read a book: Geoff Ryman's Air (or Have Not Have)
You know what Air’s like maybe, a little bit, already. It’s something like television, the internet and email. It’s inside your head, but also outside. It opens up your inner space and shares it with the rest of the world. That’s what Air is like.
Geoff Ryman said in an interview by Kit Reed at Infinity Plus, “The tech kept changing under me.” There was no digital TV when he started writing the book, and many similar things to what happen in the book happened in reality during the writing. I mention this, because I had a similar though entirely different experience while reading the book (which I'll get to later).
Air (or Have Not Have) is a book about technology, sure, but like all the best science fiction, it’s actually about humanity. This book has drilled itself down to the level of one central character – Mae, full name Chung Mae, the fashion expert of the small village of Kizuldah in a fictional country that borrows enough from existing countries (Turkey and China seem to be heavy influences) that it seems immediately, perfectly real. What’s a fashion expert? The first page of the book tells us:
Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online. After that, everyone else went on Air.
Mae was the village’s fashion expert. She advised on makeup, sold cosmetics, and provided good dresses. Every farmer’s wife needed at least one good dress.
Mae would sketch what was being worn in the capital. She would always add a special touch: a lime-green scarf with sequins; or a lacy ruffle with colorful embroidery. A good dress was for display. “We are a happier people and we can wear these gay colors,” Mae would advise.
“Yes, that is true,” her customer might reply, enranced that fashion expressed their happy culture. “In the photographs, the Japanese women all look so solemn.”
“So full of themselves,” said Mae, and lowered her head and scowled, and she and her customer would laugh, feeling as sophisticated as anyone in the world.
It’s hard to stop quoting, because the translucent prose just draws you forward, on, into the book. I picked up Air off Christopher’s night table, intrigued by the beautiful cover and didn’t put it down for a week. I think you can see from that excerpt one of the things that makes this book stand apart - especially if, like me, you don’t read much of what could be called true science fiction – is that it’s a book about a fashion expert, about a dirt poor woman in a dirt poor village in a third world country, which isn’t usually among the primary concerns of books about technology and its impact on culture. It’s a thorny issue, the interface of global technology with third world countries and yet, this book takes these concerns on flawlessly by keeping its viewfinder off us and on Mae.
The book follows Mae on a visit to town, where she and her companions from the village learn of the coming Test. Since I hate plot synopses, I’ll steal here from Publisher’s Weekly’s glowing review:
One day, the citizens of Kizuldah and the rest of the world are subjected to the testing of Air, a highly experimental communications system that uses quantum technology to implant an equivalent of the Internet in everyone's mind. During the brief test, Mae is accidentally trapped in the system, her mind meshed with that of a dying woman. Left half insane, she now has the ability to see through the quantum realm into both the past and the future. Mae soon sets out on a desperate quest to prepare her village for the impending, potentially disastrous establishment of the Air network.
The only thing I’d quibble with here is the questioning of Mae’s sanity – yes, she has a literal split personality after The Test, but she actually seems to grow saner and saner. Because she is the only one who truly seems to understand Air and its potential though, she’s viewed by others as disintegrated into madness or a close cousin of it. And in fact, her life does begin to disintegrate in many ways after she can access Air – she has an affair with her next door neighbor, is caught by her husband and becomes the village’s fallen woman; she is betrayed by several of her friends; she begins to dress differently and befriends one of the wildest, most rundown teenagers in the village, Sezen; she’s taken essentially prisoner of a large, corrupt company in the capital at a citizen’s forum and drugged and studied; she has a strange pregnancy in her stomach no one can explain or convince her to abort; and she begins to prophesy a great flood. Oh, and yes, she can glimpse the future.
But Mae also experiences much good, as she becomes more and more driven – she is given a purpose by The Test, and that purpose is to keep Air from destroying Kizuldah, its people and its traditions. Her ever-changing relationships with the other women in the village run deep throughout the book offering a steadyness even as men come into and out of the narrative, to try and assist Mae or to try and control her.
Ryman’s telling of Mae’s journey is seamless and he never falters in his portrayal of her. She is one of the most convincing – and fascinating - characters I’ve ever encountered.
There’s a particularly wonderful sequence in the second half of the book where a drugged Mae escapes from the corporate compound with the help of a dog named Ling who has been engineered to be smarter than any dog should.
There was a fence. It was high and made of crisscrossed metal, and was crowned all along the top with barbed wire.
Mae was dim and detached. She felt her root into Air. It was easier to do on drugs, for she was as calm as if she were in Air.
“This is all a joke,” she said, and suddenly smiled.
It was true. The world was a joke. It was a story, twisted by gravity out of nothing. It was an accidental by-product of Air, of the eternity where Air was.
She could feel this eternity. She could take the story into her hands. She could feel the metal fence. The fence was mere fiction.
So she tore it.
Reaching into Air, Mae seized reality, as she herself has been seized, and very simply, very easily, Mae’s mind ripped the metal of the fence apart. She giggled at how funny it was that everyone should take the fence so seriously. She tore the mesh like a strip of cloth.
“This season,” she said, “Air-aware young ladies will wear the fences they have torn down as a sign of their strength.”
The torn edges of the fence danced, as if in wind.
“Sing,” she told the fence, and started to chuckle. “Why not?”
And the snapped, sharp edges of the torn wire began to tinkle, just as lunch had done. Anything was possible.
Wind blew the dust, the fence danced and sang, and Mae stepped out, into the desert, followed by a talking dog.
The last section of the book has Mae convinced that a flood is coming, a flood like the one old Mrs. Tung, the other personality trapped in her, witnessed nearly wipe out the village in her girlhood. The village is below a mountain and there have been great snows above but unseasonably warm air below. Mae attempts to protect the villagers by convincing them to buy insurance from her estranged brother, by getting a weather monitoring device sent from the corporation that once held her prisoner, and by warning many villagers on New Year’s Eve to be ready to go to high ground at the sound of the flood coming: “Mrs. Tung says, when it comes, it sounds merry. The water laughs, the rocks applaud.”
Some choose to listen, and others do not. But the flood does come in a truly overwhelming climax. This is the portion of the book where reality intruded on my reading experience; however, instead of the technology having changed, it was nature that had asserted itself.
I was finishing up the novel just after the tsunami and so it’s hard for me to say if this nearly final section of the book is as gripping and heart-wrenching as it struck me. But I suspect it is. There was a catharsis in reading it with the images of rushing water and people fleeing for safety already in the front of my mind. The characters in the novel were people I felt as if I knew by then and so watching some escape, mourning the loss of others, it wasn't hard to conflate the death and survial of so many strangers halfway around the world with the familiar people of Kizuldah.
The book would doubtless unfold itself differently for you, just as all great books do. But Air is waiting to take you on some kind of journey. I’ll see you at the finish.