liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
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Author: Ian McDonald

Details: (c) Ian McDonald 2007; Pub Gollancz 2008; ISBN 978-0-575-08288-5

Verdict: Brasyl slightly missed the mark for me, despite being well-written.

Reasons for reading it: Ian McDonald is one of those authors who seem to range from good to outstanding, so I'm pretty much happy to buy new any novel of his.

How it came into my hands: The tempting SF section of the Birmingham Waterstone's, where I always seem to end up spending several months' book budget.

Brasyl is technically excellent, the plotting, the characterization, the language, the development of SF and sensawunda themes. For some reason though, it just felt formulaic. Maybe I've read too many books recently set in zany, fast-paced futures in exotic places, and too many that use the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory as a plot driver / excuse for technology that is basically magic. In some ways Brasyl seems to be rehashing a lot of what McDonald achieved in River of Gods (a book I adored); he creates a sense of place by means of including a broad sprinkling of specialist words in the local language, and providing lots of rather breathless background detail to emphasise that this exotic country is crowded and up-and-coming and everything happens fast. Although I know very little about either, it's pretty obvious to me that Brazil is not very much like India (other than that they both have rapidly expanding populations and rapidly expanding tech capacity), and the similarity of the depictions made me feel as if all I was being offered was interchangeable window-dressing.

I think the biggest thing that didn't work for me was the three different plots set in the 18th century, the present and the near future. The connections between the three stories didn't become apparent until about three quarters of the way through the book, by which time I was already kind of disengaged from the story because of the way it would jump between eras the moment I started getting invested in what was happening. As a result of this, every time I put the book down I was unmotivated to pick it up again, so it took me about 3 months to get through the whole novel, with lots of breaks in between to read ebooks that grabbed me more. Plus, the eventual unifying theme turned out to mystical-quantum-handwavium-technobabble, which I'm rapidly losing patience for. The big denouement felt like yet another rehash of the stock SF plot of the past 20-30 years about the choice between living in a safe but ultimately predictable simulation and breaking through to the frightening but free underlying reality.

The 18th century sections read a bit What these people need is a honky. The main plot is how the good white guy saves the poor oppressed natives from the evil white guy who wants to enslave them, and instead helps them to build a mystical utopia. The quantum handwavium leads to him being literally the Chosen One and treated as a god by the tribes. The only named black character is an exiled warrior prince who nobly sacrifices himself to save the protag, and the only named indigenous character is a girl / woman who offers herself as a kind of child bride to the white, geeky sidekick (even though he's rather distracted by trying to invent clockwork computers), and then nobly sacrifices herself to save etc. I mean, it's written well, there are good in-story reasons for all these clich├ęs, but I'm not sure that this is a story that needs to be written at all. Anything set during the colonization of South America runs the risk of romanticizing a particularly nasty and brutal (I would go so far as to say genocidal) period of history, and having the protagonist be somewhat anachronistically anti-slavery doesn't really help to mitigate that.

The protagonist of the contemporary sections is a rather spoiled, pretty young white woman who is incredibly good at capoeira. I actually enjoyed her characterization, because she's whiny and self-obsessed and manipulative, yet surprisingly sympathetic, and definitely not a damsel in distress. And some of the sections where she is being stalked by her quantum double are beautifully spooky. It's just that this makes two out of three sub-plots where all the characters only exist to make the white protag look awesome.

The future section has a more interesting protag, Edson / Efrim, who is actually Brazilian and also a bi, cross-dressing small-time gangster. I think I might have preferred a whole novel set in the Brazil of 30 years in the future, perhaps with Edson learning about the contemporary and historical stuff. I was less keen on the love interest in these sections; I don't think the story really benefitted from a sexy Japanese quantum physicist who gets killed within a few scenes of first appearing in order to provide motivation for Edson's quest. I might have put up with that if he didn't also meet her parallel universe double, who is some kind of quantum cyborg with sexy bio-cogwheels that even the narrative admits are gratuituous. So Fia gets fridged and gets to stay on stage being sexy and rescuable, both in the same story! I am normally quite well able to get into precocious teenaged boy mode when I read a subset of SF, but Brasyl just had too many reminders that I'm not the intended audience.

I think if this had been my first encounter with high quality contemporary SF, I would have loved it, but somehow it felt a bit paint-by-numbers. I'm also looking forward to The Dervish House a lot less as a result; I'm not really excited to read an SF novel set in Turkey if "Turkey" turns out to be just another iteration of "Brazil" and "India" with different exotic vocabulary!

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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