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Friday, April 24, 2009

Nebula Awards Finalists, Part 1 - Brasyl, by Ian McDonald (reviewed by Jacques Barcia)

(Note by Fabio Fernandes - Following the trend set here before with the Philip K. Dick Award, nominees - by the way, said reviews aren´t done yet, but that cause-effect juggling in space-time continuum will be repaired soon, thanks for your patience and understanding - we are going to review, or publish reviews by other contributors, of award nominees. This is Nebula time - as you know, Bob, the Nebula winners will be announced next Sunday, April 26, 2009, in the Nebula Award Banquet in Los Angeles.

The first novel of the lot is Ian McDonald´s Brasyl. Jacques Barcia wrote it in March 2008 in his own blog. It is reproduced here with his permission.)


Parallel lives, parallel times, parallel universes. And a single country. Or not quite so. In Brasyl, Irish writer Ian McDonald opens a window to three distinct landscapes: one futurist, descending from cyberpunk tradition; other contemporary, an echo of news services and the fever of reality shows; and, at last, one in the past, in a mysterious and predatory jungle, an independent world inside a colony. Linking all these three universes, so distant from each other, and at the same time so close, is quantum physics, its possibilities and its consequences.

The book tells the story of three characters separated in time and space. In 2006 Rio de Janeiro, Marcelina Hoffman is a TV producer specialized in reality shows seeking Barbosa, the goalkeeper of the fateful 1950 final, when Brazil lost for Uruguay in the Maracanã stadium. In ultra-surveillance society of 2032 São Paulo, entrepreneur and street guy Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas has his life tured upside down when he gets involved with a girl member of a gang of quantumeiros, physicians that use illegal quantum computing to break any kind of code. And in 1732 Amazon, Jesuit father Luis Quinn hunts, in the name of the Church and the Portuguese Crown, another father that would be building his own theocracy in the heart of the jungle. And in the middle of all this, two conspiracies that cross the wall between realities: one tries to keep the multiverse a secret, while the other tries to open up the realities as the only way to save them.

But Brasyl is much more than this. It is a book that keeps the title Science Fiction has earned: that of last representative of the literature of ideas. Just because of that, Brasyl is not an easy book, even less a conventional SciFi book.

In the book, McDonald builds, in those three narrative lines, three discussions: the number of lives an individual may have, the quantity of landscapes and societies a country can have and, finally, how many different worlds fit in a universe. It is a tour, from micro to macrocosm, about the nature of identity. It is a book about philosophy, physics and the nature of reality. About choices, secrets and masks. It is a book about a country that never were and maybe never will be. About parallel realities, but focused in their similitudes rather than their differences.

In the end, Brasyl is not even a single book, but many, inside a single tome of about 400 pages. That is because McDonald wrote, between the lines, that he could have made made books with the same premise, the same elements and the same characters. Brasyl could have been a book about interdimensional intrigue. It could have been a action-packed book, with capoeira, gunshots and swordfights. It could have been an epic in the jungle. It could have been a book about the future of a country dominated by soap operas and reality cop shows, controlled by a surveillance system that monitors, from the stratosphere, every person, every object. Not that all these elements are not present in McDonald’s book. There are fight scenes in which capoeira is described in all its beaty, a afro-descendent version of Hong Kong movies. There are swordfights, both in 18th century chivalric tradition, and in a future one, with the Q-Blades, capable of cutting in the quantum level.

But instead, McDonald decided to spend most of the book writing about three characters and their individual parallel realities: a blond girl that is also a capoeira practiotioner and tries to keep her beauty tp be a little happier, and at the same time that maintains a love affair with a colleague without knowing if it is love at all; a priest, that is an assassin and a general; and a man that by day is an entrepreneur, in love for a Japanese descendent girl, by night is a cross-dresser, a dance queen, and in the weekends is a super-hero, a homoerotic fetish.

And McDonald tells these stories using a special, poetic and labyrinthine prose. The points of view going back and forth, both between the three main characters, as in their minds eye, their memories and multiples lives, too often jump to different scenes in the same paragraph. The structure McDonald uses in Brasyl completes the notion of parallel realities and is the mark of an author that has control over his book.

Through three main characters, both believable an empathic, McDonald explores the nature of Brazilian people. Even if he hasn’t lived in Brazil, doing his research in a couple of visits to São Paulo, Bahia and the Amazon, and reading the few books about Brazil available in English, McDonald was able to capture, with amazing precision, th Brazilian spirit. And he did this without clichés, without hullabaloos, but with critical observations regarding the importance Brazilian people gives to beauty, soccer and TV. Besides, geographically everything is right and linguistically, it is better than most foreigners trying the language of Camões.

The author mixes his English with many terms in Portuguese, which causes a positive estrangement much more interesting to fellow English speakers, but here it becomes the only and real downside of the book. There is a great deal of misspellings: non existent diacritical marks, misplaced accent marks and some inaccurate translations. But that is something that does not diminishes the book’s brilliance and importance.

A hell of an accomplishment for a gringo, definitely Brasyl is a book Brazilians must read.


Liviu said...

I loved the book a lot too - stylistically it's just great, atmosphere same and I am delighted it hit the right notes for a native Brazilian; the one quibble I had was the sf-nal concepts which started great but did not coalesce that well in my opinion.

I thought River of Gods while less pyrotechnic and with its problems in the same respect of pulling threads together, a better sf novel overall, but this one was very, very good too.

Fabio Fernandes said...

Incredible as it may sound, it didn´t hit the right notes for me - but I concede that it´s a hell of a good, well-written book, and the very best novel written on Brazil by a foreigner author.

I wonder what Indian readers thought of River of Gods, btw.


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