By Ian McDonald
First Published: 2007
Review © 2010 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Parallel Worlds, Alternate History
Brasyl is a wild science fiction mixture of futuristic extrapolations, alternate history, and parallel worlds set in the exotic country of Brazil. My expectations for this novel were super high due to Ian McDonald’s previous science fiction novel, River of Gods, which was set in another exotic country, India. Unfortunately, Brasil could not live up to my, admittedly excessively high expectations.
Brasyl follows three storylines set in the past, present, and future of Brazil. The first storyline takes place in the present day Rio de Janeiro of 2006 while the second takes place in the 2032 future of the largest city in Brazil, Sao Paulo. The third storyline takes place in an alternate history version of 1732 colonial Brazil under the control of Portugal.
While all three storylines are connected, they are mostly independent stories until the very end of the novel. This makes it tempting to compare the narratives and I thought the 1732 narrative was by far the most engaging and exciting. The other two storylines started off as mostly jumbled messes and didn’t get a whole lot better as the novel progressed. In fact, I had to struggle to keep reading through the first 200 pages of this novel because it took that long for the weaker two narratives to start generating any real interest.
The one good aspect of all three narratives is the way they immerse the reader in the country and culture of Brazil, much as River of Gods, immersed the reader in India. McDonald has some wonderful descriptions of the landscapes, cities, and people. He also creates very well drawn characters. However, the main characters of the present day and future Brazil didn’t do much to engage my interest. For more details, continue on at the risk of encountering minor spoilers.
The present day narrative features an ambitious producer of reality TV shows named Marcelina who is also a talented practitioner of a Brazilian martial art. Marcelina finds herself sacrificing what little is left of her integrity to pursue the development of a new reality show. Just when she thinks she is in reach of a new hit, her plans are sabotaged by someone who may be her double. There isn’t much plot for this storyline and what there is doesn’t make much sense. There is some satire aimed at the production of reality TV but you couldn’t find a much easier target for satire or a much more insipid profession for a story backdrop. The only good part of this narrative was the fight scenes and some of the satire.
The futuristic narrative follows a young man named Edson with many aliases who is working hard to find an angle in a world where every person and everything of value is tracked by multiple surveillance methods. He stumbles onto an illegal quantum computing operation which may provide the key to alternate realities and certainly attracts danger. He soon falls in love with the mysterious woman who operates the quantum computer. Edson also happens to be lovers with a retired male professor of quantum computing. What are the odds! This narrative begins as a confusing cacophony of sites and sounds with some action scenes. Soon the romantic love triangle develops which is pretty well done but the action only becoming interesting in the last few chapters.
The historic narrative features an Irish Catholic Jesuit priest who is sent on a mission by the Church to track down and admonish a priest who has gone rogue somewhere in the uncharted far reaches of the upper Amazon. Father Luis happens to be a talented swordsman as well as a dedicated priest. He sets out on an expedition up the Amazon that is reminiscent of the expedition penned by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, especially in regards to the wayward priest bringing civilization to the “savages” of the jungle and unlimited power to himself. This narrative had a real plot with lots of adventure, mysteries, and action including swordfights and large scale battles. The characters were also much more engaging.While I really enjoyed the adventure story in colonial Brazil and the parallel worlds premise offered some interesting ideas, I can’t recommend the novel Brasyl to most readers. The one good storyline was outweighed by two narratives that didn’t provide much interest and had confusing mish mashed plots. I would only recommend this novel to serious fans of Ian McDonald and readers who want to seek out the chance to be immersed in the past, present, and future cultures of Brazil without requiring much in the way of plot.