Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Gollancz, 2007, £12.99, 512pp
ISBN 9780575080508
See also my review of River Of Gods and Ares Express This review first appeared on The SF Site
In which Mr McDonald tries to do for Brazil – sorry, Brasyl – what he did for India in the kaleidoscopic River Of Gods.

Or does he?

Whilst the two books may have superficial similarities, such as their setting in a currently underperforming, but hotly-tipped, global power, and a quite remarkable degree of seemingly authentic local colour, I don’t think McDonald is doing an sf audit of potential global superpowers.  To begin with, only one third of Brasyl, set in Sao Paulo in 2032, appears to be the straightforward extrapolative science fiction that River Of Gods was.  There are two other narratives in Brasyl: one following Marcelina Hoffman, a producer of trash TV living a thoroughly modern life in the Rio of 2006, and one following her seeming antithesis, Father Luis Quinn, an Irish Jesuit priest on a Heart Of Darkness-style voyage across an appalling Brazil of 1732.

In 2032, Edson is a smooth, smart operator, with ambitions that look far beyond the slums where he was born and raised.  Then he meets Fia, part of a quantum computing operation on the bleeding edge of legality and reality, and, remarkably, falls in love.  But which Fia is he in love with...?

In 2006, Marcelina’s next big TV pitch is to find the man, the goalkeeper, who cost Brazil the 1950 World Cup - a knife-edge moment when anything seemed possible in this impossible country - and subject him to ‘trial by TV’.  But Marcelina’s own life is on a knife-edge, as a woman who seems to be her perfect doppelgänger is causing chaos in a life that is already too finely balanced...

In 1732, Luis Quinn has eschewed the violence that marked his earlier life in favour of something more meaningful.  Sent to find a megalomaniac hiding in the depths of Brazil’s dark forests, he finds far more than that; discovering a cause greater and more important than anything he could previously ever have imagined...

Now, let us try to imagine a mashup of David Mitchell’s much-lauded Cloud Atlas and Eduardo Galeano’s soul-searingly epic history of South America Memory Of Fire and I hope that will give you some idea of the richness and relevance contained in Brasyl.  The only fitting adjective here is, once again, ‘kaleidoscopic’, for as the three narratives progress, allowing us to spot certain similarities between them, they then eventually converge upon the central conceit of the novel – that of parallel worlds.  And never one to mess around with small ideas, McDonald unleashes the full glory of the ‘many worlds’ hypothesis upon us – a true multiverse where every possible permutation of events co-exists with every other.

Brasyl isn’t quite as coherent as River Of Gods was, but then its subject matter renders that just about impossible.  The scintillating glory of Brasyl for me lies in the (literally) hallucinogenic taste we’re given of what this hypothesis really means, and the consequences for us and for the universe.  That McDonald can accomplish such a narrative feat whilst also juggling three so very different ‘proper’ stories at once made this reviewer almost gasp in wonderment. 

Really – this is exactly what I read science fiction for: to be shown dazzling new things, new worlds - new thoughts, even; to be immersed in unfamiliar milieux and made aware of the potential wonder of the world around us, whether in a different dimension or just a different timezone.
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