Ian McDonald’s Brasyl is almost as sprawling as the country that serves as its setting, and
just as hard to categorize. I've traveled around Brazil many times, both for business and
pleasure—that binary opposition, beloved by customs officials, and supposedly
representing incompatible states; but these, like much else in this nation, blur together.
In fact this country seems to thrive on paradox. The most commonly heard pronouncement
from its citizens is a self-canceling
bon mot: "Brazil is the country of the future and always
will be." The first time I heard a Brazilian say it, I laughed. But after a while, I stopped treating
it as a joke.

McDonald's novel takes that quip, and treats it as a springboard
for a plot. In his story line, incompatible time lines coexist, an
infinity of favelas and Copacabanas, mixing together like a cosmic
feijoada stewing over a quantum theory fire. The narrative leaps
from story line to story line, in the manner of
Cloud Atlas (probably
the closest counterpart to McDonald’s book),
Gods Without Men
and other recent works in what I have called the "fragmented novel"
genre. But while other books in this style sometimes seem contrived
—excuses to turn short stories into a quasi-novel—
Brasyl comes
across as pleasingly holistic and integrated despites its built-in

Three stories intersect, representing the past, present and future
of Brazil. In 1732, a Jesuit priest named Luis Quinn arrives in the
Portuguese colony on a mission to discipline a rogue missionary
who has set up an authoritarian fiefdom, built on slavery and
syncretic religion, in a remote Amazonian hideaway. In 2006,
a reality TV producer gets caught up in high profile scandal when
an impostor who looks exactly like her seeks to destroy her career
and closest relationships. In 2032, the cross-dressing Edson finds
himself entangled with high-tech criminals who use quantum computers to elude the mass
surveillance state of a futuristic cyberpunk Brazil.

Each of these three stories is written with extraordinary vigor and rhapsodic prose. There
isn't a lazy sentence in this whole book. I might even accuse McDonald of veering into poetry,
if it wasn't for the action-packed plots, slangy dialogue, larger-than-life characters and
crazy pacing of Brasyl. The poetry on display here is more like a poetry slam marathon,
perhaps viewed through a psychedelic haze. At no point does this book even approach
the formulaic writing of the genre world, and it almost certainly displeases those who are
trying to turn the whole sci-fi category into a home for young adult narratives, teachable
moments, and downsized sentences. Make no mistake, this book is a challenging read,
but in the best possible way.   

I mentioned, at the start, that
Brasyl is hard to
categorize. That hasn’t prevented the book
industry from squeezing it into the sci-fi category,
even if its close counterparts (let me mention
Cloud Atlas, again) get embraced as serious
literary fiction. I imagine McDonald is happy with
that decision, which gives him access to readers,
reviewers, and awards consideration in the genre
world. I note that
Brasyl earned nominations for
the Nebula, the Locus and the John W. Campbell
prizes, and picked up a British Science Fiction
Award for best novel.  But this is a book that really
deserves to find readers in MFA departments too, and among those who hand out the
more illustrious Booker Awards. Those barriers are breaking down, but not fast enough,
and much of the crossover is driven by marketing considerations rather than the books

Eventually the characters in these stories cross over into each other’s plots. Of course,
this must involve heavy-duty technology—after all, this is supposed to be a sci-fi story.
I hope I’m not disappointing you when I say that some of the most advance tech here is
extracted from an Amazonian frog. Okay, there’s some very advanced quantum computing
at play in
Brasyl, and a super-duper knife. But that pretty much exhausts the list.

At times, this novel will remind you more of Joseph Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness or
V.S. Naipaul’s
A Bend in the River than of anything from the Asimov-to-Zelazny playbook.
But it's a lot more fun than either of those pessimistic tales of human failings. You can’t
really capture the spirit of Brazilian life in a book unless you throw in a bit of Carnival as well
as some World Cup excesses, and McDonald doesn't stint on either of those categories.

In fact, my favorite character in
Brasyl is real-life sports figure Moacir Barbosa Nascimento,
the goalie often blamed for the nation’s defeat in the 1950 World Cup. This loss would
follow Barbosa the rest of his life. He once quipped that even murderers in Brazil only
get sentenced to thirty years, but he was punished for a full half-century—in fact, he served
as a symbol of national disgrace and target for abuse until his death in 2000. What a
wonderful notion, possible only in a book with alternative Brazils in other time-space
continuums, to give our goat (no, not GOAT) of a goalie another chance to prove his mettle.

If this sounds very futuristic, let me add that our author does not shy away from going
old school. You will get sword fights, car chases and martial arts—the latter in the guise
of the stylized Brazilian combat dance known as capoeira—and other staples of
traditional adventure stories. I am almost tempted to say that this story would work better
on the screen—as a film or TV miniseries—than as a book. But that wouldn’t be fair.
Brasyl is a masterful literary achievement, and even the best computer-generated special
effects couldn't quite replicate what McDonald delivers on the page.  Even so, some
smart producer ought to snatch up the rights.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most
recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: February 16, 2018
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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All rights reserved
This novel may remind
you more of Joseph
Heart of Darkness
or V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in
the River
than of anything
from the Asimov-to-Zelazny