Thu
Jul 2 2009 4:44pm

The future of the Third World: Geoff Ryman’s Air

Air (St. Martin’s) is one of the best and most important books so far of the present century. I’ve been a fan of Geoff Ryman’s for years, so I read this as soon as it came out. Even expecting it to be good, I was blown away by it, and it only gets better on re-reading.

Mae lives in a tiny village high in the hills of the imaginary Silk Road country of Karzistan. People in her village are Chinese, Muslim and Eloi. She makes a living by knowing about fashion. It’s the near future, and Air is coming—Air is pretty much internet in your head. Mae has an accident while Air is being tested and winds up getting her ninety-year-old neighbour Mrs Tung’s memories in her head. The book is about the things all literature is about, what it means to be human and how everything changes, but it’s about that against a background of a village that’s the last place in the world to go online. Ryman draws the village in detail, and it all feels real enough to bite—the festivals, hardships, expectations, history, rivalries and hopes.

Air won the Tiptree Award, and even though I really liked it and was glad to see Ryman getting some recognition, I couldn’t figure out why. The Tiptree Award is for books that say something about gender, and I couldn’t see what Air was saying about gender, particularly. On re-reading, I think what it’s saying about gender is that it’s OK to have SF novels about middle aged self-willed Chinese women whose concerns are local and whose adventures are all on a small scale. I think I didn’t notice that because I never had a problem with that being OK, but it is unusual, and it’s one of the things that delighted me about the book.

Mae has a miraculous birth, a child conceived (impossibly!) through a union of menstrual blood and semen in her stomach. This is so biologically impossible that I had to take it as fantastical and move on, and it didn’t look any more plausible to me this time. Metaphorically, it makes sense, realistically it just doesn’t, and as the whole of the rest of the book manages to keep the metaphorical and the realistic in a perfectly complementary balance, this struck me as a problem. The trouble with this sort of thing is that it makes you start questioning everything else.

So “Air” is internet in your head, all right, but how does that work exactly? What’s the power system, and what’s the channel being used? How’s bandwidth? There’s nothing physical involved, how could that possibly work? If I hadn’t pulled away from the book to have a “you what now?” moment over the pregnancy, I doubt I’d ever have started querying the other things. Fortunately, the other things work by cheerful handwavium and the writing and the characters are good enough to carry that... and I wouldn’t even have mentioned it if not for the “Mundane SF Movement” of which Ryman is an exponent. Mundane SF intends to do away with using standard SF furniture and look to the modern world and present day science for inspiration. That’s all very stirring, but when you offer Air as an example, the science ought to have some slight semblance of being realistic. You’ll enjoy the book more if you put aside any such preconceptions and just go with it on occasional excursions into the metaphorical and philosophical.

It’s a fun read, with great characters and sense of place and time and change.

6 comments
Alex Freed
1. Alex Freed
Haven't read Air (and I probably should), but I just finished The King's Last Song, Ryman's latest (I think?)

It's not SF, but the historical sections (it's split between modern-day and medieval Cambodia) might as well be, for all the classic fantasy themes they hit--coming of age and rise to power in a kingdom full of swords and elephants and religion. Ultimately, I felt the modern segments were more consistent in their strengths, and the setting richer and more intriguing, but it's a lovely book all around.

Sorry to derail the thread so quickly!
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Alex: I agree with everything you say. I loved The King's Last Song. I've only read it once so far.
walter tingle
3. wjtingle
I have to disagree. The book started out promising, but in the end, it left me flat, and a little bit disgusted. I did finish it, so it isn't _that_ bad, but it'll never be one of my favorites.

Mileage varies so.

Regards,
Jack Tingle
Stephen W
4. Xelgaex
Maybe because I'm used to impossible tech, I didn't even blink about that. But when I got to the pregnancy, that I totally had to re-suspend my disbelief.

Near the end when he introduces a discussion of the elements and then has the "birth" associated with fire, I finally realized he was doing something metaphorical, but what exactly I'm still not sure. Perhaps I should reread it too.

I liked the book a lot, fantastical biology aside. Mainly because I like things that are different, and Air certainly was that.
Jon Dowland
5. jmtd
I loved the book but I didn't get the pregnancy either. Perhaps a re-read will clarify what he was driving at.
Genevieve Williams
6. welltemperedwriter
I wrote a scholarly paper about Air last year (and also The King's Last Song and The Child Garden). Upon close reading I concluded that if we take science fiction and fantasy as are part of the same continuum, Air really belongs more on the fantasy side, for all of its technological aspects; there are a few other indicators besides Mae's child that this might be the case. (That wasn't the point of my paper, though, so I didn't develop the idea much.)

I liked all three books a lot, though I think The King's Last Song is my favorite. I read it about six months after taking a trip to Cambodia myself, and it brought back a lot of memories of the place.

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