Air by Geoff Ryman

air.jpgThis is the first review I’ve posted for awhile, mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read as much recently as I’d have liked. But I’ve been looking forward to reading Geoff Ryman’s Air. It comes with extremely good recommendations and has swept most of the major SF awards; it won the British SF, James Tiptree Jr. and Arthur C. Clarke Awards and was on the short-list for the 2006 Nebula. Perhaps more importantly, it’s regarded as one of the few recent SF novels which is highly literate – beautifully written and as much about character as science. So with these recommendations, I was curious to read Air. Unfortunately I didn’t have the reaction I expected.

The premise of Air is that in the near-future, a new information technology is developed. Called Air, it promises to link everyone around the world without concern of power or social status. When the world decides that Air will go live on a set date, it’s up to Chung Mae, the fashion expert of her tiny village in Karzistan, to try and ready the villagers for the immense changes approaching. But during a testing of Air, Mae is accidentally trapped inside Air… changed by the accident, and turning against the traditions of her village, it’s feared Mae may destroy the village before Air even reaches them…

There’s no doubt that Air is a beautiful novel. Geoff Ryman is a gifted writer; his prose is elegant, understated in the way it reflects the changes in Mae’s village – the novel begins with brief, sporadic sentences, the way an illiterate villager might speak, but changes as Air comes to the village, the dialogue and prose becoming more esoteric with new-found knowledge. It’s also a beautifully structured novel. Every part of the novel is multifaceted and, much like the prose, reflects the changes happening within their society; Mae’s pregnancy represents the new children to be born after Air, the Flood wipes away the last vestige of opposition, the poor in the Third World become equal through knowledge…. it’s a mirror of change, and there’s no doubting the strength of Ryman’s commentary on developed nations and their exploitation of the Third World. My problem with Air, though, is that a lot of it seems exploitative as well.

I’m referring in particular to Mae’s pregnancy. The first 150 pages or so of the novel are interesting, but past that, once her pregnancy starts to become more apparent, the tone of the novel shifts. The pregnancy is just not believable. The whole idea that a person could sustain a pregnancy outside of their uterus (bringing a foetus to term in their stomach) is a stretch to say the least – but that someone would give birth through their mouth is simply hideous. It’s not physically possible… and so the only explanation we’re left with is that it happens because it’s simply meant to happen; it’s a metaphor for the new age Air is ushering in. Even on that level I object to it. During the course of the novel, as Mae’s mind is trapped within Air and bonds with her dead neighbour, she becomes half insane and her village begins to disown her. She goes against their traditions, and this mythic pregnancy should serve to further ostracise her from them… but it doesn’t. They’re unsettled, yes, but they don’t turn against Mae; if anything, the women seem to accept her even more, and that just doesn’t feel right. Getting away from the believability of the pregnancy, the symbolism of it just feels too heavy-handed. Mae says to her child on page 389 “You are blind, but you will not need to see, for we can all see for you, and sights and sounds will pass through to you from us. You have no hands, but you will not need hands, for your mind will control the machines, and they will be as hands. Your ears also burned away, but you will hear more in one hour than we heard in all our lifetimes.” There’s nothing subtle about this; I found it extremely exploitative, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

My other problem is that at times Air seems at odds with its own ideas. What starts as a clash between worlds, the ideals of the old and new, descends into a cleansing. Half the novel is spent with Mae trying to convince the villagers of the benefits of Air… but it doesn’t matter. In the end the people who don’t believe are washed away, and the others are scared into opening their eyes. I also didn’t quite grasp the idea of how Air is supposed to be spread. It’s this idea of the Internet in your head, making everyone equal… but it’s not something people can choose. Air is forced upon everyone whether they would choose it or not, and I can’t see the Western world promoting that, or the UN implementing it.

The other reason Air has been talked about recently is that it’s one of the more high-profile Mundane SF novels. Mundane SF is a sub-genre of science fiction which attempts to focus on stories featuring a believable level of technology and science. I’m not knocking Mundane SF, but Air to me actually doesn’t represent its tenets in a lot of ways. The pregnancy is not based in any science I know of, and the cleansing is symbolic; while it follows the manifesto in some ways (Air itself), there’s still more of a fantastical or mythical feel to Air than I expected.

Still, I can see why many people have received Air so well. It’s beautifully written and structured, and the concept of the novel is intriguing. If you can accept the pregnancy, then you’ll probably really enjoy Air. The literate nature of the novel may even make it accessible to people who wouldn’t normally read science fiction. For me, it didn’t work, but it’s definitely a book you should read for yourself and make up your own mind.

4 thoughts on “Air by Geoff Ryman

  1. Not familiar with this sub-genre “mundane SF”, shall have to check it out. If I’m not mistaken, Mr. Ryman is a Canadian writer, isn’t he?
    Smart devil too, more talent and brains than eight Robert Sawyers.
    Literary SF is not popular with the punters–I’ve been on forums where people confess not to read “difficult” books, they’re only looking for entertainment/escapism. They equate literary writing with elitism. Sigh. Just proves that geeks, in their way, can be as dumb and close-minded as the rest of us. Good post, enjoyable points…

    CJ: Thanks, Cliff. Just glad I made sense… Ryman is Canadian, I think he’s lived in England for awhile. Certainly a beautiful writer. I think literate SF is why I loved Spin so much… and Timescape blazed the trail.

    Mundane SF is interesting, it’s kind of a sub-genre that’s just crept up out of nowhere. I’m a little confused about it myself; seems a little unnecessary to me, as the works all tend to fit into other categories anyway. Ian McDonald did an interesting post about it. Head’s Down

  2. Thank you for writing this review. I probably would have put the book down once Mae gave birth. Through the mouth? Born deaf, blind and without hands? *shudders*

    Thanks for the warning!

    CJ: I was actually reading it for a book group, so I made my way through it. The idea was very interesting, I just would have liked to see it to go in a different direction, particularly the pregnancy… ah well. Thanks for stopping by. 😉

  3. Hi CJ,
    That’s too bad about this book. The premise sounds very intriguing – but the parts that you describe that you don’t like is a total turn off for me. I wouldn’t read it based on your review. I would be screaming at it halfway through and probably tossing it against the wall.


    CJ: Hey WC, that’s pretty much my reaction as well. An interesting idea and beautifully written, but it’s just marred by these elements dominating the novel. I almost wonder if part of the problem is it’s a man writing about a woman; I’m not sure male writers always capture the female mindset well, and I think most women (certainly mothers) would be distraught over the condition of the baby, not reverent of it. But Cormac McCarthy doesn’t have that problem; I’ll have to reread The Road and depress myself further. 😉

  4. That’s a very nice write-up of your reaction to the novel, your objections well explained, for the most part. I wasn’t sure what you meant by “exploitative”; I think that was my only problem. I disagree with you that the West wouldn’t promote Air. I think if something like that were developed, and the options were give-it-to-everybody or ask-each-individual-person-if-they-want-it, everybody would get it. Because the people who do want it would want it so much that they wouldn’t care about the people who don’t.

    While I was reading the novel, I didn’t like the impossible pregnancy. The rest of it all was easy to believe in, but this wasn’t, and every time it came up I just wanted to move on to the next incident. But by the end, with the birth that so bothered you, I was incredibly (and surprisingly) moved. I didn’t care that it was unrealistic, it just felt so right to me. Like the Star Child in 2001 floating in space, this new creature was floating in Air; and, like the Star Child, who knew what it was going to lead to?

    I loved this book. Loved it. Probably the best novel I’ve read in, I don’t know, ten years? I’m really sorry it didn’t work for you.

    (And, I guess another place I’ll contradict you, it was first recommended to us by a woman, and my wife read it before me and really liked it, too.)

    CJ: Hi Jeffrey, thanks for the comment. I’m glad you liked Air, it’s interesting hearing an opinion about it from the other side! I guess by “exploitative”, I meant that to me it felt like the pregnancy and some parts of the novel were playing on the reader’s emotions too much, forcing a connection rather than letting it develop. But again, that could have just been because I didn’t agree with the pregnancy.

    The West could promote Air, but my feeling is if Air were real, it would likely be developed under Bill Gates or Steve Jobs… and if that’s the case, I find it hard to see Microsoft or Apple distributing it so freely. It’d have to be open source and I’m not sure what kind of form it would take then… interesting idea, though – Linux in your head. 😉

    I saw that Kelly Link (one of my favourite writers) loved Air as well, so maybe I stand corrected about that… Air is beautifully written and structured, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. Have you read Spin by Robert Charles Wilson? You might like that as well. Great book.

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