Air by Geoff Ryman

January 10, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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I think it’s fair to criticize a lot of science fiction for focusing too much on characters perched on the bleeding edge of technology. Insomuch as this is true, this goes all the way back to the beginnings of the genre with Verne and Wells. But what about the people without access to the best technology? In recent years there’s a been a rise in SF set in non-Western countries…but usually in scenarios where at least the elite still have access to the cream of global technology. The only book I can think of offhand that deals with the people struggling to keep up with technology is Vinge’s Rainbows End.

Geoff Ryman’s Air is now the second book I can think of, because it is entirely concerned with how an isolated village in central Asia struggles to cope with technological transformation. At the very beginning, the village is connected to the Internet, but it turns out the developed nations have already come up with the Internet’s successor, a sort of wireless virtual reality called Air. The main character, Chung Mae, has previously supplemented her husband’s living by designing dresses in imitation of the styles from “town”. For her, the arrival of first the Internet and then Air is a threat to her business…but also an opportunity.

Air turns out to be a mix of old and new forms of SF. Much of it feels very modern, with its non-Western setting and knowing nods towards the Singularity and other SF concepts, but the actual story is a very traditional one. The main character, by virtue of her cleverness and work ethic, rises from low beginnings to undreamed of success and influence. This is a compelling formula that long predates the SF genre itself, and it shines here thanks to Ryman’s evocative prose. I’ve never been to the central Asian countries that Chung Mae’s fictitious nation is based on so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the depicted culture, but I was utterly convinced.

I’ve heard Air praised highly, and for the most part I agree, but in the end I had a problem with the book. Just one, but one that keeps it from becoming one of my very favorites. The trouble is the Air of the title, specifically the utter implausibility of it. Air, we are told at the very beginning of the novel, is a wireless technology that allows people’s brains to connect directly to central servers with no additional hardware. Well, to be blunt, this is nonsense. Later we learn more about Air. It’s more than just a wireless protocol, it seems, and has metaphysical implications. These revelations are crucial to the story.

It’s that my thorough disbelief in all this can’t be suspended. Heaven knows I’ve read about far crazier concepts. But in every other way, this is an extremely down-to-earth novel. I felt I could catch a flight to Mongolia, drive out into the countryside, and meet people just like Chung Mae and her fellow villagers. These people seemed like real-world people, in other words. And the characters’ struggles keeping up with the pace of technological change are surely similar to the problems that their real-world analogues are going to have in the next fifty years. Why, when the rest of the book is so solidly grounded in the plausible world, does the important technological change have to amount to magic?

It’s too bad I can’t completely enjoy this otherwise great book, but it’s still one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in a long time, one I can recommend without reservation.

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