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Air
Geoff Ryman
Gollancz, 390 pages

Air
Geoff Ryman
Geoff Ryman is the author of several novels including The Unconquered Country (1984) which won both the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award and the World Fantasy Award. The Child Garden (1989) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W Campbell Memorial Award (First Place). An extract of it, published in Interzone, also won a BSFA Award.

Geoff Ryman Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Child Garden
SF Site Review: Tesseracts 9
SF Site Review: Was

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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One historical dividing line in science fiction is between those who think technology offers a lot of "cool" things that better the human condition (Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov) and those who think the opposite (Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells and their New Wave descendants sprung from the loins of atomic explosions and countercultural indulgences). The cyberpunks melded both with the sort of Zen-like attitude that technology is neither inherently good or bad, it merely is what it is. Yes, global corporations more efficiently exploit people with better technology, but that's not the fault of the tool. For the rebellious spirits, the cowboy geeks who jack-in to the drug-like computerized interface, technology is the means to achieve the very transcendental state of disembodied consciousness religions can only make up stories about.

These days, cyberpunk has become a marketing category, signifying semi-coherent entertainments that rely on special effects that project ponderous claims of pseudo-philosophical significance, e.g., The Matrix. Geoff Ryman's Air, in contrast, reclaims the literary ambition of cyberpunk by inverting its landscape. Whereas "traditional" cyberpunk action takes place largely within a computer-generated "alternate reality," Ryman sets his story in a third world culture on the verge of transformation by a technological tsunami.

Air is an extrapolation of Ryman's 2001 short story (originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a Gardner Dozois selection for his annual "Year's Best") "Have Not Have." Chung Mae is a clever if illiterate peasant woman who provides the latest big city fashions to the locals in a small Eurasian village called Karzistan, a fictionalized version of the former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan. The story takes place in the near-future on the eve of the introduction of "Air" -- a sort of Internet consciousness the government is forcibly imprinting onto the neurons of its citizenry as a quick means to modernize its society -- and contrasts the uncertainties of impending radical change with daily social customs rooted in a long tradition. The ending is a seeming plea against the tendency to assume that "new" is necessarily "better," and that so-called "primitive" cultures lacking Western conveniences are somehow lacking in human accomplishment. Thus, the title questions whether the "haves" are perhaps really the "have nots."

It is a remarkable story and the novel is equally so; indeed, its accolades include the James Tiptree Jr., British Science Fiction, Arthur C. Clarke and Sunburst Awards, and the short list for Nebula Award. I don't know why the original name was relegated to a subtitle in favor of Air, but the theme takes some unexpected turns. Where the short story seems to object to technology running rampant over human values (the characteristic Frankenstein Complex, as Asimov termed it), instead it becomes a meditation on the inevitability of change as part of the evolution of the species that isn't necessarily better or worse, just different. Those who embrace the future stand to prosper, while those who cling to the past are swept away, literally and figuratively

The original short story serves as the opening chapter of the novel. What follows is that the test of Air then takes place, but goes awry, necessitating a delay of the full roll out, but providing the villagers with more time to prepare to learn how to use the new technology and get more accustomed to how it will change their lives. One side effect of the botched test is that Mae's consciousness is intertwined with that of Mrs. Tung, a village elder who dies at almost the same time. Mae struggles to maintain her separate identify, but Mrs. Tung, and the traditional values she represents, sometimes comes to the forefront. In particular, she uses Mae as an instrument to warn of a devastating flood very much like the one that previously wrecked much of the village in which several of Mrs. Tung's children were lost.

While the villagers await full implementation of Air, the government supplies two competing families with what are called "TVs," i.e., sophisticated Internet-access devices. Mae's accident makes her particularly adept at using the technology, which she tries to teach to the other villagers. She also receives government grants to set up a dot com business that sells traditional native garments to the West as high fashion.

However, her influence is hindered because she is a married woman who has an affair with Mrs.Tung's grandson and, in middle age, is impregnated in an unusual way, the disturbing symbolism of which doesn't become evident until the conclusion. Mae manages to work her way back into the good graces of some of the villagers, but remains suspect by certain factions, who, perhaps not surprisingly, are mainly men. There's also a strange turn in which Mae is abducted by a powerful gangster hoping to harness Mae's talents for his own shadowy objectives when Air becomes ubiquitous; instead, Mae turns him into an ally for her own purposes of helping the village transition to the future. So this is a strong woman character who is constantly struggling against, and eventually overcoming, the biases, stupidities, and societal prejudices of men; hence the Tiptree Award.

Mae's status in the village is always on shaky grounds, frequently forcing her to win allegiances with people she doesn't fully trust. Even these allies begin to doubt her when Mae insists on preparing for a devastating flood. Suffice it to say that the flood has symbolic as well as dramatic significance. Indeed, the resolution deftly combines mythology and neuroscience, the cyberpunks' wet dream of achieving Nirvana via electronic interface.

Whereas the short story seemed a critique of technological advancement at the expense of human values, the novel isn't a mere Luddite tome. Testing people without their consent has dire effects on Mae, but it ultimately proves part of the divine plan. There's also a talking dog that helps rescue Mae from the gangster who wishes for his only reward to be turned back into a dog. A criticism of genetic engineering, perhaps, but, the very same scientific freak is Mae's salvation.

Ryman, then, is neither totally critical nor totally accepting of technology. But he understands, as his characters come to, that it is of no avail to live in the past when the future is coming, whether we want it to or not.

Copyright © 2007 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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