by Geoff Ryman
Oh, Air. You have been a hard mistress. I originally purchased the book in August 2012. I finally finished almost three years later. I picked it up and put it down too many times to count. The first hundred or so pages were rough. Character names were difficult to remember. The book is written almost as if Ryman himself was a peasant in the fictional Central Asian country. The complete backwardness of the characters often had me frustrated.
After about the hundred page point it sped up a lot as the main character, Mae Sung, breaks out of her shell of tradition and leaps into the changes coming. Then she goes a little insane. The final hundred pages were slowing more and more until the last dozen were almost painful to read.
So what is this book about? It's Magical Realism meets Cyberpunk. It's not clear but it sounds like it is supposed to be set in a Soviet breakaway state that at one time had been part of China. The year is 2019 and the wealthiest family in the village has bought the first computer to this last place on Earth to have internet access. The protagonist of the book is Mae Chung, an illiterate middle-aged woman whose two children have grown up and left. Her semi-worthless husband was a local hero for his athletic prowess in school and is now walking the edge of alcoholism. Mae in addition to hard work, like most of the village, in the rice paddies also is a dressmaker and purports to her neighbors to be a "modern" fashion expert. She knows it's a sham, but it brings in extra money. The book spends a great while introducing the lifestyle of the village and Mae. What they don't know is the world is approaching the activation of a new system: Air. Air is a direct-brain transmitted connection to the internet. No hardware needed. Later on the book explains how it works through some quantum mumbo-jumbo that is best left as magic. Before the final activation, a global test is going to run. This comes as a shock and a surprise to the small village. People die and get hurt when it happens. Mae is in the presence of her neighbor's ancient grandmother when the test occurs. After it is done, she discovers that Mrs. Tung is dead, but her mind is now intertwined with her. Additionally, unlike other people she still has limited access to a Wikipedia-like system over Air after the test. What follows is a series of painful transitions for Mae, her family, her friends, the village and her nation largely driven by the changes in Mae, her ambition, and the access to new knowledge.
The books go over the course of the following year until the final activation of Air globally as Mae becomes intertwined with the National Government, New York fashion magazines, village politics, and the mob. There are new loves, oracular visions, miraculous events, biblical disasters and a birth fit for ancient Greek mythology and more in the process.
The book explores topics of the nature of humanity, the importance of heritage, medical and scientific ethics, the democratization of trade by globalization, and the cyclical nature of history.
In the end, I'm glad I finished it, it gave me a lot to think about. But I'm not sure if I would recommend the book unless you are a really dedicated fan of cyberpunk or magical realism.