REVIEW: Brasy - Ian McDonald

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Martin Wisse

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Jan 5, 2008, 7:58:35 PM1/5/08
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Brasyl
Ian McDonald
404 pages
published in 2007

Call Ian McDonald the anti-Niven. Whereas Larry Niven has often been
accused of writing all his characters as if they belong at an early
sixties Californian cocktail party, McDonald's characters always come
across as belonging to the particular ethnic and cultural background
they're said to belong to. This is because McDonald, like the best
science fiction writers is genuinely interested in culture as well as
science, and genuinely interested in cultures other than his own. He
has a knack for painting a picture of a given culture, whether real or
invented, through the judicious use of background detail and character
interests. So far I've not yet read a McDonald novel in which the
world he created didn't convince me. His latest novel, Brasyl,
continues that trend. It's set, of course, in that perpetual country
of the future: Brazil.

Comparisons with McDonald's 2004 novel River of Gods are therefore
quickly made, though unjustified. Apart from that both novels take
place in countries that are not often used as a setting in science
fiction and apart from these settings being an essential part of them,
not just an exotic background for some displaced westerners adventure
to take place against, the two novels have nothing much in common.
Which is just as well.

Brasyl is divided into three stories. The first takes place now, in
2006 Rio de Janeiro, where Marcelina Hoffman is a tv producer working
for what you might call the Brazilian equivalent of Channel Five,
trying to come up with the most shocking, disturbing tv shows
possible, water cooler television. She thinks she has found the
ultimate watercooler show when she comes up with the idea to track
down Moacyr Barbosa, the goalkeeper who lost Brazil the Worldcup back
in 1950 and who has been in hiding ever since, track him down to let a
live tv audience decide whether he should be crucified or forgiven.
When she starts working in earnest on this project though, strange
things start to happen.

The second storyline takes place in Sao Palo in 2032, where Edson
Jesus Oliveira de Freitas is a smalltime hustler from not quite the
favelas trying to work his way up, when one of his more stupid
brothers manages to steal a top of the line handbag. A handbag
protected by a heavily encrypted arfid tag, something that cannot be
simply erased and which is putting the rentacops straight on his
brother's trail. And though he may not be very bright, it's still his
big brother and he wouldn't want him to get killed. Hence Edson makes
contact with a quantum hacker shop, people who use highly illegal
quantum computers to get around "unhackable" security like the arfid
in the handbag. And because he helps out his brother this way, Edson
meets and falls in love with Fria, who handles that operation. And
then she's killed by what Edson assumes is some parttime vigilante
working for the Taking out the Trash tvshow, killed by a knife that
can cut through everything, but then he meets her again, or does he?

Meanwhile, in historical times, in 1732, Irish Jesuit priest Luis
Quinn (McDonald is contractually obliged to put in at least one Irish
character in each of his novels) is sent into the jungle to persuade a
rogue brother Jesuit to come back to the church. He's not pleased by
his first impressions of the country, where mules, horses and other
big mammals all seem to get infected by a plague of madness, and where
slaves have taken over from the horses and mules... Yes, this
storyline does have some echoes of Heart of Darkness, though they
disappear after a while.

McDonald dazzles you with his descriptions of these very different
times and worlds, so much so that it takes some time for you to
realise that while these three stories are connected, it's not in the
obvious way, or that even the parts of the story set in the present,
may not be set in our reality. In fact, after a certain point it's
clear that Marcilla Hoffman, Edson de Freitas and Luis Quinn certainly
don't inhabit the same reality, though you'll probably realise that
much earlier than they will.

Yes, Brasyl is a story about alternative realities and reality wars
and in some ways that's a bit of a dissappointment. The big revelation
at the end of the novel is perhaps not a hoary old cliche yet, but
neither is it as fresh or strange as I would've expected from
McDonald. He's one of the few science fiction authors who I always
expect to come up with something new, something fresh, something
startling and this wasn't it.

But if the destination disappointed, the journey was more than worth
it. McDonald makes Brazil come alive the way he made India come alive
in River of Gods. It's not just that he gets Brazil right, or at least
good enough to fool soembody like me who has never been there, it's
that he can make the future of Brazil look convincing and Brazilian.

From the booklog: <http://www.cloggie.org/books/>

Martin Wisse

Pete Tillman

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Jan 6, 2008, 12:09:50 AM1/6/08
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On Jan 5, 5:58 pm, Martin Wisse <use...@cloggie.org> wrote:
> Brasyl
> Ian McDonald
> 404 pages
> published in 2007
> .
>
> From the booklog: <http://www.cloggie.org/books/>
>

Martin, thanks for the nice review. I usually like McDonald, but
bogged down badly in BRASYL, and abandoned it.

>Meanwhile, in historical times, in 1732, Irish Jesuit priest ...

Yeah, that's what did me in, the dull "Heart of Darkness" pastiche. I
might have come back, but it was a library copy, and my to-read stack
is unusually large now, so the hell with it. YMMV.

BTW, I've been absent from rasfw lately because the persistent DOS
asshole has made GG (even more) worthless -- I lost my usenet feed in
an ISP chg, and haven't set up another. news.individual.net is still
around, yes?

Best for 2008, Pete Tillman

Best for 2008, Pete Tillman

Martin Wisse

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Jan 6, 2008, 6:57:55 AM1/6/08
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On Sat, 5 Jan 2008 21:09:50 -0800 (PST), Pete Tillman
<Til...@toast.net> wrote:

>On Jan 5, 5:58 pm, Martin Wisse <use...@cloggie.org> wrote:
>> Brasyl
>> Ian McDonald
>> 404 pages
>> published in 2007
>> .
>>
>> From the booklog: <http://www.cloggie.org/books/>
>>
>
>Martin, thanks for the nice review. I usually like McDonald, but
>bogged down badly in BRASYL, and abandoned it.
>
>>Meanwhile, in historical times, in 1732, Irish Jesuit priest ...
>
>Yeah, that's what did me in, the dull "Heart of Darkness" pastiche. I
>might have come back, but it was a library copy, and my to-read stack
>is unusually large now, so the hell with it. YMMV.

That part had no problems for me, though, yes, the pasticheness of it
was somewhat obvious....

>BTW, I've been absent from rasfw lately because the persistent DOS
>asshole has made GG (even more) worthless -- I lost my usenet feed in
>an ISP chg, and haven't set up another. news.individual.net is still
>around, yes?

That's what I'm using. Ten euro for an account, supposedly per year,
but I have the feeling they don't check up much once you've paid the
first time...

Martin Wisse

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