I was feeling really down after reviewing Spook Country, like I’d somehow slipped sideways into a parallel universe of science fiction where I’d managed to read a totally different version of Spook Country to everyone else. Then a box of Brasyl landed in the bookshop and even though the cover reminded me of clown vomit I found folk all over the net saying it was magnificent. So I took a copy home and gave it a go.
I’m so, so glad.
Ian McDonald essentially writes like William Gibson raised in a third world country. They have similar flashes of imagery, the same almost stream-of-consciousness style of narration, similarly flawed characters, driven by prior mistakes or desires they don’t want to acknowledge. But while Gibson revels in the neon glamour of Chiba and Harajuku and downtown Manhattan, Ian McDonald rolls in the slums. His 2004 novel River of Gods revolved around the Ganges of the mid twenty-first century, while Brasyl is (predictably) set in Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
Not just the rich, upper-class compounds, though. McDonald spends as much time exploring the trash-heap favelas as he does the high-speed life of Brazilian reality TV. Sometimes his descriptions are so pure and crisp that you can smell the filth in the air.
The burned skeletons of construction machines still smoked, the orange paint blackened and bleached down to bare metal… The police barely glanced at Marcelina Hoffman as she joined the throng moving up towards the street market. Anyone could go in… the walls were only there to protect passing drivers from ricochets and stray bullets. Anyone could leave, anytime, during working hours. Surf boys with great muscles strolled, boards under arms, down to the beach at the Barra Da Tijuaca. Their Havaianas crunched broken glass and empty cartridge cases…
So, what’s it all about?
Brasyl follows three distinct storylines of roughly equal importance. In 2006, Marcelina Hoffman works for a reality TV channel, trying her hardest to think up the Next Big Thing and win her commission. Her latest idea – leaving easy-to-steal sports cars in slum areas and then filming the ensuing police chase – doesn’t go nearly as well as hoped. But there’s a bigger problem – somebody masquerading as her is trying to systematically destroy her career and relationships from the inside. Jealous rival? Evil twin? Who knows?
In 2032, Edson is in similar trouble. In between petty theft and identity-swapping with friends, he’s fallen in love with a girl who works in the highly illegal field of quantum computing. It’s all fun-on-the-run, until his friends start dying… and other supposedly dead folk start turning up again.
Finally, in 1732, Father Quinn is on a mission. He’s been sent from Ireland to the wilderness of Brazil to locate a renegade priest who has hidden in the jungle and started his own flock of converts. Quinn has asked God many times for a task most difficult, and this one fits the description. There are a lot of nasty things hiding in the Brazilian jungle…
When I started Brasyl I had no idea how these three stories would tie together. As it turns out, the links are only momentary, but still vital to the overall story. You won’t see Father Quinn’s ancestors teaming up with Edson, for example, but there are threads binding everybody together over the centuries. Sometimes these links aren’t as elegant as I’d hoped, but they all worked, in the end.
What’s also impressive is that these three parallel stories run at full pace from beginning to end. Father Quinn sailing into the darkness of unexplored jungle in 1732 is no less exciting than Edson running from the police in 2032. If anything, the only story to drag is Marcelina’s, and even then it’s only for a few chapters before everything explodes.
Is Brasyl fast? Hell yes, it’s fast. This is a sci-fi thriller at heart, wrapped up in a delicious layer of social commentary. All three characters are constantly hopping from crisis to crisis without ever seeming too lucky or too deus-ex-machina’d (is that even a word?) But, unlike many other sci-fi thrillers, I never felt like the story had left me behind. I love Neuromancer to death, but there were a lot of times when I felt I’d missed vital information. Never so in Brasyl. Everything is balanced and well explained without being patronising.
Does Brasyl have any flaws? A few, although you might not find them as jarring as I. The constant stream of Portugese is bewildering, although by the end of the novel most of the slang has been put in context at least once. But if words like futebol, pichadores and capoeria confuse you, then you might want to bring a dictionary.
My second major complaint would be the level of coincidence. There are some very large, far reaching conspiracies at play in Brasyl, even if they don’t seem apparent until the halfway point. Now, maybe I’m just a whiner, but it’s frustrating as hell when side-characters that have nothing at all to do with these conspiracies are suddenly revealed to either be in-the-know, or to be the grand arbiter of the Brazilian Illuminati equivalent.
Even so, you know what? I didn’t care. I hit the coincidence point, noted it down with a frown, and kept on reading. Because I cared. Because Edson was real to me, and Marcelina was an enigma I needed to solve, and because I was desperate for Father Quinn to survive his task most difficult.
Even when Brasyl stumbles, it gets up fast. The remaining 95% is excellent. I don’t care if the language is sometimes awkward, or if a few of the twists are outright silly. I blew through Brasyl at a rocketing pace and when I put it down I wanted to start again.
Motorcycle chases, reality-altering drugs, gang war, reality TV, graffiti, sex, quantum computing, murder, religious indoctrination, futebol. It’s rad, guys. Pick it up.
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Maui Potiki has also read and reviewed Brasyl, and he saw it quite differently to me. Everyone loves a second opinion, so check it out!
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