Brasyl

by Ian McDonald

Cover image

Publisher: Pyr
Copyright: 2007
ISBN: 1-59102-543-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 355

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Marcelina is a reality-show TV producer in modern Rio. The book opens with her in hot pursuit of car thieves, filming them stealing a planted car. Her next big idea to surpass her rival is to find the goalkeeper who missed a save that cost Brazil the World Cup on their home soil and put him on trial in front of the country.

Edson is a street hustler and occasional transvestite in a future Rio of perpetual total surveillance. His brother steals a handbag with an RFID chip that's too new for the black market to crack, and while trying to help him escape the tracking, he stumbles into the world of underground quantum computing and falls in love with a beautiful quantumeiro.

Father Luis is an Irish-Portuguese missionary sent to Brazil in the 18th century to find an apostate priest who has set up his own cult built on the native slave trade. Along the way, he's told to have Robert Falcon, a French geographer and scientist, join him to take measurements deep in the Amazon.

Ian McDonald is one of the most literary of science fiction writers in the sense of focusing on character, setting, and tone over clear climaxes and traditional story arcs. In Brasyl, he shows some of the history and culture of Brazil but focuses on capturing the mood. Comparisons with his previous River of Gods are common; he does for Brazil what he previously did for India, using local culture and atmosphere to fuel a story that has larger SFnal questions in it than it might first appear. I thought Brasyl was the better book, in no small part because the huge ensemble cast of River of Gods is here narrowed to three primary protagonists, but the feel is similar. There is a plot (three of them, entwined), but immersion and character are the core of this book.

I am as ignorant of Brazil as I was of India, but subject to that caveat, I thought McDonald's portrayal of place and feel was exceptional. Instead of the complex interlocking drama of life and the sweep of history in River of Gods, McDonald instead captures (particularly through Marcelina and Edson) break-neck pace and a sensation of spinning off the surface of life. To slow down is to lose; to lose momentum is to get caught and ground under the forces of history and the boots of your competitors. Brasyl is exhilerating and exhausting by turns, showing both sides of a frantic life with remarkable vividness. I found myself eager for the slower, more thoughtful Luis sections just to catch my breath.

Luis's story is partly an anomaly. None of the stories connect clearly until well into the book, but Marcelina's and Edson's parts at least share a clear similarity in world-view. Luis, on the other hand, works at an 18th-century pace and slowly expands the reader's knowledge of Brazil as a Portugeuse colony and the sight and smell of the slave trade along the Amazon. It's fascinating material (one of McDonald's sources is now on my to-buy list), but it's the pre-history of Brasyl's world, the prelude from before the acceleration of history. Not until it starts laying the groundwork for future events does the story start to take on the urgency of the other two plot threads.

Characterization was, for me, the highlight of this book. Both Marcelina and Edson are wonderful characters even though (or perhaps partly because) neither are people I'd spend any time with. In both cases, McDonald demonstrates a remarkable grasp of the contradictions, complexities, and oddities that go into a person. Edson's transvestite identity and oddly sweet homosexual love affair are sharply at odds with his streetwise wheeling and dealing attitude, and both seem apart from his spontaneous love affair with Fia, but yet they all work together. Marcelina is stunningly self-centered and deserves the nickname of the queen of sleaze, but she's also a capoeira practitioner, and that side of her life adds greatly to the story. Capoeira is a fascinating symbol of the culture of bravado, display, and tempo that McDonald portrays and I loved those bits of the book.

As for the overarching plot, I'll stay mostly silent so that readers can have the fun of watching it unfold. McDonald slowly draws the curtain back over the course of the book, and it's not until about halfway through that one starts to see the connections between the plots (unless one has read reviews that give away the main point). Somewhat infuriatingly, McDonald again plays a bit coy with the ending; it's in keeping with the literary style and the focus on character and setting over plot, but while there's some thematic resolution and a bit of explanation, it's not as thorough as I'd like. It probably betrays my SF bias, but I want to know a bit more about the "stuff" than McDonald shows, rather than only getting the effects on the people. That said, there's a rather nifty Big Idea here, one that only gets more nifty the more one thinks about it.

I think Brasyl is a better execution of what River of Gods was going for, and while there aren't any individual ideas here as wonderful as the AIs in River of Gods, I think the book is more of a success. It has less sprawl, more focus, and tighter pacing. If you loved River of Gods, you'll probably love Brasyl as well, despite the far-different culture portrayed. Reading reviews around the net and in SF magazines, I see a lot of people praising this book very highly, many of them the same people who considered River of Gods the best book of the year.

My personal feeling is more muted. I enjoyed Brasyl, but I found it a touch frustrating plot-wise and occasionally struggled with it. Frequent use of Portuguese throughout the book makes the reading a bit hard, despite the glossary at the end of the book, and I wish it had as strong and clear of a plot as it had deep and multi-faceted characters. It's an excellent novel that wasn't quite my thing, but I'd still recommend it.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-04-29

Last modified and spun 2016-07-03