How many different ways can the future be imagined?

Reviewed by Jeff VanderMeer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

BRASYLBy Ian McDonald Pyr. 357 pp. $25

Ian McDonald's Brasyl, with its three storylines, is as close to perfect as any novel in recent memory. It works because of great characterization, but also because McDonald envisions Brazil as a dynamic, living place that is part postmodern trash pile, part trashy reality-TV-driven ethical abyss . . . and yet also somehow spiritual. Whether it's Jesuit priest Luis Quinn's journey up the Amazon with a French spy in 1732, TV producer Marcelina Hoffman's search for a reviled former soccer player in 2006, or the exploits of the thief Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas in 2032 (and the mind-blowing scene in which he steals a futuristic purse), McDonald's novel is always in motion. This movement extends through time and alternate realities in ways both wonderful and wise, as the three storylines interlock for a satisfying and often stunning conclusion. McDonald has found new myths for old places; in doing so, he has cemented his reputation as an amazing storyteller.

BRIGHT OF THE SKYBy Kay Kenyon Pyr. 453 pp. $25

The perils of future-building take an extreme toll on Bright of the Sky, Kay Kenyon's otherwise extraordinary novel about adjoining universes. The Bright is run by the Tarig as a kind of echo of our universe, which is known as The Rose. In The Bright, lives last much longer than in our reality, there is no night, and a mystical river allows citizens to travel quickly across vast distances. Enter Titus Quinn, who lost his wife and daughter when, in the middle of a deep space emergency, he found a way into The Bright, only to leave without some of his memory. Now, with The Rose aware of The Bright, Quinn returns to search for his daughter, who has become a rider for a strange race of horse-like creatures.

What ensues is a splendid fantasy quest as compelling as anything by Stephen R. Donaldson, Philip José Farmer or, yes, J.R.R. Tolkien. However, readers would do well to pass quickly through the initial frame, set on an Earth that, as envisioned by Kenyon, has none of the detail or richness of Ian McDonald's novel. At times it seems that Kenyon is channeling a kind of retro (1950s) view of the future. It's rare to recommend a novel whose first 75 pages are so banal, but then perhaps that's the point. Once in The Bright, you can actually feel the grasses and smell the smoke from the trains and experience great wonder in the cities of this impossible yet beautiful universe.

SHELTERBy Susan Palwick Tor. 576 pp. Paperback, $15.95

Susan Palwick, who has written some emotionally wrenching fiction, is also interested in the future, but not as the frame for a fantasy. No, in Shelter she's decided to stick it out in the here-and-soon, chronicling the odd and often self-absorbed life of reluctant celebrity Meredith Walford, daughter of the wealthy and globally influential Preston Walford. As a child, Meredith is put in quarantine because of a deadly virus that reduces her father to an online presence. What follows is a full (some might say "baggy") account of a life that includes her former lover and best friend being sliced to pieces by terrorists, marriage to a talented architect, and her decision to adopt a boy, Nicholas, who turns out to have some very dark secrets.

The novel burns brightest in the sections with Nicholas, in which Palwick provides a penetrating character study. Additional pleasures include the author's ability to imagine an everyday life surrounded by artificial intelligences, as well as some spot-on social commentary. In this near-future society, altruism is treated as a disease, and the mentally disturbed are often summarily "brainwiped" by a human-made virus. But in a rare failure of nerve, Palwick provides an ending too compactly happy for what went before. Despite this, readers will appreciate her genius for characterization and ability to make new technology seem commonplace. Most of Shelter is a deeply satisfying, sometimes harrowing read.

OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNEBy Tim Scott Bantam Spectra. 371 pp. Paperback, $12

Tim Scott has no patience for anything but send-ups of reality. This breezy, often confused first novel depicts a future Earth in which corporations subdivide neighborhoods by musical tastes. Jonny X is a dream artist who gets paid a fortune to manufacture customized dreams for rich people. The novel follows Jonny's misadventures as he is kidnapped by a biker gang called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who want him to abolish God by creating a "dream virus" that kills people's faith. Kidnapped back by an encyclopedia saleswoman, he encounters Zone Securities, which controls the city. Hilarity ensues. Almost. Attempts at the absurd and outright Absurdism are hindered by clunky writing and heavy-handed satire. Ultimately, Scott's attempt at humor lacks the sharp wit and pitch-perfect pacing that elevate similar novels by Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.

BRAVE NEW WORDS The Oxford Dictionary of Science FictionEdited by Jeff Prucher Oxford Univ. 342 pp. $29.95

From "beam" to "space dock," "astrogator" to "vibroblade," Brave New Words assays an earnest cataloguing of the jargon of the might-be future. Some of these terms have entered the common vocabulary ("grok: to understand deeply or intuitively"), while others may always remain esoteric ("crudzine: a fanzine of poor quality"). Divided into section such as "Earthlings," "Robots," "Star Trek" and "Time Travel," the dictionary is cheerily eccentric, eschewing a simple one-tier A to Z approach. Its often exhausting litanies -- for example, five citations spanning seven decades for "needler: a weapon that fires needle beams" -- just prove that no one reads a dictionary cover to cover. ·

Jeff VanderMeer is the co-editor of "Best American Fantasy." His latest novel is "Shriek: An Afterword."

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