Chung Mae is the resident fashion expert in her poor farming village in Happy Province, Karzistan. Unable to read, Mae spends her time making graduation dresses for local girls and hosting shopping expeditions into the big city for her adult clients. But all that is threatened with the coming of Air, a new technology that will bring Happy Province, willingly or no, into the future.
When a test for Air goes horribly wrong, linking Mae’s consciousness with that of Mrs. Tung, an elderly neighbor who dies during the test, Mae is both feared and admired by the other villagers thanks to her ability to navigate Air and the prophetic wisdom she utters when Mrs. Tung takes over during emotional moments.
But just as Air takes away Mae’s fashion business – for she can no longer be the only fashion expert when anyone in the village can access Air and see what designs are the latest rage – Air also gives her a new purpose as she vows to prepare her fellow villagers for the flood of information that will soon be at their command.
Air is a meditative, beautiful, frustrating, imaginative read. If you are interested in stories featuring the impact of new technologies on culture (like me) then it is also a must-read (albeit with some reservations).
What is perhaps so striking to me is Ryman’s decision to show how Air, an advanced technology, impacts a small farming community where things like indoor plumbing, telephones, and bank accounts are far removed from daily life. The villagers literally go from having nothing to the possibility of having everything thanks to Air. Thus Air is a very different story from one where Air is just the next iteration of communication technology in a more modern community.
The intersection of a traditional, agrarian society with the new technology provides countless opportunities to show the effects Air has socially (Mae’s interactions with her neighbors and the larger community), gender-wise (Mae and the other village women are empowered by Air and subvert traditional gender roles), occupationally (Mae goes from fashion expert to teacher, resulting in friction with the local headmaster), as well as other cultural dimensions. Ryman explores each aspect exhaustively but weaves them together into almost seamless, satisfying conclusion.
What was also impressive is Rymans’s use of lyrical and figurative language to describe concepts – as if literally translating them from Karz or Chinese. Not only in Mae’s dialogue, but her inner thoughts as well. His portrayal of Mae is intimate and complex, offering writers a great character to study.
My only issue with the book is his handling of
Mae’s pregnancy, which I found offensive and the only misstep in an otherwise excellent work. Other reviewers have interpreted this part of the story as a symbolic event – and it does work as such – but the specific subversions of Mae’s pregnancy necessary for symbolism still rankled. I mention this not so much to deter readers, but to give them a heads-up, should they be surprised by it like I was. Otherwise, I fully recommend Air to any reader of speculative fiction.
Be sure to check out other April reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.