Book Review: Brasyl by Ian McDonald

Writers, like other artists, do not create in a vacuum. Rather, creation often comes by accretion, building on ideas of others to strike out in new or different directions. Ian McDonald’s Brasyl is a marvelous example of such synthesis.

Each chapter contains three storylines set in past, present and future Brazils. Not only does McDonald give us a flavor for life in each period, he links them in unexpected and striking ways. Here, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness meets The Matrix, shamanistic perception meets quantum physics, and historical fiction meets cyberpunk.

The story begins in May 2006 with Marcelina Hoffman, a reality show producer for a Brazilian national television network. Her latest idea is to create a television trial for Brazil’s goalie who let in the winning goal when the Brazilian national soccer team lost the 1950 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro. In our reality, the goalie, Barbosa, died in 2000, having been reviled by many Brazilians since the loss of that game. In Hoffman’s Brazil, Barbosa is still alive and her search for him leads her on a frightening and fantastic journey into the multiverses of quantum mechanics.

There is more of a cyberpunk edge to the second concomitant story. It is set in a Brazil of 2032, a world in which radio frequency ID tags and surveillance are omnipresent. The cyberpunk feel comes from a group of “quantumeiros,” hackers who combat government surveillance and are on the run with their own quantum computers. Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas is the bisexual owner of a second-rate talent agency who seeks respectability but still has plenty of street smarts and contacts with some of the extralegal elements of São Paulo. He falls in love with Fia, a quantum physicist who is part of the quantumeiros. When what looks to be Fia reappears after Edson sees her dead following a government attack on the hackers’ truck, he, too, is led into the rabbit hole of multiverses.

The third story focuses on Father Luis Quinn, an Irish-born Jesuit sent to Brazil in 1732 as an admonitory from Portugal. His task is to go up the Rio Negro in the northern interior of the country, the world’s largest blackwater river, in search of Father Diego Gonçalves. Gonçalves is a Jesuit who has begun to set up his own empire among the natives, one that may also be spreading its own form of religion. Much like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, Father Quinn’s task is to locate Gonçalves and “restore him to the discipline of the Order.” Quinn is given “full executive authority” in his assignment, a phrase that would include, in today’s parlance, terminating Gonçalves with extreme prejudice. His more mystical immersion in the multiverses also resonates in the other timelines.

Despite its relatively short length (less than 350 pages for the story itself), McDonald does not give short shrift to any of his ideas. Moreover, he takes his time revealing the quantum connection among the three timelines. This is not wasted time. Instead, the British author creates a real sense of place for each tale, one that may not be fundamental to the premise but which creates the structural frame for it. And the ultimate premise is one that blurs the lines between mysticism and science and between reality and nonexistence.

While McDonald does a good job explaining the quantum mechanics that beget the ultimate premise, that doesn’t mean a reader doesn’t have to do a bit of work. Brasyl uses a variety of Brazilian terms, slang and ideas that will send any attentive reader to the Internet to research, particularly those of us who evidently are not attentive enough to find the glossary in the back of the book until we got to that page. Even then, there’s a variety of terms and concepts the glossary does not cover. (McDonald also displays the role of music in the novel by including a playlist of 20 songs by Brazilian artists.) While some may be critical of an approach that might send the reader outside the four corners of the written page, the language is essential to creating the sense of person and place in each of the timelines. Besides, who ever said you shouldn’t actually learn about another culture in reading a science fiction novel?

McDonald’s last novel, River of Gods, portrayed Indian society in 2047. It earned nominations for both the 2005 Hugo Award and the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award, given for the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom. Not only should his deft touch and vision of multiverses earn Brasyl those nominations again, no one should be surprised if it earns him the awards themselves.

Humankind cannot stand too much reality.

Ian McDonald, Brasyl

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