Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
30 April 2007
This year's award season is still in full cry: the Arthur C. Clarke Award reaches its climax on May 2nd, the Nebula winner will be announced May 11th, and the Hugo at the beginning of September. But that shouldn't stop the ever-future-oriented SF community speculating about next year's prizes. So, and by way of handing Strange Horizons readers a reviewerish hostage-to-fortune: I predict Brasyl will grace multiple shortlists come 2008. It's easily the best SF novel I've read this year. Of course, the year is barely a quarter over; but I find it hard to imagine many better novels than this one coming out. McDonald is a superb writer. He ought to sell more than cookbooks.
The novel is woven out of three narrative strands, each set in a different iteration of Brazil. The first strand happens in a mildly alternate 2006, a colourful and kinetically rendered Rio de Janeiro where TV exec Marcelina Hoffman is planning another trash-telly ratings-grabber. The second is located in Sao Paulo in 2032, where streetwise Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, in the midst of his wheeling and dealing, falls in love with a quantum hacker called Fia. This second narrative could be described as cyberpunk, except that McDonald's novel is too closely attuned to the region's native music to let in anything as crass and northern-hemisphere as punk. See, music matters in this novel, almost as much as does the futebol. Brasyl ends with a playlist of South American albums, from Siri's No Tranco to Milton Nascimento's Cio de terra, to which (we assume) McDonald was listening as he wrote, and several passages attempt that dancing-about-architecture trick of capturing the fluid somatic rhythms of the music on the page. This 2032 narrative would be better described as cyberfunk, or maybe cybersoca; or perhaps still better would be cyberbaile ("baile," according to the 7-page glossary of Portuguese words and Brazilian slang McDonald helpfully provides, means "dance" and more specifically "an impromptu street sound-system party, giving rise to the popular carioca genre of 'baile-funk'"). It's a fast-paced and well-handled storyline, this 2032 third of the novel, reminiscent of Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles's film City of God: not in the specifics (the novel is much more high-tech than the film), but certainly in flavour, the ragged, exhilarating, violent, sideways-leaping narrative verve.
The third narrative strand is set in 1732 and tells of a European Jesuit priest, Luis Quinn, sent on a mission upriver to confront a rogue Jesuit called Diego Gonçalves who has gone mad in the jungle and set himself up, essentially, as a god. An eighteenth-century Brazilian Heart of Darkness, or Apocalypse Now, in other words, with something of the flavour of Roland Joffé's The Mission. Incidentally: I'm not dropping in film references here at random. There is, I think, something genuinely cinematic about McDonald's writing: a combination of his prose's skill at evoking the visual, and his broader expertise at embodying his characters and storyline in motion. And there are plenty of film references in McDonald's book. Props from Gilliam's Brazil even appear directly in the narrative ("they were striking set after the shoot," explains the character to whom they were erroneously delivered, "and it was all a dreadful kerfuffle and someone thought it was the shipping destination").
Gilliam's film, of course, was not set in Brazil; and in one sense neither is McDonald's book. Brasyl creates a hyperbolically rendered, false-colour, triple-ply Brazil that is kept the right side of caricature only by McDonald's great skill as a writer: a Brazil that is genuinely as sun-soaked, pepped-up, vibrant, sexy, coffee-flavoured, samba-rhythmic and spontaneous as people like to think it is. The sheer vim of McDonald's creation squeezes out the mundane, the dreary, and the depressing. It's not a criticism of the novel to say this. McDonald's research into his country is, far as I can tell, detailed and penetrating. You believe in the world described. More: I am a drab Englishman, from a chilly, grey land located at the back of the north wind. Like Forster's buttoned-down Britishers in Where Angels Fear To Tread, I am as susceptible to intoxication with a sunnier and more passionate culture as anybody. It is, in a word, more vital than the existences of you and I, and if I'm not convinced that the real Brazil is always thus, then at least the way the novel braids together its three strands, and McDonald's twist-denouement, puts the novel beyond criticism on that score. It's hard to explain precisely in what way without spoilers.
So, these three seemingly disparate storylines are coordinated across the course of the novel, a piece of three-into-one plotting that is neither too heavy-handed nor too obliquely random. We realise, early on, that the book is set amongst a huge number (although not, I'd say, having read the book to its end, an infinite number) of alternate realities, all pressed close in upon one another. Brasyl's 2006, 2032, and 1732 are not, it turns out, part of the same timeline, but salami slices from different places on the sausage of the multiverse. When characters meet their doppelgangers we, as SF fans, understand that these are variants of the characters who have travelled from alternate realities. In each of the narratives there is a lens that focuses the possibilities of different futures.
Marcelina Hoffman, in 2006, is trying to make trash TV about the 1950 World Cup Final, the late goal that gave Uruguay the Jules Rimet, and specifically about the Brazilian goalkeeper, Barbosa, who let the fatal shot past him. It's a nicely chosen way of talking about alternate realities. Every football fan knows the experience of a big game going wrong, the way what-ifs plague the mind afterwards. What if Beckham hadn't kicked out stupidly—oh, so very stupidly—at Argentina's Diego Simeone in the 1998 World Cup? What if he hadn't been red-carded? England could have won that match, and gone on to win more, perhaps all the way to the final. I'll go further: England should have won. In some alternate reality, England did go on to win. I feel it in my marrow. I daresay there are Frenchmen who feel the same way about Zidane's headbutt last year, who can picture an alternate run of the game in which he scored in the 90th minute to give the trophy to France.
In McDonald's 2032, quantum computers are able to perform impressive feats of calculation by using the superposition of molecules from different realities, and quantum knives are on the market—scary little devices, these, that cut down to the quantum level. Stand at the side of the freeway poking one of these into the flow of traffic, as one character does, and it will slice right through the engine block and side of even the biggest articulated lorry. Actually, and to pick nits for a moment, I wondered about these knifes. "Break one," says the narrator, "—and the only thing that will break a Q-blade is another Q-blade—and the shard will fall through solid rock all the way to the center of the earth" (p.66). But given that these blades are so prodigiously sharp, I wondered how, exactly, are they fitted into their handles? Of what are the handles made such that if a man holds the handle and the blade cuts into a thundering-along lorry, it is the lorry, rather than the handle, that gives way? But this is a trivial gripe.
In 1732 the entryway to alternate realities is a frog. An actual frog, although McCartney's "Frog Chorus" unaccountably fails to make the playlist at the novel's end. It seems that there is that there is an Amazonian frog "whose eye is so sensitive that it can perceive a single photon of light, a single quantum event. The frog sees the fundamental quantum nature of reality." Which is a cool notion, although it is something of a leap from that, and rather hard-to-swallow, to suggest that because the frog's eye sees single photons (like the photons coming, one by one, through the celebrated two-slits experiment) it can therefore see the entire billion-fold rose of all alternate realities at once; and an ever bigger leap to suggest that licking the frog's back, as (in effect) McDonald's characters do, gives human beings not only this extraordinary vision, but the power to choose from all these realities the right answer to any question. But, whether we take this as magic, or as Doors-of-Perception-style hippy-druggy transcendentalism, it certainly works as a narrative level.
Brasyl is not a flawless novel. The 2006 narrative, though well done, is not as well done as the remaining two thirds. It lags a little: we, as readers, clock that the mysterious stranger haunting Marcelina's life is her alternate-reality-self much earlier than she does, and the stretch of story where she slowly works this out acts as a drag on the rush of the whole. More, McDonald's prose, though mostly superb, sometimes oversteps the line. Edson visits his inamorata's neighbourhood, and McDonald writes "her life was shaped in this long, bulb-ended street like a vagina" (p. 159); a jarring, and indeed baffling, phrase. Earlier he writes: "a rectangle of yellow light suddenly appeared in the indigo-on-indigo, insect-loud wall. A shadow filled it, spilled across the flagged court, became a face" (p. 47), and the writing is trying too hard, the effect is too purple (too indigo, indeed). But much more often than not McDonald's prose is a wonder, from a hundred vivid and witty details (Marcelina's mother's arthritis has "turn[ed] her knuckles into Brazil nuts"), to sustained passages of perfectly judged atmosphere:
The boy poled the pirogue through the trees. An oil lamp, a wick in a clay pot set on the prow, struck reflections from the night-black water. Cayman eyes shone red then sank beneath the surface. Father Luis Quinn stood in the center of the frail skiff, black on darkness, an occlusion. To the boy he seemed to float over the drowned forest … the root buttresses and strangler figs. A fish leaped, splashed, its belly pale. (p. 299)
Some of the best writing in the book is the more energetically thrown sprawl-prose of the sort that McDonald mastered in 2004's brilliant River of Gods. Here is the enormous Rio municipal dump, Todos os Santos, in 2037:
Todos os Santos is big enough to have a geography, the Forest of Fake Plastic Trees, where wet ripped bags hang like Spanish moss from every spar and protrusion. The Vale of Swarf, where the metal industries dump their coils and spirals of lathe trim. The Ridge of Lost Refrigerators, where kids with disinfectant-soaked handkerchiefs over their faces siphon off CFCs into empty plastic Coke bottles slung like bandoliers around the shoulders. Above them the peaks: Mount Microsoft and the Apple Hills; unsteady ziggurats of processor cubes and interfacers. … A truck disgorges a load of terminally last-season I-shades, falling like dying bats. The catadores rush over the slippery, treacherous garbage. (p. 114)
I could hug McDonald for those bats. Such good writing. More to the point, this passage captures something important about what McDonald is doing in this novel. River of Gods parsed a future-India in terms of its superfecund, amazing, or choking sprawl. Something similar is going on in Brasyl, except that the sprawl is more specifically troped as trash. Brasyl is a trashy novel, in the very best sense of that word.
The novel's epigraph is an ironically invoked quotation from Charles de Gaulle: "Brazil is not a serious country." Or perhaps this line is only semi-ironically invoked, because although McDonald's novel is serious about many things, that seriousness is always interwoven with a pervasive wit. Football is trivial, only a game, not a serious business; except, of course, it is only not a matter of life and death because it is much more important than that. Trash TV might seem beneath our contempt; Edson might seem nothing more than a high-tech street rat; Quinn's concern for the enslaved and oppressed baffles his power-politicking fellow priests. But in all these things McDonald finds the poetry and the energy of the outcast, the refuse of society. We might take "trash" as a synonym for unserious; but trash is the ejected, the marginalised, the overlooked that is also the science fictional. In a multiverse, the sheer proliferation of realities, many of them necessarily much better than the world we presently inhabit, turns our whole existence into trash. This, says McDonald, is not cause for despair. There is a vitality and a force in that trash. Its unseriousness is its saving grace. His novel works through some of the ways in which this is true.
And now, a dare. I dare McDonald's publishers—Pyr in the States, Gollancz in the UK—to splash "'Brasyl is a trashy novel,' Strange Horizons" across the cover of the mass-market paperback. That could only help sales. Better still: wait, and go instead with "nominated for" (or possibly "winner of") "the 2008 Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards." That might be better.