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Air (or Have Not Have) by Geoff Ryman

Gollancz, 2005

Air cover

I’ve always had a blind spot where Geoff Ryman is concerned. It dates back to his earliest story in Interzone when we were effectively told by the then editor, “You will like this.” Being thrawn, of course, I did not. It didn’t help that the grammar in the piece was a bit shaky. But Air (or Have Not Have) comes larded with praise and awards. So I relented and gave him a whirl.

The start of Air didn’t bode well with rather too much telling of story rather than revelation going on. However this aspect soon settled down when events got into their stride.

In the remote mountain village of Kizuldah somewhere in Karzistan in Central Asia, Mrs Chung Mae is a fashion adviser. Her occupation sounds grander than it really is for the village is without television, or internet access, and the fashion is rudimentary stuff. Kizuldah’s initial remoteness is a problem, though. Deep in the Amazonian Rain Forest or the Indonesian jungle, perhaps, but I found it difficult to credit a central Asian village so cut off from modernity. There is an element to this of Ryman having his cake and eating it. It is necessary for his story – which could not be told effectively without it – but fails to suspend disbelief.

In such an environment, the premature testing of the technology of Air, whereby people will be able to access the internet via their heads, through the air – a bit of authorial hand-waving in the explanation of this development I thought – would always lead to problems.

This is the moment which sets the narrative running and makes it an SF story. It is yet another twist on what is actually a standard Science Fiction plot kicker. Most SF depends on something like this. There are myriads of SF stories, some of mine included, that could be titled, “When It Changed.” Ryman is about to publish one himself. Here, however, apart from the premature test, it is the build up to the real change which Ryman foregrounds.

During the test, Mae witnesses and experiences the death – caused by her distress at Air – of blind Mrs Tung, whose head she is in at the time. From now on Mae has all of Mrs Tung’s memories and can also partly see the future. Using the only TV available (there is another later) and against all sorts of obstacles within the village and without, Mae sets about creating a business selling local embroidered clothing worldwide via the TV’s internet link. She is illiterate so has to do all this from scratch and by voice commands.

Air can come in UN or Gates formats. (Gates as in opening and going through but also suggestive of Bill, nice one Geoff.) There is a tiny subplot about the conflict between the two formats as it affects Karzistani politics. Mae is of course pivotal in its resolution.

Ryman’s Karzistan has the sort of history you might expect from its location, wars, banditry, natural disasters and the rest.

The novel also incorporates a love story, a redemption story, a wicked government story, a repressed minority story, all the minutiae of small village life and, a Rymanesque touch this, an unusual pregnancy. The characters are well rounded and believable.

I watched Ryman receive the BSFA award for this novel at the 2006 Eastercon and have heard him speak on panels. He seems a nice bloke.

Am I won over? Partly. I’ve two more nominated novels from that year on my yet to read list before I can assent to its pre-eminence but Air (or Have Not Have) is a worthwhile read.

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