Brasyl - Ian Macdonald
Ian Macdonald is a jobbing SF author who's been writing for quite a few years, but has only recently ridden to fame on the back of 2004's Hugo-nominated River of Gods. His latest effort Brasyl comes out in the UK this month; it's an energetic, intelligent SF novel where quantum theory mixes with historical fiction and reality TV across parallel universes, all driven by a strange Latin beat. The style is original, beautiful and immaculately constructed, but I found it very hard to get into, and in the end didn't really like the book that much.
The plot comes in three strands across three alternate Brazils - in 2006, a shallow and ambitious TV producer, Marcelina, is seeing her career and life slowly destroyed by a mysterious doppelganger; in 2036, semi-legal entrepreneur Edson gets mixed up with a nasty gang war involving black-market quantum computing; and in 1706, Irish Jesuit Luis Quinn is dispatched up the Amazon to investigate the rumours of angels with flaming swords, and to bring down the murderous slave empire of a rogue priest. Alas, Marcelina's character was too annoying for me to care much what happened to her, and Edson's story was too strange to really engage with, so it was only the third strand that I really enjoyed reading, and even that was a bit too Heart of Darkness for comfort. Also, with such dispirate story threads, you'd naturally expect them to be all heading towards some kind of grand unified conclusion, but this never quite happened, leaving the book with a very disjointed feel.
The use of so many Portuguese expressions also added extra distance between story and reader. I belatedly discovered a glossary in the back, which helped, but for much of the book I struggled to remember the difference between malandras and favelistas, and never entirely understood the concept of jeito. It helped with the setting, but not so much with the understanding.
Take the film Twelve Monkeys. On an intellectual level, I can tell that this is a very good film - it's an interesting idea, an unusual premise, it's well-scripted and well-acted - and yet, on a visceral level, it does nothing for me, and I don't really enjoy watching it. I feel much the same about Brasyl. For me at least, the balance between style and story was tilted too far away from the story; it's had glowing reviews elsewhere from people whose priorities obviously differ, but for all its glittering brilliance, I don't think it's a book I'd bother to read again.