end up admirable in their own ways.

The depth and efficacy of the symbolism is amazing. For another example, Mrs. Tung, Mae's inadvertant companion, becomes the voice of tradition and fear of change. She too has gone through a drastic change in her past, but it was a horrible, harrowing affair, and her obsession with the possibility of it repeating becomes a symbol for the fear of the village. She also brings another fascinating motif to the story: because of her strange existence, she cannot remember anything new, and those who cannot, or will not, remember new events cannot change. This motif resonates through the rest of the story.

Despite this depth, there are only a few places where Ryman lets the symbols run away with the story. Mae's strange pregnancy, for example, crosses over into the impossible in places (although not as soon as you might think; if it sounds completely unbelievable, poke around Google) and into the disturbing in more places, but her baby is such a perfect symbol of the village that I can't bring myself to criticize Ryman much. Watch the description at the very end of the story. The pregnancy, birth, and description of the child fits the change and role of the village perfectly. Similarly, there are parts of Mae's interaction with the genetic experimenter where one has to pay attention to the symbolism of identity and changes in one's nature to fully understand what's happening. The science of Air also doesn't bear that close of inspection; it's not the point of the story, and there's just enough handwaving there to carry thematic weight and justify some of the things that happen to Mae.

Those are exceptions, though. Ryman builds a wonderful, engrossing pure story on this symbolic foundation. Technology and traditional culture combine with fascinating and memorable characters to create charm, drama, tension, and romance. Ryman never betrays his setting to a fantastic technological future full of SF gadgetry, nor does he fall into the trap of writing a story about beautiful people and hidden princes. Instead, he does such a job with human drama that Mae's description of her village near the end of the story is one of the most emotionally powerful pieces of writing I have ever read. Not only did it have me in tears when reading, it had me near tears just remembering it. This is simply great writing at every level.

This kind of book is why I read science fiction. It's simply one of the best novels I've read, succeeding at multiple levels and doing justice to multiple competing views of the world. Mae spends the entire book pushing to understand the technological world, helping her village fight through the perils of change, creating a beautiful bittersweet moment, and yet, in a contrast that marks the entire book, another main character at the end explains the whole story in terms of traditional elemental spirits to her son. "You just say what the old people would have said, and something is explained. Somehow it's all easier to bear." It's true, without contradicting anything Mae was striving for, and Ryman shows this without a hint of authorial exposition, without ever telling rather than showing. That's consummate craftsmanship.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-02-13

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21