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Gollancz paperback £7.99
review by Jonathan McCalmont
There is a scene in Alastair Reynolds' debut novel Revelation Space (2000), where a character has to pay a visit to some aliens in order to have his mind reconfigured to work like an alien's. In return for this piece of temporary re-wiring, the aliens demand a gift of something with great information density. I think that any information-hungry alien would be overjoyed to receive a gift-wrapped copy of Ian McDonald's Brasyl, as this book is not only incandescent, it is brilliant in a number of different ways and for a number of different reasons. Recently adorned with the 2008 best novel award by the British Science Fiction Association, and short-listed for this year's Hugo, Brasyl is not only a worthy successor to 2004's River Of Gods, I'd say it's actually a better book.
The book is split into three narratives, each set in a different period in Brazil's history. The first features Marcelina Hoffman from Rio in 2006, a trashy reality TV producer and capoeirista who attempts to track down a nationally reviled goalkeeper and put him on trial. The second stars Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas who lives in Sao Paulo in 2032, he is an enterprising businessman and drag queen who falls in love with a manga-chic quantum computer hacker called Fia. The third section takes place mostly in the rainforest in 1732, and stars Luis Quinn, an Irish Jesuit and former duellist with expertise in languages and mathematics, who becomes a messiah for a group of Amazonian tribes. The lives of all three of these characters are disrupted when they rub up against a secret war being fought across universes by two factions; one of which wants to keep the meta-verse a secret, and another group that wants to disseminate the information and act upon it.
Before I delve into what this book is about and what ideas it touches upon, I will touch upon why I think this book works so well. Simply put, Brasyl is a beautifully told story. Multiple viewpoints and timelines can result in books that forsake some timelines in favour of others, resulting in you being stranded for hundreds of pages in one thread before the book finally rotates back to characters and situations that actually interested you. However, Brasyl's approach to this question is a far more disciplined one. Each thread is dealt with in turn, all the sections are roughly of equal length and every section ends with enough of a reveal, cliffhanger or dramatic moment to make you hunger for the next cycle, but not to the point where your interest in one thread eclipses the beauty of any of the others. On a purely technical level, I think Brasyl is the most flawless multi-threaded book I have ever read.
Part of this technical triumph is down to how beautifully drawn McDonald's characters are. All of them are as compelling and complex as they are sympathetic. In particular, Marcelina Hoffman is a fantastic creation as, despite being manipulative, dishonest, superficial, careerist and vindictive, Marcelina still comes across as a sympathetic character. This is down to the fact that McDonald not only understands Marcelina's mindset perfectly, he also understands the culture of reality TV well enough to present it on its own terms and to present its positives. In fact, in Marcelina, McDonald can be said to have achieved the impossible in making someone who works in reality TV seem likeable despite being a smug shallow twat. This pitch-perfect characterisation also extends to the bisexual drag queen entrepreneur and the Jesuit swordsman. It would have been so easy for either of those characters to become grotesque parodies, and in the hands of a lesser writer they almost certainly would have but Edson and Luis come across as believable, sympathetic and perfectly adapted to their respective worlds.
Speaking of their worlds, Brasyl resembles River Of Gods insofar as it continues the trend for shifting the setting for cyberpunk away from a post-apocalyptic America and towards an emerging developing world. This trend is also echoed in Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesque novels, though Grimwood cheats slightly by setting his books in a counter-factual Maghreb that is part of an Ottoman empire that never collapsed. As with River Of Gods, Brasyl is fantastically researched (Brasyl comes not only with a bibliography but also a suggested soundtrack, prompting SF author and critic Adam Roberts to suggest the 2032 section should be referred to not as 'cyberpunk' but 'cybersoca'), meaning that McDonald gets as much inside the skin of Brazil as he does of any of his characters. However, whereas the real Brazil is a country with grinding poverty and a history of military dictatorship, McDonald sticks very closely to the more uplifting image of Brazil... one of futebol and exotic rhythms, unfettered sexuality and sun drenched beaches, drag queens and Capoeira. This image is, of course, completely artificial, but I think this artificiality is at the heart of Brasyl's undeniable genius as well as being what the book is actually about.
McDonald is undeniably a playful writer. One of the book's strongest scenes brilliantly satirises the traditional SF info-dump by having some of the book's physics explained in the form of a lecture given by one character to another as they engage in kinky sex while dressed as spandex-clad superheroes. I'm sure McDonald grins at the thought of moving his readers from - "He cups his hands over Miracle Boy's semierect cock" to "The most common problem is factorising prime number" - in the space of five lines. The same goes for the book's Q-blades, swords so sharp that they cut through things at the quantum level, and should one of them break their blades fall through the floor and keep going to the centre of the Earth. The presence of these weapons is never fully explained and yet McDonald clearly delights in their every appearance, lavishing detail on their blue-ish tint and the way they cut the air.
Another example of this playfulness is McDonald's decision to tie the movement between the worlds not to some kind of experimental star-drive or a Stargate-style portal but to oil taken from a frog whose eyes are so sensitive it can see single photons, thereby allowing it to see the universe at the quantum level. But the human eye is also sensitive to single photons and we do not sit here gazing at the endless possibilities of the multi-verse. I mention McDonald's playfulness as I think this book displays a considerable amount of Malicia, a term that is frequently used in the book with regards to cunning and the use of under-handed tactics in order to get one over on your opponent. In other words: deception.
The physics at the heart of Brasyl come from two different books. The first, and best known, is David Deutsch's Fabric Of Reality (1997). Deutsch's book not only expands upon and popularises the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, it also pioneers a lot of the ideas surrounding quantum computing that feature so prominently in Brasyl. The second book is Frank J. Tipler's The Physics Of Immortality (1994) which aside from some rather weird ideas about the possibility of resurrection and God, also proposed the concept of an 'Omega Point', namely a point towards the end of the universe where the exponential growth of computing power would outstrip the collapse of the universe in a Big Crunch meaning that a universe could be simulated on a computer. The fact that the processing power of the computer would increase faster than the energy in the universe decreases means that a simulation run on this computer could continue forever.
Brasyl therefore features two conceptual breakthroughs; one where the characters realise that it is possible to travel between universes and a second one where they realise that all of these universes are just parallel programmes running on a vast computer at the Omega Point of some other, real universe. The battle between the factions in the book is over the question of whether one should respect the simulation (out of respect for God's wishes) or whether one should escape the narrow confines of the computer's simulated metaverse.
McDonald's playfulness, and the theme of artificiality, asserts itself once you start realising that Brasyl's worlds contain errors and impossibilities. Aside from the quantum frogs and magical swords, there is also Dr Falcon's loom which seems to be the basis for a mechanical computing device far more complex and visionary than even Babbage's analytical engine might have been capable of over a hundred years before Babbage's machine was first conceived of. Indeed, upon learning that his universe exists as an endlessly repeating looped simulation of a multiverse, Quinn says: "For though our lives have been lived ten thousand times, our world reborn time after time after time, in every rebirth there is a flaw, an error, something copied incorrectly."
So while Brasyl's universe is a simulation, it is an imperfect one and one that becomes more imperfect with each loop resulting in errors and impossibilities creeping into universes that were once flawless reproductions of the history of the larger, now-dying, universe in which the computer containing the simulation exists.
These imperfections apply to errors of fact as well as the more profound issues. For example, the Brazil or Marcelina and Edson is a polychromatic best-of the Brazil that exists in our world; Marcelina is a superficial self-serving bitch and yet we can't help but see the good in her as well as in the exploitative business she works in, Edson is the product of intense poverty and he is ruthless enough to squeeze out other managers, endanger people by switching tracking devices with them and look at a girl and calmly tell her that she needs breast augmentation, and yet we see him as noble and likeable. The name of this book is Brasyl because the Brazil McDonald presents, along with the characters within it, are imperfect copies of our own. The skill he displayed in River Of Gods at taking a culture onboard and writing convincingly about its future is here perverted to show us a Brazil that's a little bit too much like the Brazil we see in adverts.
Brasyl is best understood as an elaborate riff played on that old chestnut of the characters in books realising that they're fictitious. As in the work of Philip K. Dick and others, McDonald's characters take drugs and question where reality, fiction and madness meet but ultimately even within the reality of the book, their universe is a construct, these characters are as artificial as those in 'The Sims', and that is without considering the fact that the characters exist as fictitious people in a fictitious simulation running in a fictitious universe. A universe that is written about in a book in our universe which, according to some physicists, might very well just be a fictitious simulation running in an even larger universe. As Mr Peach points out early in the book, the key to understanding the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum physics is that there is no root universe from which all other universes branch off. All of these universes are as real as each other, or, as McDonald seems to be suggesting, as artificial. And so we return to Marcelina Hoffman (whose jaw-droppingly good book-opening vignette underlines quite how good McDonald is at short form, let alone long form writing): the queen of the lunch-hour facelift. A dishonest woman working in a dishonest industry in a city that demands that people look as artificially good as possible. Everything about Marcelina is 'fake' but is it just her, or is it everything in the book? Or even outside it too?
Brasyl is a book whose complexities and depths are overwhelming once you start to pick at them. They generate a sense of wonder that a thousand big dumb 'halo' or Dyson sphere-like objects in space could not begin to rival. But what is most amazing is that all of this sense of wonder is folded away inside a book that is fun, accessible, beautifully written and endlessly entertaining. It was going to take something special for McDonald to follow up River Of Gods, but somehow he has managed to go even further and even better. Mesmerising.
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