August 16, 2007

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Brasyl, by Ian McDonald (Pyr, 2007, 347 pages)
Reviewed by Glenn†Given production@hippopress.com

British sci-fi star McDonald weaves together a triumvirate of tales that span centuries, fold into themselves and each other and skip merrily from universe to universe in Brasyl.

A Irish Jesuit priest is dispatched to the jungles of 1800s South America to retrieve a rogue brother of the cloth from his heretical conquests of the indegineous peoples of the Amazon. In the process he must save a secretive tribe whose prophetic visions have foretold their own extinction.

A blonde bombshell shark of a reality TV producer has her life systematically dismantled as she tracks down the infamous goalkeeper who blew the World Cup hopes of Brazil so she can string him up for public trial and make her mark on TV history; her shadowy double complicates the matter.

And in the near future of pervasive RFID surveillance a ghetto talent agent/high-tech fence/entertainment entrepeneur loses his computing hacker girlfriend to assassins from another reality.

Strangely these threads all come together. But why is that suprising? Once youíve introduced the concepts of alternate Earth and the quirks of quantum mechanics we can see both the why and the how. Maybe my ivory tower philosophy studies peel back the onion skin a bit faster than intended, but really now. If spooky doppelgangers harass your protagonist and elsewhere youíve spent a chapter expositing the multi-versal ramifications of quantum mechanics, any comic book aficionado will call your bluff. Itís an alternate Earth invasion.

But thatís getting ahead of Brasyl. The first third, third and third of the plot does a fine job establishing our actors and the place and time in which they live. McDonaldís flair for patois can brick-wall you early but soon the high school Spanish memories grease the cognitive wheels a touch and you move forward. The respective questing hunger of Quinn (1700s), Marcelina (2005) and Edson (2030s) believably drives our attention even when some odd tropes get pulled out. Is reality TV vulture Marcelinaís company a bit too Pattern Recognition? Sure. Is the futuristic showdown between street hustler and quantum assassin seeming to take place among the same mega-ship/nation that Stephenson imagined in Snow Crash? Almost disappointingly so. And Iím sorry to say that visionary Georgian-era scientist/noblemen whoíve conceived and invented the computer years before Turing no long tickle my intellectual fancy.

I donít wanna get down on McDonald because Brasyl is really well executed, and, especially when the last layers of motive are discovered in this meta-versal war, itís a warm morsel of philosophical sci-fi thought. But Brasyl might be one of the last notable books to squeak in under the wire of the quantum/singularity zeitgeist of the sci-fi avant garde. Brasyl treads professionally but heavily on the tightwire of its conceit. Sure it does a pirouette and rides a unicycle without a net but itís too dense for the uninitiated and a skosh predicatable for the metaphysics nerds. B ó Glenn†Given