Pyr, 2007, 357 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-59102-543-6
It’s hard to over-state the impact that River of Gods has had on Ian McDonald’s career. A solid, but generally under-appreciated veteran author, McDonald suddenly became one of Science-Fiction’s hottest authors: The book was nominated for the Hugo Awards, earned effusive critical praise and was snapped up by Pyr for republication in the United States, rejuvenating McDonald’s American career years after Bantam Spectra’s unsuccessful efforts. Pyr and McDonald benefited a great deal from each other, which may serve to explain why his follow-up Brasyl ended up published in the United States by Pyr, to significant critical expectations.
Like River of Gods, Brasyl is partly an attempt to recast familiar SF elements in new cultural environments. Surfing on the SF globalization wave first anticipated decades ago by Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (and his own earlier books such as Evolution’s Shore), McDonald imagined a sprawling SF novel in India for River of Gods and now does the same for Brazil with his latest. In doing so, he takes conventional SF ideas and restates them in a setting that is different in time and culture. The impact is more profound that one could think: River of Gods felt fresh and invigorating because it looked at familiar SF clichés from a different angle of interest, a particularity that added to McDonald’s usually strong narrative and characterization skills.
Brasyl is not River of Gods Part 2, but it’s definitely in the same vein. Here, somber quantum mechanics conspiracies unite three different sub-plots, taking place at three different eras in Brazil’s history. But whereas River of Gods was massive and sprawling, Brasyl is dynamic and sprightly. This is not the same country, this is not the same culture, and this is not even the same prose: Brasyl‘s McDonald is nervy, fast and not particularly concerned by good grammatical form: He gets away with fragmented sentences that mix Brazilian speech with hi-tech slang and dispenses with commas. Reading Brasyl is, at times, like being stuck in a whirlwind of cultural and technical references that all accumulate to give the prose a dense texture that has a unique quality of its own. Beautifully written, Brasyl is another one of those contemporary SF novels that proves without discussion that cool techno stuff isn’t necessarily incompatible with fantastic prose.
But even that prose style deliberately varies throughout the book: Divided in three temporal streams, Brasyl simultaneously takes place in Brazil’s past, present and future. The current subplot concerns a reality-TV show producer who comes to realize that a Doppelgänger is ruining her life. Meanwhile in the eighteenth century, a Jesuit operative must go up the Amazon to find a renegade priest. Finally, a small-time hustler in 2032 São Paulo gets romantically involved with a dangerous woman who meets a violent end… only to re-appear a short while later. All of this comes together thanks to the magic of quantum mechanics and parallel universes, but not before a wild ride of sword-fights, superhero fetish sex and a present-day plot that seems even stranger than either Brazil’s history or its possible future.
As a sustained narrative, Brasyl is not quite as successful as River of Gods for a few reasons: Not all three plot-lines are created equal, for instance: After the tornado-like intensity of the present and future segments, the historical subplot can seem like a lull in the action. And while the middle of the book is filled with intriguing mysteries, the resolution of the entire arc can feel like a more conventional let-down. McDonald’s usual knack for describing conventional scenes with unconventional prose can often feel like a distancing mechanism when the book’s action set-pieces occur.
But even with those slight flaws, Brasyl still ends up feeling like one of 2007’s most vital Science Fiction novels. It’s fresh, slick and exciting. It feels, simply put, like no other SF novel to date. When the pieces finally come together, the unusual nature of the plot and the prose lead readers straight to serious kick-ass coolness that wouldn’t feel out of place in a big Hollywood blockbuster film. McDonald takes a serious option on award nominations with this book, and proves that his career renaissance is well-founded: Everyone who discovered (or rediscovered) the McDonald oeuvre thanks to River of Gods now have something new to enjoy, and Brasyl easily satisfies expectations.