Thoughts on the 2008 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel: Brasyl

Some books are adventures; real people living lives we drink deeply and intimately of, and on the day that is different running up against a tangible danger of beyond-our-fields-we-know scope, the clash leaving us breathless. Some books are dreams; philosophical questions about existence, Plato’s allegory of the cave writ fantasy or sci-fi, a spiraling narrative of ideas ascending to the disappearing reaches of the universe we all imagine. Brasyl, like the best of the field—like the best of any field—manages to be both.

Brasyl is strongly spiced with South-American flavor, a passionate novel whose three story lines in three different eras interleave and dance around a core conflict of what seems to be the usual time-traveling, multiple possible universes, one side against the other stuff that is, these days, pretty mainstream. Even parallel story lines in multiple eras has been done to death—so what’s different about Brasyl?

First and foremost, the pulse of Brasyl is the heartbeat of Brazil, from the primal rainforests and the encroachment of Europeans and religion upon the Amazon Indians; to the modern day fury of futebol, reality shows, and telenovelas; to a future whose echoes might be Blade Runner but is still through and through Rio. Immersed to the point where it’s handy to know of the existence of the glossary in the back, you are pulled along headfirst into a complex history and culture that is both disorientating and wondrous. It’s the kind of world-building that fiction, SFF or not, often takes for granted.

The other half is a unique treatment of what could otherwise have been a very cliche plot. There is a tendency, in books that address this sort of thing, to make the spectacle of multiple worlds not just the cornerstone of the story, but also strongly threaded through almost every moment. Brasyl still embraces this most science fiction of tenets, but does so in an entirely disarming way. The characters are all coping with their worlds, their times—even if it’s the 18th century, even if it’s the 24th century—and then must wrestle with the space-time-reality puzzle with their knowledge of their times. We see the impositions of the “real” reality through their eyes, the gradual development of their understanding of the true shape of things, and the final battle unrevealed until nearly the end.

The ending is superb, not consisting of multiple disparate endings that easily befalls a plot repeatedly crossing the 21st, 24th, and 18th centuries in parallel. Instead, each ending ties neatly into the next, with the biggest climax still saved for last—and when you’d least expect it to be.

There’s no getting around the fact that Brasyl is a difficult read—and yet I think it’s also one of the most accessible of these time-bending, alternate-universe-bending stories. Brasyl is not so much about the existence of multiple realities and the implications thereof, which it has an interesting interpretation of as well, but also about the discovery by normal people of its existence. And Brasyl does it while being Brazil.

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