Air takes place in the near future, in a poor village high in the remote mountains of a fictional central Asian republic. Just as the village gets its first joint TV and internet connection, a global test takes place for a new technology that allows every human being on the planet to access the web directly without the interface of a computer or machinery or any kind. Publicity for the test – only heard in the village at second hand from the nearest town – says that this technology, Air, will change the way everybody lives. In the few minutes that the test is active life is changed forever for Mae, fashion guru to the women of the village.
This allows Ryman to examine the impact of technologies that are often talked about as having the potential to level the playing field, to more easily bring information to those that have not had it in a world where information is the basis of power and wealth. One one level he uses this to do the classic science fiction job of using the future as a mirror for the present – the Air technology representing the effect of the World Wide Web – and how claims of empowerment are often made false by the forces of established commerce and unthinking cultural imperialism.
Ryman, however, goes much further than this. He uses the events to create a conversation between past, present and future, and explore the complex relationship they have in all of us, ultimately suggesting that if in our headlong rush into the future the we lose sight of our past it will leave us as impoverished as as if we dig in our heels and refuse to accept progress at all.
For me, this book reinforced just how good a writer Geoff Ryman is. The sense of place and culture he evokes is superb, quite alien no doubt to most readers and yet rendered utterly real and personal by the well drawn characters and their social interactions. He makes huge themes approachable by exploring them on a personal level, as they affect small, everyday lives. This is also excellent science fiction, although it does not necessarily fit with Ryman's recently stated aim of making a science fiction that was meticulously realistic “hard SF”; there is something archetypal about it, something mythic. In this collision of past, present and future, of East and West, of Have and Have-nots, Ryman has given us a fable for the cyber age.