Geoff Ryman was just named finalist the Philip K. Dick Award for his latest novel, Air
. Gwenda Bond reviewed it glowingly here
as did Cheryl Morgan Nisi Shawl
, Booklist and Publisher's Weekly
, among other nearly glowing critiques by Niall Harrison
and Claude Lalumière
("One of Air
's great strengths is its refusal to either condemn or condone the changes brought about by technological innovation"--I agree). Morgan speculates
, "If I were a judge I think I would want to give the award to Geoff Ryman, but I foresee some very robust discussion amongst the judging panel because these are all very deserving works."
This is all heartening to hear. The book has great imagination and emotional connection to its characters, which is not often present even in the most touted novels. I see no obvious markings that the publisher used to label it, which might interest the casual literary reader who sometimes dabbles in SF. The first chapter, which was a short story "Have Not Have
," alone should convert any open-minded literary type. If you're a die-hard SF fan worried that such a recommend is the kiss of death for you, fear not. There's speculative wonder here too.
PRELUDE TO A CRITIQUE
These many months ago, someone got upset with me for reviewing a friend despite some veiled critique meant only to deter those who might have such a problem. Unfortunately, unless the writer insists on being difficult, there are no writers that I personally dislike. Even those I like--say, Matt Cheney--I give hell. So I cannot fathom why someone would worry. But here it is in the open. I like Geoff as a person. I admire Geoff as a writer immensely (although the narrator in "Birth Days" seemed a tad whiny--which is uncharacteristic of Ryman--drat, there I go being a critic despite good relations with the author). He was my instructor at Clarion and did not approve of my draft and a half story during his week. Yet somehow--as a reverse principle of hating those who give bad reviews might imply--I didn't hate him. We talked out a better solution. We lived happily ever after.
Now that you are aware of a potential bias, if unnecessary to indicate for most, I shall proceed with the review.
Everyone's already quoted the opening chapter as an exemplar of the genre, so I'll pass on an in-depth look at it, except to add that the character-vs.-technology tension, surrounding a new technology that pipes wifi internet directly into the heads of a rural village that hasn't even experienced the internet yet, builds up to a resonant moment at the end--the kind of resonance that every reader of life, of character "rightness" or tell-it-like-is-ness is reading for. It introduces the struggle between past, present and future in this tiny realm of the the technological "have-nots".
The second chapter delivers the gosh-wow wonderment when the wifi-head goods, called "Air," are dumped upon the villagers. The close moved me although some might feel it sudden.
The third chapter I want to dwell on to highlight Ryman's strength. The main character, the village's fashion expert Mae Chung, has just experienced AIR, vicariously gaining aspects of a person who has moved on. The other person has now become her.
And Mae was left alone, and she wept; she wept for the village that had already died, the old Kizuldah.
You should be able to turn a corner and find home again, with its undrained marshes in the valley floor. The valley was left unplowed for the waterfowl, the foxes, the stars, and young lovers.
Resonance may require the reader to have also pondered life, for whom this moment hits a chord that reminds you of the time you, too, thought about your parents and why they had to grow old. Why shouldn't they who have done so well in life continue to live sprightly in the world that they grew accustomed to?
Oh, Mrs. Tung, [Mae thought] I was a friend of yours, and still I did not know you. I never came close.
Again, you have to put down the book and wonder at all the people you've loved and wished you'd known better. There's also a new tension introduced: If you knew and loved these people as children, wouldn't your heart yearn to encompass them? Great writers turn their observation on life, so that mirror casts back an image the reader must reconsider his own life in new light. What an impressive achievement this book is.
The third chapter closes with a number of powerful if inevitable, revelatory twists (there is no better twist) that transform our character once again.