Brazil is not a serious country

Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

Sometimes I like to pair books to music. For Ian McDonald’s sprawling celebration of Brazil past, present and future there could only be one choice. Funk-carioca (also sometimes called baile-funk), the music of the Favela.

Funk-carioca is a messy music, bursting with energy and taut rhythms. It makes heavy use of samples, scratching and a hundred borrowed beats and like the hip-hop that’s clearly one of its biggest inspirations it’s filled with sex and violence. Funk-Carioca is trashy, but fun, and it’s deeply danceable. It’s an expression of youth and sheer exuberance that on occasion tips over into being just plain crude and irritating. I’m listening to some as I write this.

Brasyl is a funk-carioca novel.

In 2001 a Goldman Sachs’ economist famously coined the acronym BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India, China. These are the coming superpowers, the developing countries that are overtaking the developed ones. We live in a period of transition, of the passing of wealth and therefore power from the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA) to new powerblocs with different traditions and naturally with different national and regional interests.

Although the rise of the BRICs can be overstated (this isn’t an overnight process and in the lifetime of anyone reading this every one of those G7 countries is likely to remain a major player), it is the fundamental story of our age and it’s extraordinary how little our fiction grapples with it. If investment banking can show the world as it is, we should expect no less of art.

If any art form should address this, it should be science fiction. What’s the point of a literature of change if it can’t grapple with the fact that the shape of things to come isn’t what those of us in the West thought it was? In the main though science fiction has ignored this challenge, populating its dreams with versions of ourselves which ultimately comfort by showing us a future in which we still run the world. We don’t even run it today.

Ian McDonald is one of the few writers to recognise this. In his astonishing novel River of Gods McDonald explored a future India and combined currently popular SF concerns (transhumanism, nature of consciousness, deep-time cosmology) with issues much more of this world (water shortages, resource wars, the stresses faced by traditional societies and faiths in the face of modernisation).  River of Gods isn’t a predictive novel (actually very little SF seeks to predict the future, that’s a misunderstanding of its role), rather it’s a mirror which reflects our own world today through an SFnal perspective so that we see it made strange and glorious, which of course our world really is.

Brasyl takes a similar approach to River. Like that earlier novel it pursues multiple narrative threads, which naturally combine near the end into one connected story. In 1732 a Jesuit travels upriver into the heart of darkness in search of a rogue priest who has set up his own empire among the Indians and who must be brought back for judgement, or if necessary killed. In Rio in 2006 an up and coming TV producer pursues an idea for a new reality show, riding just beyond the edge of contemporary popular culture. In Sao Paolo in 2032 a young Favelado dreams of money and a life beyond the slums and may just have the intelligence and business acumen to get both.

Each narrative soon becomes stranger than it first looks. The Brazil of 1732 is afflicted with a plague that is killing off the horses, mules and oxen. That didn’t happen though, so is this actually our 1732?

In 2006 Marcelina Hoffman, the TV producer, thinks her biggest enemies are her rival producers. Soon however she finds herself being stalked by what appears to be herself, a doppelganger that knows her life intimately and is intent on destroying it.

In 2032 Edson, the streetwise fixer and hustler, finds himself in love with a quantum physicist who uses near-voodoo science for petty crime. Through her he learns that the universe and everything in it is just one iteration of a vast number, perhaps an infinite number, of universes. It’s a truth some are prepared to kill to keep secret.

The challenge of course with multiple-narrative fiction is that when the strands are brought together the answer for how they all connect must be satisfying (which is where David Mitchell’s similar Ghostwritten fell down for me), and they must also all be equally interesting. McDonald’s vision of 2032 is glittering, a city filled with commerce and movement and life all looked over by the “Angels of Perpetual Surveillance”:

… balloons the size of city blocks maneuver in the tropopause, holding position over their ground data-transfer stations. Exabits of information chatter between them, the seamless weave of communication that clothes not just Brazil but the planet. Higher still, beyond all sense and thought, and global positioning satelites tumble along their prescribed orbits, tracking movements down to a single footstep, logging every transaction, every real and centavo. Highest of all, God on his stool, looking on Brazil and its three hundred million souls, nostalgic ofr the days when his was the only omniscience.

In this 2032 (as, in fact, today) whole communities live on garbage mountains trading the materials and technology extracted from the refuse of a culture of continuous consumption. It’s exciting and fast moving and most importantly convincing. Ian McDonald is a science fiction writer, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that his imagined future is more interesting than his imagined past and his imagined present.

Circuit boards book on coal griddles, release their lead solder like fat from pig-meat. Mercury baths grab gold from plated plugs and sockets. Homemade stills vaporize the liquid metal, depositing their heavy treasure. Two boys stir a stream of sand-sized processors into a plastic vat of reagent, dissolving the carbon nanotubes from their matrix. Two eight-year-olds sitting cross-legged on a sy bean sack test plastic from the heap besidethem by heating it over a cigarette lighter and sniffing the fumes. Younger children rush handcarts of e-junk down from the central dump. This is the circle of the slaves, sold into debt indenture by parents crushed by 5,000 percent interest.

The 1732 strand was bogged down for me by it’s liberal borrowing (sampling you might say) from Conrad, and by the over-the-top nature of its characters (the Jesuit is also a master linguist and expert swordsman, and is accompanied on his expedition by a Parisian rationalist and scientist who also happens to be an expert swordsman and who is working on an 18th century version of the computer*). It’s a sort of boys-own adventure tale, but steeped in suffocating heat, fever and madness. Despite it’s flaws though this strand moves along pacily enough, and the mid-book payoff when the expedition finds the rogue priest’s attempt at a holy city modelled after his own philosophies is chilling and impressive.

By contrast the 2006 section starts well, but lags towards the middle of the book. Again the central character isn’t wholly persuasive. She’s a fast-living TV executive which is fine, but also an expert at Capoeira (Brazil’s native martial art). The book shows her competing successfully in Capoeira matches, but I couldn’t begin to imagine where she found time to train given her demanding career and drink and drug-fuelled lifestyle. I just didn’t believe it (I run three times a week, and I struggle to fit even that in let alone getting to competition level in a martial art).

The other problem with the 2006 strand is that it doesn’t really add up. Marcelina is trying to make a new reality show in which the goalkeeper for the 1966 Brazil national team will be put on trial for his part in a famous footballing defeat. To get to him she has to win the trust of his friends, by lying to them and misrepresenting the kind of program she plans to make.

That’s great stuff, and McDonald makes her glossily amoral world of trash television and high-disposable income colliding with older values both alluring and repulsive (so mimicing reality TV within the fiction). The doppelganger starts to destroy all this, working for a shadowy conspiracy to which she may be a threat, but she’s only a threat because she’s made into one. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if they’d left her alone in the first place they’d never have needed to worry about her.

As Marcelina’s life unravels she turns into a kind of action hero kicking ass to save the day. It’s ludicrous, but that’s clearly intentional as in the 2006 strand McDonald is crafting a story that Marcelina herself would approve of. It’s a telenovela in which avarice and ambition meet nemesis and a character turns rapidly from villain to hero as the plot demands. I see what he’s doing, and I can see why it’s an interesting thing to try, but that doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t really persuade. More serious though is that McDonald finds as so many writers writing outside their field have found that it’s not as easy as it looks. Writing plots that zip past so fast you barely notice how unlikely they are is a definite skill, and while McDonald writes some great action scenes it’s not really one that he has. Unforgiveably, Marcelina’s story gets a little dull.

That’s a lot of criticism, and given worlds enough and time I’d have more. The last third, as so often with multi-strand novels, isn’t as interesting in tying things together as the first two were in setting things up. Some entire sections could probably be lost without too much harm to the whole – there’s an episode near the end for example where the Jesuit duels the man he’s pursued across the book, who turns out to be yet another master swordsman for apparently no better reason than it allows a dramatic fight scene (admittedly a good fight scene, but one that doesn’t actually add anything of consequence to the book).

Marcelina’s plot is necessary because the book needs a contemporary strand, but doesn’t feel justified on its own terms and could arguably have been excised entirely without impacting the other narratives too much. I’m not suggesting that it should actually have been excised, but it could have been better integrated.

In a sense I’m being harsh because McDonald is good enough to deserve that. For most SF writers, hell for most writers, this would be a potentially career defining work. Yes, bits of it don’t work, at times it’s even overwritten which is particularly painful for anyone who also reads literary fiction, but McDonald ties together mind-blowing ideas at the outer limits of modern science, brings the sheer motion and vitality of Brazil to life in a way which is extraordinary for someone who’s not a native writer and keeps it all rattling along with an exuberant flair that just about comes off. 

Brasyl is nearly a great novel. Art however isn’t linear (which is one of the reasons why I don’t give star ratings to books). Just short of great doesn’t necessarily mean good. Often it just means patchy. Brasyl won an SF award. The back of the book carries a blurb from a review from the Financial Times. McDonald deserves high praise and he deserves that kind of attention from outside SF fandom, but this simply isn’t his best book.

For an alternate view, this review by author Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons is definitely worth reading.

*As appears to be obligatory for every historical scientist in an SF novel. SF authors should just put down their copies of The Difference Engine and leave them alone. It’s been done.

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10 Comments

Filed under Brazil, McDonald, Ian, Science Fiction

10 responses to “Brazil is not a serious country

  1. On the surface of things (that is, before reading the review), I would have said no to the book, but I have to say, that in spite of its defects, it sounds intriguing. How many books have you read by this author and which would you consider his best?

  2. Since in my work life I’m dealing to a large extent with BRIC (or BRIC MT as they are called inour company, including Mexico and Turkey) countries, I was immediately drawn to read this book and astonished to se you point out something that never occured to me. I would never have thought of writing any fiction about this )although I could say by now, it’s an area of expertise… You gave me a real idea here.
    I also like the idea of pairing music with books – however I’m allergic to any Latin sounds but will still try to listen to it as I don’t know Funk-carioca.
    I’ve got Ghostwritten here and was thinking it should be very good, that you compare this book to it makes me even keener. I find Capoeira fascinating. Sorry for this patchy comment. In any case, I see, it is flawed but it sounds like there is such a lot in it that it is still worth reading.

  3. To my slight surprise when I thought about it Guy, I’ve read quite a lot of what he’s written. River of Gods is probably the best, but I’d personally still likely start with either Chaga or even his first novel Desolation Road. Christopher Priest reviews River of Gods here: (as do I of course at this site, in I think the longest review I’ve ever written) and Priest sums up well why it’s not an easy entry-novel to McDonald’s work.

    Desolation Road I note isn’t as short as I rememberd it being (possibly a good sign for it, on reflection), and funnily enough nor is Chaga. Chaga was seen as his best prior to River of Gods, which I think remains seen as his best to date (the consensus seems to be that Brasyl isn’t quite at the same level, though I’m more critical of it than some).

    Caroline, it is remarkable isn’t it? Fiction in particular seems poor at addressing how our world is changing, which is dispiriting. Science fiction of course should be absolutely grappling with these issues, but rarely does. US science fiction in particular has for me in large part failed to meet the challenges that the post-1980s world (and scientific understanding) have raised.

    Put simply, if you’re writing science fiction with faster than light spaceships and interstellar battles and people much like us with broadly-contemporary Western cultural attitudes you might as well be writing books with wizards and dragons (not that there’s anything wrong with wizards and dragons per se). It’s fantasy, it says nothing about the world or indeed the universe we actually inhabit.

    My pet theory is that US SF in particular has recoiled against the realisation that faster than light travel is impossible, and so space is not as we dreamt the final frontier. The future is not a western among the stars. The implications, politically, are actually pretty horrifying if thought through in any depth (most simply, Earth is it, there are no worlds we can dream of escaping to other than those in our own solar system, the most welcoming of which makes Antarctica look like Miami, it’s a realisation which can’t help but push towards some form of increased green agenda and which raises significant issues for an economic system predicated on endless growth – where do we grow to?).

    That mini-rant aside, flawed but with much worth reading is pretty fair. Mitchell is probably better at characterisation (though if you read my review of Ghostwritten you’ll see I had some issues with some of his characters), but there are some similarities in approach.

    If though I were to promote an SF novel to literary readers here it would either be Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia (which I review here if you dig in the archives and which is extremely well written, which is probably part of why it was marketed as literary fiction rather than as sf) or almost anything by the wonderful Stanislaw Lem (of Solaris fame).

  4. I’ve decided to put the book on a watch list–and that translates to coming back to it in an undefined period of time to see if I’m still interested

  5. leroyhunter

    It’s a fascinating country and interesting to see someone trying to tackle both Brazil and the issues you reference Max. To be honest it sounds like he’s bitten off a bit more then he can chew here, resulting in the patchy quality you describe. The former Guardian journalist Misha Glenny has written extensively on the emergence of Brazil as a hub for global IT crime, which chimes (in my mind anyway) with some of the themes on display here. Sadly your description of “thread one” makes it sound like a cross between Aguirre and The Princess Bride, which doesn’t appeal.

  6. There’s an element of that Leroy. I think one of the great challenges in fiction is trying to depict things which in themselves make for bad writing. So, depicting boredom without being boring, or here taking some of the stylistic traits of trash fiction without becoming trash fiction.

    That said (one of my favourite phrases I’ve noticed lately), better not wholly successful ambition than assured complacency. McDonald stretches himself. He tries new things. He pushes the boundaries of his genre. It’s natural that won’t always wholly come off, but it’d be bloody boring if nobody tried.

    I’m familiar with Misha Glenny, but haven’t read much. The IT crime element does chime with this, yes.

  7. Although this is not for me, I enjoyed reading your review, as always.

    “a Parisian rationalist and scientist who also happens to be an expert swordsman and who is working on an 18th century version of the computer” Wow, a character who’s a merger of Descartes, Pascal and D’Artagnan. How daring.

    About the music. I have no idea of what Funk-Carioca can be and like Caroline, I’m not into Latin sounds at all but I do understand the book-music connection. You might be interested in reading Andrew Blackman’s post on the influence of music when he wrote On The Holloway Road. (http://ht.ly/alAOF)

    About the absence of BRICs and our changing world in literature. I’m not sure that writers are fascinated by economics. In France, they seem to all have a teaching or a journalist job and not a FT-like journalist job.

  8. Sorry Emma, you got spamfiltered for some reason.

    Funk-carioca isn’t really that latin actually. It’s more a sort of crude dance-hip-hop fusion though crude sounds derogatory which isn’t how I mean it.

    I’ll read the Blackman post. In the UK authors all seem to be journos, academics or just plain old professional writers, but it does mean they sometimes focus on a very narrow range of experience.

  9. Nic

    Good review, and I agree (although my problem was more with the 1732 strand than the 2006 one); I didn’t feel the multiple threads and breathless style of Brasyl cohered nearly as well as did River of Gods or The Dervish House.

    This post did make me think I should make time for some of McDonald’s back catalogue, though…

  10. I haven’t read The Dervish House yet. Did I see a review of it at yours? I’ll check it out if so.

    Chaga is great, and his rather magical realist Martian books are great too.

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