Two Views: Air by Geoff Ryman

Reviewed by Geneva Melzack and Iain Emsley

Air cover

Breathing Change by Geneva Melzack

Air is the mass media. Air is television and the internet. Air is commerce and fashion and globalised culture. Air is change and it is coming to Chung Mae's village.

Chung Mae lives in Kizuldah, a tiny mountain village in the country of Karzistan. The people in Kizuldah live traditional sorts of lives, making a living through farming and migrant manual labour. TV has barely arrived in the village when a national test of Air, a new form of virtual media technology, takes place, badly shaking up Kizuldah's traditional existence. The person most shaken up is Chung Mae herself, who is involved in an accident in the midst of the test that fuses her, in the virtual world of Air, with her elderly neighbour Old Mrs Tung, killing Mrs Tung in the process. Air tells the story of how Chung Mae learns to adapt to her new situation, and the work she has to do to help the rest of her village similarly adapt to the changes that the test has wrought and the further changes that she knows will come when Air is fully implemented in a year's time.

Air sometimes doesn't seem so far away from technologies that already exist, and the issues of globalisation and cultural appropriation that the introduction of Air raises are issues that we are already being forced to deal with outside of fiction. Why not address these same issues, one might ask, by writing about the impact that existing technologies are having on various communities around the world? Why invent a new technology when it's already out there and happening? The answer is that there are no real world examples that pull together all the various different social, cultural, and economic issues that can arise in actual situations of this sort, so the natural move for a writer who wishes to explore them all together is to imagine a fictional technology that operates like television, the internet, pop music, banking systems, telephony, etc. all in one, drawing all the issues together into a single package. This is what Geoff Ryman has done with Air. Air is a synthesis of all the technologies and trends that are currently influencing and affecting our world. In the real world change happens slowly, technologies creep in, cultures evolve gradually. One of Ryman's major achievements with Air is the way in which he has succeeded in encapsulating so many contemporary global issues into this single event of the introduction of the Air technology to the village of Kizuldah, dramatising the changes we have all been and are still living through in the experiences of just one village, and in particular one person: Chung Mae.

It is unusual to meet a character like Chung Mae. In her, Ryman has created one of the most fully rounded and complex female characters in fiction. He portrays her as an enthusiastic entrepreneur and a fiercely canny businesswoman. Despite being illiterate, she is shown to be highly intelligent and open to new ideas, which makes her a very quick learner. She turns out to be the one person in the village with the vision and focus to do what is necessary to prepare the community she is a part of and loves so much for the coming of the new technology, even if it means becoming an embarrassment to her husband and children and being ostracised by many of the villagers. Her focus and drive can make Chung Mae seem scarily single-minded, but Ryman makes it clear that she is simply someone who is passionate about making a new life for herself and her community in the new world of Air that is on its way.

One of the main issues explored in Air is the culture clash that takes place when a new technology designed and developed in the context of one culture is introduced in the context of another culture. This clash encompasses various matters to do with cultural imperialism and cultural appropriation. The residents of Kizuldah have a foreign system of thought imposed on them through Air. Air operates using the cultural symbolism of the Western world, and Chung Mae and the others have to learn and utilise those Western symbols if they are to be able to make use of the technology. Air is being forced upon them, and thus the systems of the thought and culture that Air is built on are also being forced upon them. The symbol in Air for education is the symbol of an owl, which in Karzistan symbolises not learning but death. Chung Mae adopts the symbol somewhat ironically, for her role as educator of the village in the ways of TV and Air, but as well as being a teacher owl she is perhaps also participating in a process of killing off the local meaning of the owl as a symbol, killing the local culture.

Air has other effects on the local culture too, due to the way in which it enables people in the West to engage with the village of Kizuldah as much as it enables Kizuldah to engage with the West. Chung Mae and her friend Wing Kwan, who belongs to a small indigenous ethnic group of peoples called the Eloi, set up a fashion business through the TV, selling traditional Eloi clothes and collars through fashion houses in America. Is this cultural appropriation on the part of the Americans who so eagerly buy their wares? Sometimes it seems so, but Mae and Kwan are proud of their work, and the success of their business allows them to communicate the truth of their lives in the village to a consumer base in the US keen to hear authentic tales of the villagers who make such clothes. Selling their traditions to the West makes them prosperous, and gives them the opportunity to correct and expand upon the false information about the Eloi peoples that previously was the only information available to the wider world. There are deep questions here about the interplay of cultures that occurs when a new technology, particularly a new communications or media technology, reaches parts of the world that have previously not had the means to engage with other cultures on a global scale.

Air is about change: cultural, societal, technological, economic, social, personal. It is a book about examining the challenges and the rewards of change. It acknowledges both the losses and the gains involved in massive change. Nowhere is this balance between loss and gain, death and birth, more visible than in the story's conclusion: the book ends with a natural disaster—a flood in which several villagers die—and with the birth of a new baby. The flood deaths and the newborn baby are vivid metaphors for everything that the village and the villagers have lost and gained through the introduction of the new Air technology. Their old ways of life have been painfully torn away from them, only to be replaced by new ways of life that are perhaps no better than the old, but that are probably no worse either, just different.

It might be tempting to read Air as a book that is advocating change and the embracing of the new, but there's more to it than that. Change in Air is simply something that happens. It is inevitable. The future is not necessarily any better than the past, but it is coming nevertheless. Learning how to embrace it might make the transition from the past to the future more smooth, but there is an understanding of and grudging respect in Air for those who refuse to embrace change, who futilely fight to try to preserve their old world, not necessarily out of fear of the new, but out of loyalty to and pride in what was. Indeed, the process of embracing the new changes is shown in Air to be a process that crucially involves acknowledging and valuing the old world that is about to be lost. Moving forward doesn't mean violently rejecting what's behind us, in Air, but instead means gently letting go of what cannot be hung onto anyway. By doing this the process of change can incorporate the old into the new, establishing respectful continuity, instead of simply replacing what was with something wholly alien and different. For example, Chung Mae is able to incorporate Old Mrs Tung into herself, moving forward into the new world of Air by building the old woman's character and memories into her own, working with Mrs Tung, the incarnation of the past within Chung Mae, so that she can progress into the future. Similarly, Mae and Kwan are able to forge ahead with their business in the new world of commerce only by drawing on Kwan's cultural roots, selling traditional Eloi clothes and collars in the new markets that have opened up to them.

Air is a book that grapples with the complex relationships between the past and the future, between tradition and progress, between one culture and another. Its exploration of change is particularly relevant for the quickly changing global society we're experiencing right now, but more generally it is relevant to all societies, all cultures, all individuals. Everything changes, and we have to find ways of dealing with it. Air offers us a variety of ways of doing just that.

Information Gecko by Iain Emsley

Geoff Ryman's Air is a strange book, at once hopeful and elegaic. Ancient ways of being come to terms with new ways of thinking.

In Karzistan lies the village of Kizuldah. It is largely sealed off from the modern world, with only one shared television. When a test of the new technology of Air arrives, unannounced, life changes in some very surprising ways. Chung Mae is the first in the village to begin to work with it; she finds way of using it to better her own life and encourages others to do likewise. Air's uses are educational and economic. In part, this is a first contact novel: the users of Air see a glittering new world and opportunities, but the new world sees a resource.

Actions provoke equal reactions. As Mae takes control of her life, her new found independence is challenged by her husband and, in time, the petty jealousies of those around her. Everything from social status to gender roles is questioned and rendered fluid. Old certainties and modes of thought become obsolete, or so it seems, as Mae's husband leaves for a supposedly better life and she prospers. Still, one question remains unanswered: what is Air? It is Mae, the village woman, rather than the architects or technocrats, who fully realises its essence and is thus ready for the second coming of Air.

Ryman delivers two sobering incidents. Mae's slightly fantastic pregnancy tarnishes the sheen of pure SF and introduces a mcguffin to solve an early problem. It neatly links into the philosophical side of the book, balancing the old and the new and the tensions and strata that lie therein. The second incident, a Flood, is biblical in nature and ferocity. In trying to save her people, Mae becomes both Cassandra and Noah.

Instead of taking a hard SF line, Ryman deftly creates believable characters, and reminds us of the human costs of new technology. His society is pluralist, and exhibits many of the tensions that may arise from the introduction of such a radical innovation. It is not the architecture and the dialogical schisms (think Open Software and Microsoft) of the creators that is most interesting, but the way that the users adapt it to improve their lives. Ryman keenly observes the way that technology can help developing countries by connecting them to the globe, and the political battles which will result as governments seek to curb nascent freedoms. In counterpoint to this is a moment where Mae and her lover use Air to communicate across the communal courtyard between their houses. While they can talk to folk all over the world, a personal conversation between lovers is perhaps the most difficult, and has to cross the greatest distance.

It is tempting to look at the novel in the light of mundane SF since the author is a keen proponent of that manifesto. Air does indeed fulfill the criteria of utilising a believable technology and exploring how it may develop. Its sense of wonder lies in what it may happen. Meanwhile it has a very human cast, with well-developed lives and ways of dealing with each other—both good and bad. The pregnancy, however, does mean that the book is closely allied to fantasy, and as such it is perhaps proto-mundane SF. It shows Ryman working towards the theory as he sees it.

Air was originally conceived around 1996, and so it already defines a historical moment—since technology is covering the earth at a rapid pace—but it is a moment with relevance to us. If Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is an ungainly, though intriguing, komodo dragon then Ryman's book is a well-sunned gecko skittering over the same territory: the worlds and relationships which we are redefining with information technologies. To my mind, Air is an essential read.


Geneva Melzack recently escaped from academic philosophy and now has a proper job in university admin in London.

Iain Emsley is a reviewer and critic. He owns a specialist bookshop, The Aust Gate, and runs The Serendip Foundation site. He is also currently researching a history of fantasy in children's literature.