Brasyl by Ian McDonald. Review by Andrea Johnson

Book Cover
Coming on the heels of McDonald's hit River of Gods, Brasyl is part cyberpunk, part historical narrative, part bladerunner, part parallel universe epic, and part introduction to a culture most Americans know nothing about. Throwing standard American/Western European science fiction on it's head, McDonald sets his story in Sao Paulo, the capitol of Brazil. I don't know about you, but everything I know about Sao Paulo can be summed up with "They speak Portuguese, right?" I am a sad, sad American that I know next to zero about one of the world's largest cities. Forget Tokyo and New York City, this future is in South America. While MacDonald overwhelms you with local slang and culture (don't worry, a lot of it is in the glossary in the back), we are introduced to three different Sao Paulos in three very different times.

Sao Paulo, 1730's, father Luis Quinn is on a Jesuit mission to bring a rogue priest back into faith by whatever means necessary, before this man can burn and kill his way through the jungle. Beyond treacherous waters, dangerous animals, unpredictable natives and poisonous everything, Quinn has no idea what to expect. And the reports of gigantic angels flying over the river followed by fiery death are especially disturbing.

Sao Paulo, right now. Marcelina Hoffman produces trash reality tv shows by day, and sleeps with a highly respected news reporter by night. Always chasing the new big thing to beat the competition, she has no idea when she is in over her head. While on a wild goose-chase for the story of her life, no amount of Capoeira will save her from the a fast death by a q-blade, which cuts down to the quantum level.

Sau Paulo, thirty years from now. The population is higher, the stakes are higher, the technology is faster. Uncontrolled consumer garbage is a marketplace unto itself, where children mine for metals, and quantum computing crime is organized. Enter Edson, a sometimes talent agent, sometimes petty thief, always protector of his family. Getting involved with the beautiful Fia pulls him into her dangerous world of quantum computations, digital hacking, and parallel universes. While visiting the scene of her gruesome death, Edson looks up to see Fia staring at him from across the street.

What could these three story lines possibly have in common? McDonald braids them around one another, bringing them together in a knot only at the end. Sure, I've read parallel universe plotlines before, but Brasyl takes it to a whole new level of weirdness. McDonald's characterization is great, the characters feel realistic, fleshed out, and for the most part, unlikeable. Marcelina and Edson seem to be drowning in their own distaste for themselves, looking for new people, new thrills, new drugs, new anything to help them run from who they are. Quinn is a quiet man with a violent past, who has found his personal salvation. The man with the strongest faith, he has the most to lose. We get whispering and rumors of a behind-the-scenes "Order," who are trying to keep knowledge from the general public. What are they hiding? It's these shadowy details that become the most fascinating part of the book, but are rarely expanded upon. Quinn, Marcelina, and Edson, they do not exist in a vacuum. The Universe and all its secrets exists surround them. How much knowledge can they handle? Will the truth set them free? Or imprison them further? Enjoy their stories for what they are, don't rush to the end for the action. The enjoyment of the journey makes the unexpected and bizarre kicker even sweeter.

Although alluring, Brasyl is not an easy book to read. Peppered with what's become the standard cyberpunk shock value and constant barrage of Portuguese slang and reference to indigenous religions, you've got to get through a lot of interference to hear what McDonald is trying to say. There is a line between immersion and drowning. I'm sure the next time I read a book that culture shocks me, I'll enjoy it more. The first time is always the hardest. Perhaps it is time to for me to pick up McDonalds earlier work, River of Gods, his view of a future India. Also a center of population whose details I am ignorant of.


Andrea Johnson lives in beautiful southwestern Michigan with her husband, and spends as much time as possible reading and enjoying science fiction and other speculative fiction. She is an administrator and book reviewer at Worm's Sci Fi Haven and an official reviewer at Multiverse.