Like the Internet, only more so.
It’s 2020 in Karzistan, a chaotic and badly run Central Asian country where the people live as they have for centuries—poor and struggling on harsh, mountainous land—while the government seems compelled to bring them technologically into the present. An unsuspecting linchpin in this effort is middle-aged Chung Mae, who makes a rough living as an in-residence fashion expert for her remote village. Like the rest of the world, Karzistan is set to launch into Air, the next step in global networking. Air doesn’t even require a computer, but will reside in every person’s head, allowing everyone to link into the network. But the first test of Air is catastrophic, killing a few and leaving a strange effect on Mae, who is left with memories of a dead woman in her head, a woman who led a much more vivacious life than Mae ever has. The government declares that Air will be tested again in a year, leading Mae to prepare her village by educating them on the Net as much as she can. Meantime, she also teaches herself—the woman’s voice in her head disapproving and angry—and finds that she’s able to expand her homespun business. But her new independence runs afoul of her neighbors, and she’s stuck negotiating between suspicious government officials and distrustful, conservative villagers. Fantasist Ryman (253, 1998, etc.) has an uncanny knack for imagining the clumsy overreaching of eager technocrats, and his description of the mental effects of Air are astounding: Imagine AOL imprinted on your cerebellum. But while Mae is an impressive heroine, and the text is full of sharp commentary and vivid characters, the story itself fails to engage fully and bogs down for long stretches.
Not always compelling as fiction, then, but containing many a worthy insight about how the world will be dragged further into the Information Age, like it or not.