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Air: Or, Have Not Have
by Geoff Ryman
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Started a 4 going on 5, and then it went a bit strange ... still had some excellent moments, but a lot of weirdness inbetween... ( )
It took me a while to get around to this, but I was very glad I did. Mae is a peasant entrepreneur in an isolated village in a Central Asian country with a history of Chinese invasion and suppression of a minority ethnicity. A botched test of an always-on, no-hardware-needed internet system leaves her consciousness entwined with that of an old woman who died during the test, and Mae has to adapt or die. Except I’ve only explained maybe half of the key complications of her situation, which also involves her husband, her family, her lover, the gangster who takes an interest in her, the government man and the rebel girl and the frenemies—this is a book about a person who is only herself as part of a community, but is also quite distinctly herself, to the dismay of many of those around her. Air, the name for the global information system that’s coming, is the internet, but it’s also change, inevitable and deadly and needing to be embraced for all that. There was a bit of magical realism-type plot that seemed metaphorically fitting but otherwise unnecessary, but in general I really enjoyed it—and it’s nice to read about middle-aged women who are the heroes of their own lives, who are mothers but whose lives didn’t become focused solely on the children.
Air takes place in the near future, in a poor village high in the remote mountains of a fictional central Asian republic. Just as the village gets its first joint TV and internet connection, a global test takes place for a new technology that allows every human being on the planet to access the web directly without the interface of a computer or machinery or any kind. Publicity for the test – only heard in the village at second hand from the nearest town – says that this technology, Air, will change the way everybody lives. In the few minutes that the test is active life is changed forever for Mae, fashion guru to the women of the village.
This allows Ryman to examine the impact of technologies that are often talked about as having the potential to level the playing field, to more easily bring information to those that have not had it in a world where information is the basis of power and wealth. One one level he uses this to do the classic science fiction job of using the future as a mirror for the present – the Air technology representing the effect of the World Wide Web – and how claims of empowerment are often made false by the forces of established commerce and unthinking cultural imperialism.
Ryman, however, goes much further than this. He uses the events to create a conversation between past, present and future, and explore the complex relationship they have in all of us, ultimately suggesting that if in our headlong rush into the future the we lose sight of our past it will leave us as impoverished as as if we dig in our heels and refuse to accept progress at all.
For me, this book reinforced just how good a writer Geoff Ryman is. The sense of place and culture he evokes is superb, quite alien no doubt to most readers and yet rendered utterly real and personal by the well drawn characters and their social interactions. He makes huge themes approachable by exploring them on a personal level, as they affect small, everyday lives. This is also excellent science fiction, although it does not necessarily fit with Ryman's recently stated aim of making a science fiction that was meticulously realistic “hard SF”; there is something archetypal about it, something mythic. In this collision of past, present and future, of East and West, of Have and Have-nots, Ryman has given us a fable for the cyber age.
I read this years ago but still remember whole sections; it absolutely astounded me. It's the tale of Mae, who lives in the not-quite-distant future. Mae is the exact opposite of an expected main character: middle-aged, not white, a woman, not a revolutionary or particularly gifted or chosen in any way. But her personality is so vibrant, and Ryman writes her world so well, that I couldn't imagine a more appropriate heroine.
Last year I saw Geoff Ryman speak, and he mentioned his ambivalence about Air...he felt it leant too heavily upon the idea of a technological marvel that changes the way the world works. Those of us who read scads of sf have encountered this before: the Singularity, the paragon of inventions, the perfect program, whatever--the one piece of tech that revolutionizes the world. In these stories, a macguffin does all the hard work, and all the painful history and prejudice and failings of humanity fall by the wayside. But in truth, I think [b:Air: Or Have Not Have] problematizes that idea in exactly the right way. Air is just another piece of tech; it will absolutely change some things, but as Ryman shows, inequalities have an impact on how people use it and can access it, and people themselves remain a deeply important part of the story. This book isn't about Air, the magical new telepathic internet. It's about Mae, and what she feels for and does about her community. I highly recommend this book to anyone, even if they ordinarily can't stand science fiction.
This is one of those books that I put off reading because I knew it was going to be so good. I’m a depressive, and sometimes exposing yourself to a truly great writer and a truly great book makes it difficult to keep the shields up and stop yourself responding to the emotions generated by reading it. It’s tough enough to keep an even keel as it is. I paid the price for this, along with one or two others, but it was worth it in the end. Certainly the best science fiction novel of the new century, if not one of the all-time greats. A beautiful, heartbreaking, hopeful joy of a book. I have this fantasy that maybe The bloody Tubridy Show on Radio One will adopt it for their book club and it’ll sell loads and the world will genuinely become a better place as a result. If the plain people of Ireland could handle Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, they could sure as hell handle this, is what I think.
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Wikipedia in English (1)
Chung Mae is the only connection her small farming village has to culture of a wider world beyond the fields and simple houses of her village. A new communications technology is sweeping the world and promises to connect everyone, everywhere without power lines, computers, or machines. This technology is Air. An initial testing of Air goes disastrously wrong and people are killed from the shock. Not to be stopped Air is arriving with or without the blessing of Mae's village. Mae is the only one who knows how to harness Air and ready her people for it's arrival, but will they listen before it's too late?
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.914Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Modern Period 1901-1999 1945-1999
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