Book Review: "Air" by Geoff Ryman

So I’ve been attending a Wiscon book club ever since we moved to Madison. It’s nice–I’ve never been in a face-to-face book group before. They mostly read works that are connect with Wiscon, like Tiptree Award Winners, so this is also my first time being in a fantasy/sci-fi book group.

Air by Geoff Ryman was the first book I actually finished for the group, and I gotta say, it blew my mind. It’s the story of Chung Mae, a ‘fashion expert’ in the fictional Asian village of Karzistan, who learns about ‘Air’–a new version of the Internet that works through minds rather than computers. Being in a remote area, the village is unprepared when Air has its first test. Mae’s elderly neighbor, Mrs. Tung, dies as a result, and somehow her mind gets interlinked with Mae’s as she tries to make adjust to the strangeness in her own head. When the test ends, Mae is shaken, realizing that the advent of Air will mean death for the village–it’s culture, it’s way of life, even her own status. What use is a ‘fashion expert’ if everyone will be able to access fashion in their heads.

I loved Mae, scheming woman that she is. Being the only one of the village who is still connected to Air, instead of giving up or fighting against this new technology, Mae embraces it. She starts using computers (“TVs” is what they’re called in the book) and her connection to Air to expand her business. She gets other women in the village involved in making tribal clothes to sell outside of Asia. She takes it upon herself to teach the villagers how to use the Internet, so when Air finally comes, the village will be ready. And she does this with several strikes against her:

1) She is illiterate.
2) Mrs. Tung is still alive inside her.
3) She’s having an affair with Mrs. Tung’s widowed son.
4) She’s pregnant in the most inconceivable of ways.

It’s hard to tell if this book is science fiction, science fantasy, or third world soap opera. At one point, I got echoes of the Matrix when Mae started using Air to manipulate space around her. But I loved how Mae learn to use Air and the Internet to save her village, even though she knows that it will no longer be the village she’s known all her life.

It’s interesting to read Ryman’s take on how the Third World can be changed by technology. It’s reflected through the frightened schoolteacher, for instance, whose children would rather see ‘Bay Toh Ven’ on the TV rather than learn their numbers. And it’s reflected through the occasional manifestation of Mrs. Tung who emerges as benign wisdom or screaming harbinger of doom, unable to move forward into the future because she is stuck in the past. And that, ultimately, is what the book about. The future and the past colliding with each other.

The only bone I have to pick is the ending. Mae suddenly switches focus from the coming of Air to an upcoming flood she recognizes from Mrs. Tung’s memories that will happen again. I suppose it’s a physical metaphor for Air sweeping through the village (and the book has a field day with metaphors), but still, it takes away much of the focus from Air itself. And it takes the focus away from Mae’s pregnancy, which I found really bizarre and cool–do you know of an actual pregnancy that happens in someone’s stomach (and don’t you dare ask how that happened–read the book). When the birth actually does takes place, that, plus the second coming of Air, seems like an afterthought.

Which is a shame. This was a truly wonderful book to immerse oneself in.  This gets 3 talking dogs out of 5, and get the poor thing a steak. It really, really wants one.

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