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.