Brasyl

by Henry on June 6, 2007

A review of Ian McDonald’s new novel Brasyl (Powells, Amazon ,first 48 pages available here), as a taster for a longer essay which will appear sooner or later (more on that anon). I’ve written briefly about McDonald’s previous book on India, River of Gods. As I said of that book:

McDonald has been engaged in a very interesting effort over the last ten years to re-imagine science fiction from the perspective of the developing rather than the developed world,… I’m not sure whether the book is (or even tries to be) authentic in any strong sense of the word (I’d be fascinated to hear the opinion of anyone who’s from India and has read it), but it’s exciting, thought-provoking, and (once you come to grips with the many viewpoints that McDonald uses), very entertaining.

Brasyl is easier for the reader to come to grips with than River of Gods; it isn’t quite as kaleidoscopic, having only three viewpoint characters (one of whom admittedly has a multiplicity of identities). Again, it’s open to question whether the book is trying to present an authentic vision of what Brazil past, current and future might look like. The title may be a clue that it isn’t supposed to be authentic, or at least not entirely. McDonald’s from Northern Ireland, and the word ‘Brasyl’ presumably riffs off both the country Brazil and the mythical land of Hy-Breasil (a class of a mythical Celtic paradise). Not to mention the Terry Gilliam film.

The novel is set in three imagined Brazils – one in the past, in which an Irish Jesuit goes upriver to confront a former member of his order who’s Kurtzing it up in the Amazonian jungle, one in a version of the present, in which a tabloid TV producer is confronted by a double who seems intent on wrecking her life, and one in the near-future, in which a backstreet impresario falls for the wrong girl and finds himself over his head in a universe of proliferating quantum realities. These various Brazils come together in the closing pages of the book as one (and perhaps all) of the key characters comes to realize the nature of the universe that they all live in. While the stories are imbricated with each other in complicated ways, they are less bound together by a unified narrative than by a sense that they all illustrate a common theme or argument.

This argument is expressed most overtly in the cosmological discussions of the closing chapters (I’m not going to say too much more about these, for fear of spoiling the book). But these revelations aren’t sensawunda headkicks – in broad outline they aren’t likely to surprise attentive SF readers who have picked up on the clues scattered through the earlier parts of the book. Nor, I suspect, are they meant to. The closing chapters aren’t so much a revelation as a restatement on a cosmological level of the book’s underlying sociological and political arguments. Indeed, I’d argue that the book is best categorized as a utopian novel, albeit one that is remarkably sneaky and indirect.

This utopia hides in the corners of a country beset by gross political and economic inequalities. At one point, McDonald describes a vast Inferno-like junkyard where children pick through the remnants of defunct technology.

Circuit boards cook on coal griddles, release their lead solder like fat from pig-meat. Mercury baths grab gold from plated plugs and sockets. Homemade stills vaporize the liquid metal … Two boys stir a stream of sand-sized processors into a plastic vat of reagent, dissolving the carbon nanotubes from their matrix. Two eight-year olds sitting cross-legged on a soy bean sack test plastic from the heap beside them by heating it over a cigarette lighter and sniffing the fumes. This is the circle of the slaves, sold into debt indenture by parents crushed by 5,000 per cent interest. The drones pause only to pick and scratch at their skins. The loudest sound is coughing. Wrecked neurology and heavy metal poisoning are endemic. Few here are out of teenage; few live so long. Those who do make it do so with ruined health.

This scene is set in 2050, but it isn’t far from contemporary truth. However, the book isn’t a one dimensional attack on economic globalization; the most important character, Edson, is a small time businessman with considerable charm and an even more considerable eye for the main chance. The book at its heart is a hymn to entrepreneurialism in the broadest sense of the term, the openness to change, and the willingness to translate between different cultures. All three characters work the boundaries between one culture and another. The TV producer Marcelina Hoffman is clearly quite selfish; but McDonald seems to be a little in love with her exuberance and embrace of vulgarity (he has enormous fun designing the concepts for her raucous reality TV shows); her movement back and forth between the worlds of fashion, trash tv and a backstree Brazilian sport combining dance and kickboxing. The priest Luis Quinn gives up the orderly life of a Jesuit to construct a sort of ragamuffin utopia-in-hiding composed of fugitive tribes. The counter-logic of McDonald’s hidden utopia; the Hy Breasail that lurks in the shadows of Brazil’s apparent dystopia, is one of syncretism, a willingness to munge apparently jarring cultures together and to transform them. Thus, Brasyl speaks both to the downside and upside of globalization – on the one side the violence and inequalities, on the other the possibilities and transformations – and expresses the cautious hope that the latter (the seeds of which are germinating in the shadows of the vast and apparently inexorable machineries of power) will eventually overwhelm the former.

Thus, to return to what I said at the beginning; I don’t know whether Brasyl is, or wants to be, an authentic depiction of possible Brazils. I’m sure that McDonald has done his homework, but it seems to me that his Brazils are stand-ins for something broader than the individual country. Or perhaps, to be a little more precise, I suspect that one of the reasons why McDonald wanted to write about Brazil is because it poses questions about the globalization of culture and economics so starkly. The result is that the book has a political resonance that’s very different from the mainstream of American and UK SF. Cory Doctorow likes Brasyl enormously, and I’m not even slightly surprised. Brasyl’s argument has a lot in common with what I’ve described as BoingBoing socialism. On the one hand, Brasyl shows the downside of William Gibson’s famous dictum that “the street finds its own uses for things.” On the other, it turns the phrase into a positive political manifesto. It’s also very well (at times beautifully) written and tells a great story while it’s at it. What more could you be looking for?

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1

Celso 06.06.07 at 3:36 pm

I think it was Ulrich Beck who talked about the “Brazilianization of the West”? Employment would become flexible, inequality would soar, etc. I don’t remember if it was him, also, who mentioned an increased number of inter-racial marriages. Curiously enough, some would argue that informal work in Brazil springs from excessive regulation in the labour market, something many rich countries are familiar with. On the other hand, it is indeed true that globalization is no news in Brazil, a country that began as one of the first big commercial enterprises funded with European (Portuguese and Dutch) capital. By the way, the book seems interesting, I will definitely read it.

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richard 06.06.07 at 5:50 pm

What you describe certainly conforms to a popular myth of Brasil – as a sort of dirty paradise, that combines inequality with tolerance. It’s a myth that seems quite widespread in Brasil, actually. I wonder how much this is a projection from people uncomfortably aware that they’re on the right side of the divide.

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diogo 06.06.07 at 9:28 pm

richard, you’re spot on about this popular myth of Brasil. It is a really entrenched one too. As for the book, I have only read the first couple of pages. I was well impressed with the author’s knowledge of Rio’s geography and streets. I was less well impressed with the array of Portuguese typos I found…

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richard 06.07.07 at 6:16 pm

that would be speculative fiction idiolectical spelling – like Brasyl itself. Perhaps. If we’re feeling generous.

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