Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, Science Fiction, and Music

I don’t know why, but my segment for the third Georgia Tech Sci-Fi Lab Radio Show wasn’t aired.  I listened to the show, and it was well done and had some good interviews.  Kinda sucks that I didn’t make it into the mix, but what can you do?  What I can do is post it here in text (below) and mp4 audio (here) for your reading/listening pleasure.  Enjoy!

Good evening.  This is Jason Ellis bringing you another Science Fiction review.  I’m a PhD candidate at Kent State University, an alumnus of Georgia Tech, and a former SF Lab fellow.  Tonight, I’m reading a review of Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, spelled B-R-A-S-Y-L, which was originally published in SFRA Review number 281.  Also, I will talk about Brasyl’s connection to music, as well as the relationship between SF texts and music in general.  Let’s begin.

Ian McDonald hacks reality in his latest novel, Brasyl.  It’s a postcolonial cyberpunk SF story that goes far beyond The Matrix.  Instead of humanity being plugged into a network run by a powerful machine intelligence, humanity and what we believe to be reality are merely bits flipping in the grand simulation memory of the largest of all possible computers:  the multiverse, parallel universes amounting to the sum of all possibilities.  The author combines Nick Bostrom’s philosophy of living within a computer simulation and Stephen Wolfram’s mathematical cellular automata with the latest developments in quantum theory to enact this paradigm shifting SF story.

McDonald begins developing the reader’s estrangement by subtly disconnecting the naming of Brazil from its accepted origins while accurately and poetically constructing a past, present, and future space instantly recognized as Brazil.  It’s interesting that McDonald titled the novel Brasyl, which is the Erse word for “land of the blest,” according to Arthur Percival Newton in his 1970 work, The Great Age of Discovery.  Also, this name is connected to the Irish myth about a hidden island known as “Hy-Brazil.”  This sets the land and its name apart from the more accepted etymology of Brazil, which derives from “brasil,” the Portuguese word for embers originally used to describe red brazil wood.

The story follows three emblematic protagonists in different times and universes, but all orbiting the physical space known as Brazil.  Football (i.e., soccer, not American football) is juxtaposed with religion, renaissance science, reality TV, and quantum theory to create a colorful rendition of Brazil.  What is that space?  Who are its inhabitants?  What groups desire to control the mythically lost island as well as the quantum nature of reality of which Brazil serves as locus?

It’s the quantum nature of reality that’s the constant in the equation of Brasyl.  Within the narrative, a struggle exists between the Order, a group of quantum reality aware persons who dogmatically believe that parallel universes should be left alone to run unabated, and another group of freedom minded people who’ve learned how to hack reality, because reality is nothing more than a complex simulation running across all possible universes.  This conflict is played out in 1732 with the Irish Jesuit priest, Father Luis Quinn, 2006 with the reality TV producer Marcelina Hoffman, and 2032 with the bisexual, role assuming businessman, Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas.  The battle that Luis, Marcelina, and Edson find themselves in mirrors the history of Brazil and the historic conflicts fueled by religious evangelism and conversion, usurping resources from the land and people, and control of a country carved out of the Amazon similarly to the Congo in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1902).  The rewards for those who wish to strike out from the simulation means the creation of something new and exploring a life not yet played through several times over.

Appropriately enough, the most significant hack is the re-creation of the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.  Therein lies the heart of McDonald’s postcolonial thesis.  Football, originally a European sport, is appropriated by Brazil and is subsequently integrated into Brazilian national identity.  They took a European (i.e., the colonizer) sport and improved upon it by developing arguably the best football players in the world.  Analogously, quantum theory originated in the minds of European and American thinkers (i.e., the power elite of the Northern hemisphere).  Again, quantum theory and its many strange ways are unraveled and utilized to recreate something close to the heart of Brazilian national culture.

Brasyl continues McDonald’s record as both an SF writer of postcolonial narratives and a first rate author.  He recreates the richness of Brazil in this novel by sampling its language and history.  Also, he provides a useful glossary at the end of the text to assist readers with Brazilian words.  The author proves that estrangement from the Western norm need not take place on other planets or between the stars.  He poetically constructs the story and setting for Brasyl as beautifully and expertly as he does in other works such as the “Chaga Saga” including Evolution’s Shore (1995), Kirinya (1998), and Tendeléo’s Story (2000), which is set in Kenya.  Another recognized work by McDonald in the same vein as Brasyl is River of Gods (2006), which is set in India.  Just as connections may be drawn between River of Gods and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), it’s the author’s striking descriptions, metaphor, and pacing in their works that unite the talents of these two authors.  Not only is Brasyl a powerful work of SF, it’s also a fine work of literature.

McDonald employs good scientific theory and an artful explanation of the quantum nature of reality and quantum computing necessary for the reader to see the underlying processes in the story as more than magical effects.  His making Brazil central to the battle for quantum reality is artfully accomplished via the Amazonian curupairá, a golden frog that secretes a chemical that empowers individuals to see the vastness of quantum reality.  Additionally, his depiction of hopping worlds echoes David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself (1973).

The novel’s cyberpunk connections come from the technology employed by particularly characters.  The parallel 2032 world is featured as one vision of a cyberpunk world.  Edson has a pair of I-shades, which are heads-up display computers that connect to a network of overflowing information more vast than our current Internet but recalling the ubiquity of information in John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (1975).  His dead girlfriend’s doppelganger, the “other” Fia, comes from a parallel world where computers are integrated into our flesh as animated full body tattoos.  Edson’s Brazil is a world of complete surveillance and RFID chips that give away one’s movements and habits much like Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), unless of course you’re as resourceful and enterprising as Edson.  However, McDonald breaks with earlier cyberpunk stories in that the quantum computers Edson steals are tools used for various real-world purposes rather than eye candy.

Ian McDonald’s Brasyl is a significant work of SF deserving critical and academic attention.  The novel would be easily integrated into undergraduate postcolonial and philosophy reading lists.  Additionally, librarians should stock this title for the independent research that it will undoubtedly garner.  The author is at the top of his craft with Brasyl and I can sense my many other selves in parallel universes equally shouting its praises!

Now, what does this text and other SF works have to do with music?  In this case, the author includes a playlist in the book’s appendix that includes twenty songs by Brazilian artists, most of which are available on the iTunes music store.  It begins with the percussive “No Tranco” by Siri, progreses through the electric stylings of Mylene’s “Nela Lagoa,” and ends with a late song by Milton Nascimento called, “O Cio da terra.”  This playlist is important to “getting” the novel, because the author drowns the reader in Brazilian past, present, and future.  Music provides a convenient and emotive avenue for the author to plunge the reader into something familiar, but different.  In this regard, music can be read as a cognitively estranging enterprise.

Kathleen Ann Goonan works a similar magic in her Nanotech series beginning with Queen City Jazz.  Music is integral to the story as well as the way in which the author tells the story.  Goonan writes in her essay, “Science Fiction and All That Jazz,” which you can read on her website at http://www.goonan.com, “So how do music and science fiction mesh?  Art is conscious human design — as in technology, music, or literature — that takes what is available to experience and the senses and transforms it into something useful, beautiful, or both. Fiction’s deep rhythms demand tales of human change. Art is an attempt to defy, at least momentarily, the heat-death of the universe, to pluck random elements from the materials at hand and give them an arrow of time and a satisfying (if often edgy) order. To meld two major musical and literary ideas of the twentieth century, to portray human change in a technological, if musical, milieu, seems to me to be an interesting and almost inevitable enterprise.”  Therefore, the co-evolution and technological mediation taking place in SF and music leads to the co-creation and integration of works involving both.

Another SF story that fuses text with music is Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1985 work, Always Coming Home.  Le Guin does something different than McDonald and Goonan by creating new works of music specifically for her novel.  She worked with Todd Barton to create songs and poetry of the fictional Kesh people.  The resulting collaboration is included with the first edition as a bundled audiocassette.  This additional dimension to the text contained in the novel elevates Always Coming Home to a higher level of anthropological SF that Le Guin is well known for.

Music and SF are inextricably linked.  In fact, music is like the force from Star Wars.  Obi-Wan Kenobi describes it as, “an energy field, created by all living things, that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”  Music does this too, and through it, it acts as another layer, another strata of networks connecting readers and authors, works and the world.

Thanks for listening, and find out more about my take on SF criticism by visiting my blog, dynamicsubspace.net.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.