Book Review: ‘Air’ by Geoff Ryman

I’ll freely admit to having missed the boat on this one; my excuse being that I just don’t have enough free time in my life for reading as many books as I’d like to.

Cover art for 'Air' by Geoff Ryman

But I’m glad I got round to it eventually; Geoff Ryman‘s ‘Air’ is a unique book, and well deserving its three awards (and one award nomination).

(Warning: this review may be considered to contain ‘spoilers’, though I would argue that it has the sort of plot that can’t be spoiled by foreknowledge of key events therein; it’s the process of the plot that is important, and the writing itself.)

‘Air’ is the story of Kizuldah, a tiny village in the remote Asian province of Karzistan, and the last village in the world to go online. Just as the village finally gets its first connection to the internet, there is a test of a new technology from which the book gets its title. ‘Air’ is essentially broadband-for-your-brain, a way of skipping all the tedious hardware business and connecting everyone together by thought rather than by electronics. The test goes wrong, and the repercussions in the village kick-start the storyline. The protagonist Chung Mae is permanently affected by the ‘formatting’ that the test creates. She becomes both a test-bed for the future and a repository of the past, having somehow absorbed the soul of Old Mrs Tung, the oldest woman in the village, who dies in an accident during the test. Mae’s life is altered irrevocably, and she becomes the chief agent of change in a village that is petrified of the future and sees no point in progress.

And that is what this book is about – change, for good or evil, and people’s reactions to it. Although set in a remote Asian village, the ideas being dealt with are in no way exclusive to such locations. Instead they are universal, and the village is simply a convenient metaphor for the world we live in today. Indeed, the whole book can be read a symbolic manner, and it is my belief that this was the entire intent of Ryman in writing it. That isn’t to denigrate the story itself, which on the surface is a touching and sensitively handled story with vivid characters. In fact, it’s a great book to fling in the face of the literary establishment, who frequently accuse science fiction works of being populated by poorly realised characters. There is another defence to this criticism, namely that SF characters are often ‘avatars’, due to the nature of the dialogue that SF has with the world in which it is written and consumed. As well as being avatars of concepts and attitudes, the characters in ‘Air’ are also very real, very human, and painted with a minimum of brush-strokes that allow the reader to imbue them with a life of their own beyond the words on the page. ‘Air’ is definitely science fiction, in that the story hinges on a trope or idea that is an imagined new technology. But it is by no means what most people (even regular SF readers) might expect a science fiction novel to be. The technology is there, but never takes centre-stage over the human dramas. It informs the plot, but doesn’t drown or control it.

Ryman manages to cover a lot of ground with this novel; there are subtle nods and hints toward the real world hidden within the story. For example, there is a conflict between two varying formats of the Air technology: the ‘UN Format’ and the ‘Gates Format’. Whether intentionally or not, this references the open-source/closed-commercial software debate that is prevalent in the computer industries at the present time. Mae becomes a pawn in this struggle, with parallels being drawn between the methods of businesses and the ways of criminal organisations – indeed, an impression is given that the two things are virtually indistinguishable, at least in the eyes of the Karzistani peasants who merely see the outcomes of the machinations and double-dealing affecting the world they live in.

Other current themes seep into the story as well, not the least of which are the ethical implications of such technologies as genetic modification, and the technological augmentation of living creatures, human or otherwise. Mae’s absorption of Old Mrs Tung allows a dialogue between the past and the future, and illustrates the confusion and strangeness of change and progress in an emotionally engaging way. Rather than a barrage of techno-speak and neologisms, the techniques of magic-realist writing are used to evoke the weird wired world that the characters find themselves moving into. The characters are used to show how the inevitability of progress affects different sections of human society in a symbolic way; for example, Old Mrs Tung is killed off by the first test of the new technology, but her attitudes persist schizophrenically in the mind of Mae, the futurist forward-looking agent of change and progress. This acts as a metaphor for the difficulty we have in shedding old attitudes and phobias, and for the ever-growing generation gap that technological change produces. Mrs Tung’s ghost represents the futile desire to turn back the clock to simplicity, and it is telling that Mae feels least affected by it when she is immersed in Info, in the modern technologies that are the instruments of change.

The final big symbol of the story is the Flood which half-destroys Kizuldah. Mae sees it coming, through the use of technology but also through the prophetic warnings of Old Mrs Tung, who survived a similar event in her youth. The refusal of the villagers to accept Mae’s advice, and their labelling of her as a mad-woman (and, ironically, as an enemy of progress, now that they have accepted that change must occur and has benefits) allow the Flood to represent people’s denial of the inevitable until it is much too late, and their refusal to heed to prophecies of doom if the news is not what they want to hear. The end of the tale is bitter-sweet; satisfying without being cloying or saccharine, tying up the loose ends as the village (and the world) is submerged in the re-launch of Air, and walks into its new wired future.

That ‘Air’ has raked in plaudits and awards is no surprise. It is a clever book, but also a sensitively written story about characters that the reader feels genuine empathy with. From a personal perspective, it’s not the sort of science fiction I normally read. But it sets a benchmark for another direction in which the genre can travel. Rumours of SF’s demise have been greatly exaggerated for many years now, but there is an increasing feeling that, as our world becomes more like the fictions we love to read, the genre must change itself to examine that world in different ways. ‘Air’ is a model for a new way of writing about the modern world in the idiom of SF. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste at first, but I get the feeling it will be very influential over the next decade or so.

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