Finally! It took me two weeks, in fits and starts, to read Brasyl, and then another two weeks to digest it. I have to admit, for a while I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. But I couldn’t invoke the 150 page rule because I liked the first 150 pages. In fact, I liked it while I was reading it, but I found it all too easy to put down, and never felt all that compelled to pick it up again. So what went wrong?
First, a confession: I’m only halfway through Brasyl, by Ian McDonald. It’s a dense, detailed, demanding story that’s impossible to read quickly, but I’m glad to spend the time for this book. After fighting my way through the Old Man’s War series, it’s such a relief to read something that’s consistently well-written.
Though I don’t know what the payoff is going to be, things are starting to look pretty weird in the three threads of the story. A producer for Canal Quatro, a sensationalist TV network in the Sao Paulo of 2006, Marcelina Hoffman’s ambitions are getting sabotaged by someone who seems to know a little too much about her. In fast-paced and techy 2032, Edson the hustler falls in love with Fia, a beautiful Japanese quantum hacker. In the colonial Brazil of 1732, Father Luis Quinn goes up the Amazon river to track down a rogue Jesuit in the Brazilian jungle. You could call it The Fountain, combining Network, Blade Runner, and Heart of Darkness.
The Last Colony reads like it was written by the same John Scalzi who writes his blog, which is relaxed, humorous, and entertaining. In Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades, the prose tends to be stiff, the humor forced, and the story begins only after chapters and chapters of exposition, and is constantly brought to a halt by long philosophical arguments. The sections of really good stuff, such as where Jared Dirac comes alive, only reinforces my impression that the characters are deliberately subordinated to the ideas.
So with this book, we finally get the scenario promised at the end of both the previous books: Jane Sagan and John Perry have settled down with Zoe Boutin in a colony. They are even joined by Savriti, a wise-cracking sidekick who’s amusingly adept at taking Mr. War Hero down a peg. They’re happy, so naturally the Colonial Union recruits them to lead a colony. For absolutely no good reason.
Olaf Neddelson is a humble cambist, a money changer, whose life is changed when the notorious Lord Iron comes to his exchange window. Lord Iron demands that he exchange convertible guilders from the Independent Protectorate of Analdi-Wat for pounds sterling. If Olaf fails to do so within 24 hours, his license could be reviewed under an old statute against speculation. If he assigns an arbitrary value, his licence could be reviewed.
“And rest assured, my friend, that I am quite capable of determining the outcome of any such review.”
Olaf swallowed to loosen the tightness in his throat. His smile felt sickly.
“If I have done something to offend your lordship…”
“No,” Lord Iron said with something oddly like compassion in his eyes. “You were simply in the wrong place when I grew bored. Destroying you seemed diverting.”
I was really looking forward to “Dark Integers” by Greg Egan. After all, one character says:
Dark matter, dark energy . . . dark integers. They’re all around us, but we don’t usually see them, because they don’t quite play by the rules.
How cool is that? I really like the parts where it plays with the idea the mathematics and physics may not perfectly mesh. And yet…
An ingot of metallic hydrogen…
Whoa, wait a second. An ingot. Of metallic hydrogen. Okay, I see what kind of story “Glory,” by Greg Egan is going to be. Old school, hard core, science fiction. That hydrogen gets put through some outrageous changes, which are mind-bending beyond the point of disbelief all the way back out to the fantastic. And it’s all prologue to the tale of two travelers.
In the world of Sky, island-sized living zaratanes float through the upper layers of the atmosphere. A zaratán is so big, whole towns live on their backs and go unnoticed. So naturally, people fly to get about, in balloons or anemopters or starships lurking in orbit. It seems like just the place for an ambitious aeronautical engineer. So when Bianca Nazario is offered one last chance to carry on her father’s engineering business, she doesn’t ask too many questions. I think I would have enjoyed “Finisterra,” by David Moles, a lot more if I didn’t ask so many questions.
In the classic mode of Big Idea impacting little people, “Last Contact,” by Stephen Baxter opens with two women in a garden talking about the end of the universe. The mother, Maureen, tends to go on a bit about her garden, but speaking as one who tends to go on a bit about her own garden, I can sympathize. The daughter, Caitlin, is the cosmologist, practicing her explanation about The Rip before she goes on BBC 4.
I have to say I’m finding the Hugo-nominated shorts disappointing so far. Another slight tale, “A Small Room in Koboldtown,” by Michael Swanwick, is set in your basic tough-guy, mixed ethnicity neighborhood, where the ethnicities are mythical creatures. The characters draw on multiple traditions, but the overall tone feels somewhere between Chicago, New Orleans, and Haiti. The investigation of the murder is pretty standard, interviews showing the character of the rough neighborhood. While the fantasy element is key to the solution, I feel like I’ve read this before, as if somehow every other noir story in genre dress formed part of a series.
You can hear how Ring Lardner meets Roger Rabbit on Escape Pod.
Tomorrow: “Last Contact”
Set in the same universe of Learning the World, where stars are surrounded by green habitats, “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?,” by Ken McLeod starts out looking like a romp across the stars. The narrator sleeps with the wrong woman, and rather than work for the next 257 years to pay off his fine, he agrees to go “clean up” Wolf 359. He then receives a series of rude surprises and deals out a few surprises of his own. Like “Always,” the first-person narrator is never named. Your conception of him shifts radically through the story. He starts out acting like Don Juan and ends up more like Genghis Khan.