No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 19, 2006

#21: Air -- Geoff Ryman

Air is a work of art, a novel I'd happily recommend (take note, Mr Itzkoff) to a friend who didn't care for 'sci fi'. Though it's very definitely aware of the genre, it doesn't rely on an understanding of genre tropes to convey its meaning. It is wholly self-contained, and there is a whole world within it.

It's the near future, twenty years or so from now. Chung Mae is a middle-aged woman living in a small village somewhere in central Asia. She's the most forward-looking, the most worldly-wise, person in the village: she's the fashion expert whose gentle guidance and understanding is valued by her neighbours.

Then comes Air, a new technology that promises to connect everyone in the world to the Internet (or, rather, what the Internet has become) without the need for computers or wires or phone-lines. The trial of Air goes disastrously wrong -- it's been pushed through too quickly, a competition between two formats, Gates and UN -- and people die. Mae ends up with the ghost of one of them living in her mind.

After the trial, Air is withdrawn for further tests. There's a kind of net access via the TV, and Mae learns to use this to drag herself and her village into the future before it's too late. She is helped by her friends and hindered by those who don't believe in what she's doing, or why: as business grows, and change accelerates, she is hindered by those same friends, and helped by those who were against her. Her dead neighbour's in her head, her husband's in the city and there is something strange and dangerous in her belly.

And through it all, Mae's common sense and quick wits preserve her, and are not lost. She cannot read or write, but this is a post-literate world. There's a real sense of her exhiliration as she comes to understand the human world that's been going on out there; but the simplicity of her outlook does not imply a lack of complexity in her life.

There's a great deal more to be said about this novel but I don't seem able to formulate actual opinions about it. I think it's a very fine book, very well-written, very True. I am full of admiration for the way that Ryman twines together the human relationships, the almost soap-opera of Mae's personal life, with the huge important questions about information and humanity and progress. Full of admiration, empty of opinions. I shall wave a little banner instead.

snow fell, like fainting in reverse

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