REVIEW: Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Brasyl has been receiving high praise from just about everyone since it’s publication. It’s easy to see why. Not content with writing just one interesting story, McDonald gives us three: Father Quinn is tasked with tracking down a renegade priest in the vastness of the 18th Century Amazonian watershed, Marcelina Hoffman is a reality TV producer for Canal Quatro in 2006 Brazil who seems to be haunted by herself, and Edson Oliveira de Freitas is a small time hood and part-time business man in a panoptic Brazil in 2032 who becomes enamored with a quantum computing queen. Each story is interesting in its own right, with Father Quinn’s being the most interesting of the three. McDonald has obviously researched Brazil extensively, and this research pays off as Brazilian culture and society come alive within McDonald’s prose. Portugese words and ideas are liberally spread throughout each setting which help the settings come to life.
What’s even more amazing is that McDonald has taken these stories and wrapped them around a very hard science fictional idea. Namely that of the quantum computational view of cosmology. In short, the universe is a quantum computer that is computing itself. My first introduction to this idea was from the mind expanding book, Programming the Universe by Seth Loyd. In fact, McDonald has actually given us a taste of this view before in his previous book, River of Gods. It’s the reason the AIs in that book ‘leave’ Earth and go where they go. In Brasyl, McDonald takes the idea to its next, logical conclusion. I won’t spoil the idea, but it does lead to all sorts of interesting philosophical ideas which the characters must face. It’s also the basis for a conflict that is hidden for most of the book, based on different views of the universe, but comes to the fore as the story threads slowly wind together. Brasyl isn’t just a parallel dimensions story, it tackles big issues like free will and the heat death of the universe and places them in intensely personal stories, which serves to humanize these ideas and make them easier to understand. In fact, one of the sides in the conflict has a very gloomy outlook that reminded me of the book Darwinia. Of course, the other side in the conflict has a more hopeful outlook.
McDonald’s prose also stands out. Each story has its own unique voice, appropriate to the era in which it’s set. For the later stories, McDonald uses Portugese words and phrases quite often, and tends to write in shorter, punchier sentences and fragments. You get the feeling that later day Brazil is a busy, frenetic place even though it is under the ever watchful eyes of the authorities. The earlier Brazil is more languid and slow, reflecting the slower pace of life in the 18th century and the sentences are longer and more traditional to reflect this. Overall, Brasyl has some of the deliberate storytelling from River of Gods, but at only 343 pages, the storylines converge quicker and, reflecting the quantum view, in unexpected ways. It felt a bit like Cloud Atlas, only with a heavier science fictional element.
I did have some issues with Brasyl. Mainly the prevalence of Portugese in the stories. I don’t know Portugese and it isn’t always apparent from context what the words mean. Additionally, even though there is a glossary in the back, not all the words used appear there. This necessitates either a trip to the web to figure them out, or, in my case, just accepting the words as is and making a guess as to meaning. This made the reading a slow go for the entire book and sapped some of the enjoyment from the book. Luckily, the big issues are explained in English terms which makes them easier to understand. I also felt that, despite the outstanding story telling, there is more to be told. Nothing is really wrapped up, the origins of the different sides aren’t really explained and there is no final resolution. Perhaps McDonald was going for that type of ending since we, currently, have no idea how universe will actually end, but here, it feels like Brasyl is the first book in a series and there is enough left hanging for a sequel.
Brasyl rivals River Of Gods story-wise and surpasses it in science fictional terms. I’d say its on par with River Of Gods overall and if you liked River, you should like Brasyl, with the caveat that the Portugese seems to get in the way more than the Hindu did.
Filed under: Book Review
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