Sci-Fi master Ian McDonald conjures another masterpiece with Brasyl

While some Sci-Fi authors are content to turn their gaze upon the stars and imagine what life exists on those distant planets, Bangor-born novelist Ian McDonald prefers to focus his boundless imagination on the Earth.

McDonald's Chaga saga conceived of an Africa elevated from its Third World plight by a benevolent alien race, while his award-winning River of Gods explored a future India in the thrall of artificially intelligent life forms. Now he has set upon Brazil with the same intensity of vision and produced one of his most inventive novels yet.

Brasyl is a kaleidoscope of shifting realities and intertwined narratives awash with colourful prose and vibrant characters. Its dizzying breadth spans three intertwining years: 1732, 2006 and 2032.

In 1732, Jesuit priest Father Luis Quinn sails deep into the sweaty confines of the Amazonian jungle in pursuit of a priest who has split from his Order, and quite possibly his sanity, to found his own twisted kingdom.

In 2006 trash TV producer, Marcelina Hoffman frantically rushes around Rio de Janeiro, lurching from editorial meetings to crazed drug parties while trying to avoid the doppelgänger she knows is out to kill her.

In 2032 in the cyberpunk future of Sao Paulo, beneath the electronic eyes of satellite surveillance, bisexual transvestite Edson de Freitas falls in love with Fia Kishida, the operator of a physics bending quantum computer.

Brasyl hurtles along through three intertwining narratives, like someone endlessly flicking the remote between three different film channels. Indeed, there is something cinematic about McDonald’s prose as is evident in his description of the Sao Paulo dawn:

An edge of light shines between the skinny boles of the trees, growing brighter with every moment, its dazzle burning away the silhouettes of the trunks until they dissolve into sun. Edson climbs up into the light. Fia sits at he left her, knees pulled to chest for warmth. Bronze sky, brass city. The sun pours into the bowl of Sao Paulo, touching first the flat roofs and sat-dishes of the favelas just beneath their feet where the people have been up for hours, on their long journeys to work in the endless city. It flows from the hilltops down the roads like spilled honey, catching on the mirrors and the chrome, turning the rodovias that curl along the hillsides to arcs of gold. Now it lights the smoke spires: the plumes of industry and power plant stacks, the more diffuse auras from the scattered bairros; then the tops of the high towers rising above the dawn smog.

McDonald skilfully crafts his prose to great effect, so that each section of his book has its own unique rhythm. During the 2006 strand, following the paranoid and coke-fuelled Hoffman, the prose manages to capture the jittery energy of the protagonist. The 2032 narrative is a fast-paced action-driven section and the prose reflects this in all its thrilling, violent, galloping narrative verve.

The staccato sentences of these two sections change to suit the Luis Quinn storyline. The 1732 narrative is carried along by a protracted, meandering prose which seems to flow slowly like the treacle-dark Amazonian river. Quinn is a cerebral character whose discussions with his companion, the French scientist Robert Falcon, on the role of free will and the nature of reality form the intellectual centre of the novel.

The novel evokes all facets of Brazil: from the overcrowded sun-soaked, smog choked cities, alive with the constant hubbub of people and the rhythms of samba, to the vast unknowable forests whose sweltered, sheltered depths hide untold secrets. The sheer vitality of McDonald's creation is an achievement in itself.

The main conceit of the novel, that Brasyl's 2006, 2032, and 1732 are not part of the same timeline, but rather different iterations of Brazil belonging to alternative universes, is cleverly utilised by the author.

Sci-Fi fans have become accustomed to the notion of alternate realities, so much so that it has become something of an overused device. However, to McDonald the multiverse is just a Sci-Fi reflection of the true nature of Brazil - a vast land that contains many worlds of contrasting realities - from the jet-setting lifestyle of the few in the privileged wealthy class, to the struggles of those who live in the shacks which make up the favelas, to the tribes which live in the deep jungles.

The problem some readers may have with Brasyl is that the 2006 section of the narrative cannot compete with breathtaking wonders of the future-scape or the gripping Lovecraft-like horrors of the alternate history. Similarly, its attack on the glut of crass reality television shows seems crass itself compared with Quinn and Falcon’s philosophical discussions.

Of course, McDonald takes the notion of ‘trash’ beyond the satire on modern broadcasting. In a multiverse where it is possible that there are many realities far superior to our own, our Earth could in fact be trash. Brasyl finds a vitality and a poetry in that concept. Whether they are in the shanty towns of India, the deserts of Africa or here in the favelas of Brazil, McDonald takes the disenfranchised and marginalised of society and shows the reader the dignity they possess.

Brasyl is a complex and accomplished novel from one of NI’s most undervalued authors. If he were writing in any other genre, McDonald would receive the popular praise and recognition he deserves. Brasyl is a novel of sweeping intellectual scope and inventiveness, weaving white-knuckle action and philosophical discussion with superb narrative flair.

Brendan Deeds