Mae found that she was angry, and her voice seemed to come from her belly, an octave lower.
"I'm sure that it is a good thing. I am sure the people who do this think they do a good thing. They worry about us, like we were children." Her eyes were like two hearts, pumping furiously. "We don't have time for TV or computers. We face sun, rain, wind, sickness, and each other. It is good that they want to help us." She wanted to shake her certificate; she wished it was one of them, who had upended everything. "But how dare they? How dare they call us have-nots?"
Air (2005), Canadian author Geoff Ryman's wonderful story of near-future globalization and village life in Central Asia, has won a cluster of awards since its release: the Arthur C Clarke, the Tiptree, the Sunburst (all juried) and the BSFA (popular vote). Its success is well deserved. Air is a giddily exuberant, yet perfectly balanced, joy of a novel - thoughtful and beautifully constructed, filled with vibrant characters wrapped up in warmly affectionate prose.
The novel is largely set in Kizuldah, a small village in an imaginary Central Asian republic named Karzistan. Kizuldah, we are told at the very beginning, is "the last village in the world to go online", a hillside subsistence-farming community whose primary contact with the outside world requires a four-hour drive (for those few residents who own vehicles) along a pitted road to the provincial capital, Yeshibozkent. The village's first TV (and thus internet access) is installed only during the first chapter. All of this renders it isolated and ignorant, in the eyes of many both inside and outside; protected and unspoiled, in the eyes of others.
Neither, of course, is the whole story. Kizuldah is poor, certainly, and it is vulnerable to harvest failures. But it is far from isolated or untouched; it lies in a region, after all, that has been a crossroads of cultures, of continent-spanning empires and proto-globalizing trade networks, for centuries. This is reflected in the village's architecture and its ethnic (Chinese, Karz, and the marginalised minority Eloi) and religious make-up (Buddhist, Muslim, animist, a few Christians). The villagers' own memories, meanwhile - of guerillas, Maoists, and rebels, all fighting over the territory at different times - attest to a far from tranquil existence.
Nonetheless, with the development of a new communications technology known as "Air" - a sort of Web 5.0 in which all the resources of the internet can be accessed by the mind directly, without the need for computers or phone lines - Kizuldah has little choice but to engage with the world. Because Air is to be implemented, simultaneously, worldwide. The first that the people of Kizuldah hear of this is from an announcement, via the public address system in Yeshibozkent, that Air will be tested the next day. It is purely coincidence and luck that a handful of villagers - one of them our protagonist, a splendidly indomitable middle-aged woman named Chung Mae - happen to be in Yeshibozkent at the right time, or else Kizuldah would have gone entirely unwarned. They know nothing of the science or politics behind Air (and, neither, therefore, do we); all they know is that it is a gift they have no ability to refuse, an imposition outside their control, framed in paternalistic terms:
Up came the local Talent, still baring her perfect teeth. She piped in a high, enthusiastic voice that was meant to appeal to men and Bright Young Things:
"Hello. Welcome to the Airnet Information Service. For too long the world has been divided into information haves and have-nots." She held up one hand towards the heavens of information and the other out towards the citizens of the Green Valley, inviting them to consider themselves as have-nots.
It is this announcement that sparks Mae's affronted outburst, quoted at the start of the post, and taken together the two speeches invoke themes that recur throughout the novel: information and its communication; the opportunities brought by new technology, and the fresh hierarchies it creates; self-determination within an increasingly inter-connected world, one in which the deck is stacked against many peoples long before they even know there is a game to play; power and powerlessness, and what it means to 'have', or not have.
Above all, Ryman's interest is deeply humanistic: how technology - and, more broadly, the passage of time and attendant changes - affects individuals and societies, and how people attempt to mediate, resist, or embrace such effects. The people of Kizuldah respond to the internet and to the coming of Air in all these ways, and more, and for a variety of different reasons. Mae's friend Kwan, one of the long-persecuted Eloi, sees the internet's potential for making the lost voice of her people heard once more - as opposed to the government's tendentious presentation of them as either historical curios or emblems of (forcible) 'modernisation', stripped of their customs. (This brings trouble on Kizuldah, of course). The village schoolteacher, Shen, meanwhile, is suspicious and hostile; he feels his authority and role threatened. Yet he distrusts not the technology itself, as such, but rather its perception as a panacea, as something that will unambiguously improve life - something that will be relied upon, a crutch. He rebukes Mae when she begins to teach the children how to use the internet:
"They do not know their multiplication tables! And you are telling them, everything will be easy, just wish into the machine. You don't have to work. You don't have to learn." Teacher Shen glared at her. "You will make slaves of them."
He underestimates Mae, here, but the decline in Shen's position - and the hardening of his attitude - over the course of the novel are undeniable. Mae herself - proud, determined, endlessly curious, and entrepreneurial (to the extent that a woman can manage her own affairs in Kizuldah, which is to say only by butting heads and getting a reputation for being 'difficult', and by sticking to harmless spheres of activity, like providing 'fashion' for the village women) - is the first to see what Air might mean for Kizuldah. After the disastrous first test of Air, which plays out like a collective hallucination crossed with mental breakdown (causing two deaths in the village and terrifying all concerned), Mae comes to believe that Kizuldah must not just ride out but also confront this new challenge from the outside world, if it is to survive.
Kwan rubbed her shoulders. "The world out there has grown bigger. There are two worlds. There is the one you can see, and another world people have made up, and it is bigger than the real one. They call it 'Info'."
And Mae felt lust.
Lust to be part of that world, lust to know how it worked, lust to know how the television worked, and how the Net and how the Air would give all that wings. With a lust that bordered on despair, she wanted to be first, she wanted to know all, she wanted to be mistress of all its secrets.
The people of Kizuldah must learn how to use "Info" in order to shape Air to their own needs and wants - before Air shapes them. They have a year until Air is put in place permanently. So Mae embarks on a one-woman mission to convince Kizuldah that Air cannot be ignored... any more than she can. "Lust" is a very deliberate choice of word in the above passage; Mae's motives are a complex mixture of joyful curiosity, naked acquisitiveness, and altruistic fear for her village. As a woman, it is particularly compelling for her. Mae has lived a life of constraint, of operating within the boundaries set for her by her family and by tradition - boundaries that require little of women in the way of brains or ambition, only humility and deference. Of her mother, who struggled to cope after being widowed when her children were young, Mae notes:
"It was very difficult for her; she relied on Papa for everything. In those days, it was possible to believe that if you were a woman you would never have to grow up. You could just go on doing what you were told. And suddenly... poof... no one there to tell you."
She is thus dizzied by the freedom and opportunity Air seems to present her with ("What she felt was akin to panic. What she felt was akin to flying."). Nor does she leave other women out of the equation when she begins to discuss Air with the villagers - an unpopular move, not least with Joe, her dismissive wastrel of a husband:
"We will need to talk to wives separately."
"Why do you need to do that?" said Joe, belligerently.
"Because wives do not talk around their husbands."
"Oh. And you want to encourage them. Tuh."
As the story goes on, Mae's fortunes rise and fall; at her lowest ebb, she becomes a kind of Cassandra, marginalised and almost friendless, crying out warnings that go unheeded. She faces rivals, enemies and obstacles aplenty, in the village and (later) elsewhere. I have already mentioned Shen, whose hostility eventually leads him to disgrace Mae by revealing a scandalous secret she holds. Others have less principled reasons, and use different tactics. Her husband Joe, and her birth family, all prove obstructive or even downright harmful at various times, forcing Mae from her home and attempting to steal what she has earned. Meanwhile, two of the more prominent, wealthy village men - belatedly realising that Mae is onto something - vie to control Kizuldah's access to information, using their internet connections to bolster patronage networks and build parties of supporters.
Another is Tunch, a shadowy government (or not) scientist seeking to understand and exploit the strange accident that befalls Mae during the Air test: her neighbour's mother, Old Mrs Tung, dies during the test, but somehow manages to live on in Mae's head. Mrs Tung doesn't know she is dead, but her voice and her memories invade Mae's mind with increasing regularity, until - bewildered but frantically determined - Mrs Tung begins fighting Mae for control.
Partly, too, Mae's difficulties are down to her transgressive, 'unfeminine' behaviour, of which the strangeness caused by Mrs Tung (and the attendant odd outbursts she provokes) is only one aspect. Mae's clear-sighted, take-no-prisoners abrasiveness is amusing and endearing to the reader. But it attracts disapprobation in traditional Kizuldah and causes severe friction with her family. (Likewise the fun but ill-advised affair she has with her neighbour, which results in a problematic - and odd, for reasons I won't go into - illicit pregnancy). But Mae is nothing if not resilient, time and again living up to her statement - "No one can make you feel inferior without you agreeing with them first" - that I've used for the title of this post.
Mae also, like many characters in the novel (with differing degrees of success), has to learn to compromise, to make amends, and to change. As her brother-in-law Siao puts it, while pointing out to Mae that she will have to play nice with her brother Ju-mei, whether she wants to or not, if she wants to keep her home:
"I'm frightened of you, Mae! The whole village is terrified of you! So, okay, Madame Owl, who is violent and aggressive, hates him. People know when you hate them, Mae. They also know when you love them."
Mae's nickname of Madame Owl is another indicator of her outsider status. The interface used in the village for connection to the internet has an owl as its symbol for educational resources. The village children are stunned into frightened silence by it ("...in Karzistan owls were birds of death, not of wisdom. The owl wore glasses, which was especially terrifying"); Mae duly becomes associated with it. Like the poorly-publicised Air test, the communication of information here stumbles over the hurdles presented by local knowledge and local meanings. The interface is geared towards a conceptual framework that excludes many of its would-be users, by failing to take other frameworks, other understandings, into consideration (something the illiterate Mae discovers early on).
The connection between Mae and Mrs Tung proves a neat device to underscore the theme of change and upheaval as a constant in Kizuldah's history, rather than an innovation of the First World's technological interference, with Air. "'I am fighting for the future,'" Mae says at one point, "'she fights for restoration of the past.'" Yet it is not so simple as she thinks. Through Mrs Tung's memories, Mae gets the long view of how nothing endures. Crucially, however, she also learns to mourn the passing - and to recognise the continuing value and beauty - of older ways of life.
We all want an anchor, we all want to turn the corner to go home. But home always goes away. Home leaves us. And then we get older and older again, and further away from home. From ourselves. We die before we die, my dear. We go from village beauties to old crones; from mysterious children to weary adults; from ripe maidens full of love to embittered, used women full of bile. And all we have is love. With nothing to love. Just the love, aching out, reaching out and never clasping love in return.
Just the reeds, just the swallows, just the mist in the air, the sunlight in the air, just the sound of the wind. That never changes. That is all the home we have.
Dear Old Mrs Tung.
Sleep, my dear.
For all the beauty we have lost, and all the beauty we will lose.
This is a touchstone of the novel: an acknowledgement of all that is bittersweet and inevitable about the passage of time, the gains and losses of change. Ryman continually resists easy answers. Kizuldah and its ways are portrayed with affection rather than sentimentality, with vibrancy rather than quaintness; this is no simple tale of traditional life resisting evil technology, or of backward villagers being saved by the Future. None of his characters are one-note as either villains or heroes, beneficiaries or victims; each person's response and experience is complex, and mutable. Although Mae is active and enthusiastic in her engagement with what is to come, her quest comes with considerable personal cost. The changes she fosters do not and will not bring happiness and ease for all, or anything like; whether Kizuldah will indeed manage to shape Air to itself, and retain a version of its own identity, remains an open question. Nor will Kizuldah's need to run just to keep up with the rest of the world end with Air; change will not stop coming, and the world is full of more complex connections and constraints than any one person can see or allow for.
Mae felt vertigo. She understood none of it, not the words, not the disputes, not what people wore, or even how they moved. Her future had seemed settled and in order. It had felt like a staircase up to a door that was clearly labelled: Air. You only had to make that climb once.
Instead the future was a pit. It went down in layers, each stranger than the next. And there was no bottom to it.
Yet what she finds in Air - and here Ryman turns increasingly to fantasy to envision the metaphysics of his technological future - is that the past, perhaps, doesn't go anywhere. Just as Mae and Mrs Tung can coexist in one mind, Air is everything at once - offering the possibility of a more egalitarian or at the very least a much stranger future:
Everything has always been and has always happened at once. Which means that nothing causes anything else. Which means that stories only happen in this poor balloon-world of ours. Stories have no meaning. Nothing can be interpreted. Everything just is, without meaning, without needing your philosophy and your science or all our miseries and myths and tales and explanations. It is all just one big smiling Now. Whoooooooooooooooo. That is the sound of Air, blowing.