by Ian McDonald
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ian McDonald's Brasyl is comprised of three stories which do not, at first, appear to be linked in any way. The first, focuses on Marcelina, a reality show executive in Brazil in 2006. The second, set in 2032, looks at the life of Edson, a talent agent. The third, and earliest story followed Luis Quinn, a Jesuit priest in 1732 and Brazil is first being settled by the Europeans. Eventually, of course, McDonald does tie the three disparate story-lines together, but he does so in an unexpected manner.
Marcelina's story provides a satire on modern reality television. McDonald's character is a producer with few, if any scruples. When her project to entice carjackers so she can make a chase and arrest show fails, she looks around for a new project, eventually deciding to put a retired Brazilian soccer star on trial for failing to win the World Cup. As she tries, with the help of her friends, to track down the goalkeeper, she begins to have strange experiences. These are caused by activities she apparently undertakes which seem designed to subvert her stated goals, but of which Marcelina has no recollection.
Twenty-six years later, Edson is looking for his next meal ticket as he indulges in a variety of drug and sex-addled behavior. He thinks he has the answer when he finds the Keepie-Uppie Queen of Cidade de Luz, a soccer sensation. The entire time, Edson is trying to keep out of sight of the ever present surveillance cameras in Sao Paolo after his brother stole a bag with a new quantum chip in it. While Marcelina appears to be almost entirely self-centered, Edson is a much more outgoing character, at times achieving altruism, although never when it would actually cost him anything.
Far in the past for either Marcelina or Edson is Father Luis Quinn, a Jesuit priest sent to travel up the Amazon in a Brazil just being opened up by Portuguese exploration in a recreation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with Father Luis cast as Marlow as he tries to bring the renegade priest Father Diego Gonçalves back to civilization to atone for his crimes. Of the three characters, Father Luis is the most likable in any conventional sense. He is friendly, capable, and loquacious, making quick friends which his fellow traveler, Dr. Robert Falcon.
Although McDonald is slow to tie the three strands together, eventually he does, and the quantum technology which is only beginning to rear its head in Edson's world, is key to the whole endeavor. In bringing these stories together, McDonald is revisiting, in many ways, the same concepts Larry Niven explored at much less length, in his 1968 short story "All the Myriad Ways." McDonald's characters, however, come to very different conclusions than the protagonist of Niven's short story.
McDonald does an excellent job building his three different Brazils, and although it is possible to see the path from Marcelina's Brazil to Edson's world of the near future, the settings are different enough that McDonald clearly had to think through his worlds for each timeframe and did a wonderful job. It is fitting that the novel is named for the milieu since Brazil, in all its aspects, is as much a character as Marcelina, Edson, or Father Luis. More importantly, Brazil is a more enjoyable character than any of McDonald's three protagonists.
The stories in Brasyl don't always flow smoothly, and McDonald holds his cards close to his chest. By the time there is even a hint of what the connection between the stories is, the novel is well underway and the reader can be excused for thinking Brasyl is essentially three separate short stories woven together and sharing a location and not much else. Once the connections are made, the reader will find himself wanting to go back and figure out what clues, if any, McDonald sprinkled throughout the novel.
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