I would guess that almost every bibliophile does it: postpone reading a book they know they will enjoy, saving it for some yet-unknown, special moment. I have done it countless times, and I know the books still sitting on my shelf waiting for that mysterious “right” moment to unveil itself (Iain Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata, Jack Vance’s Alastor series, Until recently, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl (2007) was on that list. I almost don’t need to ask: was it worth the wait?
Brasyl is told in three distinct threads. The first is set in present day Rio de Janeiro (at least as of 2006) and features Marcelina Hoffman, an ambitious, less than morally scrupulous television producer bent on finding the next great reality tv show. Striking upon an idea she thinks is a winner, she sets out to find the goalie who lost the 1950 World Cup for Brazil and trap him in an interview. The second thread is set a couple decades in the future and features a petty criminal named Erdon. The future rife with Q-technology—technology that can undo the binding of matter and information, Erdon’s life on the street has added dimensions that give existence an edge, literally and figuratively, but particularly when a woman he thought dead reappears. And the third strand is set in the mid-18th century and features an Irish-Portuguese priest, Louis Quinn, heading deep into the Amazon jungle to find a mad vicar who is burning the land and killing natives. How McDonald ultimately links these three narratives is the makings of enjoyable, entertaining fiction.
The first entry in McDonald’s so-called third world trilogy (nothing linking the novels save that all are set in a third world country), Brasyl’s science fiction premise is quantum technology and its spin offs. But it thankfully offers significantly more than hard sf navel gazing. Steeped in Brazilian culture and life, samba pounds out the novel’s soundtrack, sun soaks the streets and favelas, and latino passion drives its three plot threads at full tilt. This is not a laid back novel. Brasyl is going places, and Mcdonald never slows down to hold the reader’s hand. Keep up or shut up, Portuguese slang flows in and out of the text with ease, even as the action kicks in and kicks out of gear in future (i.e. q-tech), present (i.e. newsroom jargon), and historical terms (i.e. an older style of English). The novel’s cover, a splash of colors with a tropical, futuristic edge captures the novel’s overarching style and underlying texture wonderfully.
It is sometimes a criticism of mine that writers do not tailor their writing style to fit point of view or setting. David Mitchell’s wonderful Cloud Atlas, for example, is a novel that covers six settings scattered throughout the past, present, and future. And yet his style and tone, for as dynamic and lol funny as it is, remains the same throughout. Not the case with Brasyl; McDonald writes in a manner appropriate to each of the three settings. The nineteenth century having a semi-classical feel, the present day setting (or at least as of 2006) feeling current, and the 2033 setting more gonzo in its urban slang and descriptions of life and technology, Mcdonald is fully aware of his medium, helping the reader to transition imagination-wise when moving between the settings. A writer really holding himself to a higher standard, the result is brilliant.
I haven’t gone back and counted, but I would say I have read perhaps ten or twelve of Mcdonald’s novels, and Brasyl is one of his best. The action scenes can occasionally come across as Hollywood, but the flavor and texture of the whole is difficult to find comparison for. I held off reading it for some ‘special occasion’, and I’m glad I did; the delayed gratification is replete. Bolstering Mcdonald’s claim to be perhaps the most versatile writer of science fiction, Brasyl tells a ripping good story that lights up the pages with panache; it’s rare that technique, vivacity, exoticism, and imagination come in so holistic a package. While I believe River of Gods is still the best of Mcdonald’s third-world trilogy, this novel nevertheless comes highly recommended.