Ian McDonald’s Brasyl

278281Elizabeth Vail penned this review. 

Following his previous work, River of Gods, which depicted a near future India, Ian McDonald launches into a new country, a new culture, and a new mindset for his most recent novel, Brasyl, a dazzling, if somewhat warped, story involving three separate but somehow connected narratives that evolve across three different timelines

In 2006 Brazil, Marcelina Hoffman, an ambitious producer for a trashy tabloid television channel, finds her life being sabotaged by a doppelganger who is as ruthless and cruel as she is. In 2032 Brazil, self-made businessman Edson, after rescuing his hapless brother from the law, encounters a beautiful girl with a flair for meddling with serious quantum mechanics. Finally, in 1732, Father Luis Quinn is charged with an order to track down a renegade priest who seems bent on building his own Empire of God in the uncharted Brazilian jungle.

What all three have in common is the concept of parallel worlds, a multiverse in which a world for every possibility exists. Edson’s girlfriend Fia accesses the multiverse through quantum physics and uses it to hack software, Luis discovers maddened Father Diego wants to possess the power of the multiverse to answer any question, and Marcelina suspects that her doppelganger might just be an other-world version of herself.

With all these ideas, and the steamy neon tropical setting of Brazil, Ian McDonald builds up to a mind-boggling doozy of a multiworld theory. To emphasize the novel’s theme of the physics of infinite possibilities, McDonald portrays Brazil as a sprawling jungle centre of contradiction, superstition, spiritualism, religion, and choice. Marcelina witnesses B-list telenovela stars willing to take vomit-inducing hallucinogenic drugs to achieve spiritual ecstasy, while Edson’s mother Dona Hortense still leaves cubes of holy cake as offerings to the saints while above them satellites constantly monitor chips embedded in nearly every manufactured object. With his narrative heavily spiced with Brazilian slang (there’s a handy glossary in the back), McDonald gives us a Brazil that is enormous but close, filthy but pure, glossily artificial while true to itself.

While Brasyl begins as an intricate mystery in three parts, near the end the narrative begins to weaken as events spin further out of control and poorly-introduced characters and phenomena begin to appear out of nowhere to offer the protagonists vague salvation or threat. Ian McDonald also has an annoying and confusing trait of temporally flashing back and forth in the middle of a present narrative without any warning, indication, or change in font or format.

As well, McDonald’s character development is a bit haphazard. Luis Quinn is a fascinating character with a rich backstory, as is Edson with his alternate identities, but Marcelina’s character arc seemed a trifle unexplained. Admittedly, it must have been hard to have made her coke-snorting, back-stabbing, envious reality TV queen relatable and sympathetic, and some of that is achieved by allowing the doppelganger to topple Marcelina’s house of cards simply by making public everything Marcelina thought and plotted in private. However, her eventual fate is wildly inconsistent with her demonstration of character and produces nothing but a giant question mark.

These flaws aside, McDonald’s Brasyl is a thought-provoking science fiction novel with an evocative sense of setting and textured language. His intriguing use of Brazil’s past, present, and imagined future culture cleverly complements his quantum theories in a way that banishes any ideas that he chose his setting by randomly throwing darts at a map taped onto his wall.

 (Prometheus, 2007)


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