The Singularity is the new MacGuffin of sci-fi.

The vast majority of Singularity-centric SF stories from Vernor Vinge onwards to Charles Stross have been focused on the Singularity’s effect on those who can be called the instigators of it. Young turks, in their prime, already tech-savvy and hungry for post-humanity in their sheltered urban centers and creches of circuit-board and copper conductor.

The protagonist and other characters in Air are from a village in a fictional third-world country that seems to be in what was formerly the westernmost reaches of the P.R.C. (Xinjiang Autonomous Region?). At the beginning of the story, they hardly even know what the Internet is, much less a technological Singularity. The protagonist is illiterate.

The prose is written in the way one would expect a villager to compose it. The paragraphs are brief and sporadic, the sentences are to the point with scarcely any use of floral post-cyberpunk adjectives or flashy verbs. Later, as more and more change trickles into the village from different channels, the chapters grow more complex: the paragraphs grow denser, the sentences more esoteric, formatting transforms. The theme of transformation is thus absolute.

The mundane nature of everything in this insignificant country allows for a narrative leagues different from any other in the post-cyberpunk pantheon right now. Realistically, a huge investment is placed in interpersonal and social relations. Characters are the most realistic i’ve ever read in SF and the true center of the book– how the technology affects them, how it would affect their real world analogs. It’s a stiff cold shower after the stories of Stross and Niven, where more often than not characters are the means to an end, a concession given to the reader’s sense of structure in order to get to the Meat of expounding on the writer’s ideas and theories.

It’s a stiff cold shower like a trip out of the crux of the Post-Industrial creche to the Third World today.

Most of the time, early on, the story reads like an asian social drama TV series with the vaguest notions of SF. The closest analog I think of right now is the gossip-talk of Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. Ryman is a genuine enough writer of human beings to make it believeable, as guiltily infectious as those asian dramas with all the petty scandal and family pitter-patter, even as much of the later story is concerned with not dissolving those ties, but a desperate attempt to show the villagers that they have ceased to mean anything.

Like a reviewer on Amazon said, this book is highly political. The simple writing style belies an incredible amount of nuance that can easily be missed. Massive, real issues faced on the global stage at this very moment can be covered in the clipped clause of an idle line of dialogue by someone who never appears in the story again.

I read this book in three days. It’s a much-needed shift in SF perspective that sticks in the mind long after the last sentence of the eerie and uplifting ending is finished.