Air, or Have not Have, Geoff Ryman

St. Martin’s, 2004, 390 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-26121-7

Early-21st century Science Fiction occupies a curious philosophical position. It has inherited a tradition of rational techno-optimism that has never been more relevant, at a time where the future has never been less predictable. SF knows that the world does not and will not look anything like what it has been predicting for the past fifty years. And yet it struggles to evolve, dying of a thousand weak Star Wars tie-ins and falling on its knees as the reality thunders past.

It’s in this context that Geoff Ryman’s Air arrives, like a bootleg Bruce Sterling novel, like a fusion between SF’s traditional ideals and the values it has to espouse in order to evolve. It’s a novel about then, about now and about soon, a novel that makes unlikely heroes out of people who wouldn’t have been out of place in the nineteenth century.

Most of the novel takes place in the small village of Kizuldah, somewhere in the fictional country of Karzistan (presumably set close to Khazakstan). Thirty families. Two or three cars. One stone bridge. A subsistence economy based on the culture of rice and a few odd barn animals.

The heroine of the tale is one Chung Mae, a self-styled “fashion expert” who acts as nothing more than a skilled conduct between the outside world and her faraway village. She’s doing well, but her entire life is about to change: Air is coming, and it promises nothing less than the ultimate connection to information. A test is run; things go wrong, people die and Mae is irrevocably changed. Shunned by her peers, stuck with a ghost in her head, obsoleted by technological changes, Mae nevertheless becomes an unlikely advocate for change. Illiterate and impulsive, she understands information trading better than anyone else, and wastes no time in adapting her village to the coming changes.

If you think that this is a parable about our own society and how it’s being changed by, oh, The Internet, you’re absolutely right. Air may plug your brain into an always-on T3 connection, but its impact on Mae’s village meets with the same type of change resistance seen in our world. Arguments raised for and against this technology are similar to what we’ve heard ourselves over the past decade.

But there’s more to it than just a thinly-veiled retelling of the Internet Boom. The product of a skilled storyteller, Air is first and foremost a story filled with good characters and a compelling plot-line. The scale of Mae’s village allows for a cunning personalization of issues: Access to information is initially restricted to one “TV”, then a second one, and then many more. Characters see their livelihoods threatened on a very basic level by the arrival of this opening on the rest of the world.

By setting his near-future story in the third world, Ryman also touches upon an under-exploited subject in SF, how the first world is as alien to the third-world (and vice versa) as any type of extra-terrestrial. And even how, thanks to modern communication technologies, the alien is only one address, one number away. Ryman never treats Mae and her villagers with even a hint of condescension; the result is the kind of world-literate novel that shouldn’t surprise us, but still does.

Air gnaws on the future and takes a big bite out of it. It’s almost a brilliant novel. The only things holding it back are the inclusion of a (quasi-magical) pregnancy subplot that seems too contrived even for its own good, and a general lessening of tension that runs through the entire second half of the book. Chapter 14 opens up a can of worms that is never fully satisfactorily explained, almost as if the novel has become too small for its own ideas, then abruptly brought back in familiar surrounding. The final crisis seems too conventional (and too drawn-out) for such a snappy and unconventional novel.

But those caveats aside (caveats that may be ways of saying “the book didn’t go where I wanted it to”), Air is still one of the best SF novels of 2004. It takes the best the genre has to offer and sets it in a situation that has relevance to us, right now. It may even have a thing or two to teach to other Science Fiction writers. Accessible to mainstream audiences and well-written, it’s an ambassador the genre has nothing to be ashamed about.

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