Friday 25 March 2011

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

This book was first published in 2007 and attracted glowing reviews plus several award nominations, being voted novel of the year by the British Science Fiction Association in 2008. My copy had been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, so I selected it as one of the reads for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group, which despite its title considers one new as well as one old book each month, plus a short story a week.

Brasyl has three plot threads which remain separate for much of its length, the only immediately obvious link being that they are all set in Brazil. The main thread is set in 2006 and follows the fortunes of Marcelina Hoffman, an unprincipled TV producer working on the next exploitative programme for her trashy TV channel. Another is set in 2032, a time of quantum computers and total surveillance, in which Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, a small-time cross-dressing operator on the fringe between legitimate business and the criminal underworld, tries to make his fortune. The third goes back to 1732, when an Irish Jesuit admonitor, Father Quinn, is despatched up the Amazon to locate and bring back another Jesuit priest who has established his own empire there. The chapters rotate between the threads, carrying the stories along together.

The writing is of high quality with the Brazilian settings, old and new, obviously well researched and richly portrayed, but nevertheless I found this a difficult book to get into. One problem was that the multiplicity of secondary characters confused me - I kept losing track of who was who - as did the fact that the text is liberally sprinkled with Brazilian terms. There is a glossary at the back but I found that on most of the occasions when I referred to it, the word I wanted to clarify wasn't there. As a result I was never entirely on top of the action but was always struggling to keep up.

The first half of the book was therefore hard going, particularly since there is nothing particularly science-fictional about it except for the setting of the 2032 thread. If it hadn't been my selection for the discussion group, I might not have persevered. But I felt honour-bound to keep going, so I slogged on and was eventually rewarded as the action picks up in the second half. Links begin to appear between the threads, including "quantum knives" which can cut through anything, and an eternal battle between two shadowy organisations is gradually revealed in a way which will delight all conspiracy theorists. The climax, concerning the nature of our reality, is as ambitious as any SF reader could want.

In the end it was worth the read but, as with so many critically-acclaimed modern SF novels, I found that I admired it rather than really enjoyed it. The emphasis in the first half of the book on literary quality, on slowly developing the characters and their environments, robs it of the pace and tension which characterise the kind of stories I enjoy the most.


Bill Garthright said...

Tony, it sounds like the kind of book I might have liked years ago. I was far more ambitious in my reading then, willing to work my way through a slow beginning to get to an imaginative conclusion.

I've lost that ambition these days. I want to enjoy a book, rather than just admire it. Most of the modern science fiction I read - certainly of novel length - aren't the kinds of books that get nominated for awards.

Not that an award-winner can't be vastly entertaining, of course. But I tend to pick entertainment over substance, these days. If a book has both, that's great, but... those books aren't easy to find.

Anthony G Williams said...

Too true, Bill. In "mainstream" literature there has long been a widening gulf between award-winners (elitist) and best-sellers (popular). Is the same thing beginning to happen in SF?