Brasyl: Ian McDonald
With Brasyl Ian McDonald has created something which is quite difficult to do. On weaving an intricate tapestry it can difficult to capture the large scale. Likewise when painting the large picture it’s difficult to concentrate on the small brush work. In Brasyl Ian McDonald has not only achieved an impressive overarching plot and a vivid detailed picture of life in Brazil, but he has done so over three separate time periods.
In the past Jesuit priest Luis Quinn is sent on a mission up river in a “Heart of Darkness” themed (superficially at least) episode to investigate a rogue priest. For the future segment a streetwise entrepreneur (amongst other things) deals with a surveillance government plus the effects of quantum technology. The final (not temporally…) segment is about a plastic surgery obsessed reality television executive and the stranger who seems to be taking her life apart.
One of the major themes running through the book is the idea of different universes coexisting. In the modern day Marcelina (our botox protagonist) has compartmentalised her life into different sections, work, family, lover and capoeira (more on this later). In the past the difference between the realms of science and religion are brought into contrast through the discussions between Luis Quinn and Dr Robert Falcon. Further differences are shown between the moderate, calming religion of Quinn and the more primitive/fundamentalist religion encountered deep within the jungle. Different universes are explicitly discussed in the future segment when the underlying technology and theory behind quantum theory, and specifically quantum computations are discussed.
Without wishing to give too much away this book is an excellent piece of work. Switching brilliantly between fleshing out the small details of the multiple worlds it inhabits and drawing connections between them. The language used within the book uses a variety of Portugese words where, presumably, no English equivalent would do justice. Although this can be difficult to get used to it all serves to place the reader in a different place.
All this said there are three minor criticisms (and one is so petty I can barely bring myself to write it).
The first is that I didn’t feel much difference between the present and future segments. With the notion of alternative realities running through the book and muddying the notion of what we’re used to ,it would have been nice to have something more concrete to separate the two eras.
The second is that Marcelina felt (and the extent to which this is on purpose is debatable) quite … plastic. Phenomenally shallow and with little character development. Almost like a more benign Patrick Bateman.
The third (and petty) criticism was the use of Capoeira as an actual martial art. It really isn’t a valid martial art and for a novel set in Brazil to completely ignore Brazilian Ju Jitsu is very disappointing.
That said, minor blotches on an otherwise riotous feast of ideas and action. Plus it has a playlist! More books should have a playlist.