Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

02 Dec 2011

(Novel) Air (Or, Have Not Have) by: Geoff Ryman

(Reaction) The meta in metaphysics by: Antonio Conejos

Ryman's Air explores the consequences of a wired world from a seldom seen point of view; that of impoverished provincial folk. At the beginning of the novel Mae and her neighbors still live a traditional life centered around agriculture and the pastoral scene. The introduction of Air though, a sort of Wifii on steroids which does not require a computer to access, will delete this solitary kind of life forever. For the villagers, Air is literally the end of history.

Several binary oppositions are immediately suggested by the themes which Air plays with.

First, there is the dichotomy between rich and poor, with the latter both envious and frightened of the playthings of the former. In particular, the poor (associated in the novel with Mae and her ilk) are extremely conscious that the rich (ie. the West) have mastered the use of Air. As Kwan bluntly puts it, Sometimes I think we can never catch up. Now, with Air, they will be ready, and we will not be.

There is genuine anger on the part of Mae and her friends against the overabundance of wealth they associate with the West. In part this cold rage stems not from the mere fact that the West is so fabulously rich but in the way it deliberately flaunts its wealth to their exclusion, It [Air] was just a way to sell them things... We push our noses against the window and watch other people eat.

Air's alternate title of Have Not Have serves as an appropriate subtitle to the concerns of the poor that Air will only make the rich richer. Indeed, Air becomes the literal embodiment of wealth. Mae observes, Models so rich and thin they looked like ghosts... so long-legged, so modern, so ethereal, as if they were made of air.

That those associated with Air are associated with ghosts, vaporous, and insubstantial, is apt. The second dichotomy tackled in Air is the split between abstract, incorporeal reality versus the earthiness of physical living. Air after all allows an existence completely separate from physical reality, When the Air comes... we'll jump out of our bodies and fly, and the world will all be dream, and dream will be all of the world.

The last binary opposition is the destruction of the old by the new. This is seen literally, in how old Mrs.Tung dies just as Air is tested for the first time. Moreover, this can also be seen in character development. As Mae becomes more adept, and obsessed, with Air, she loses the Asian air of deliberate obtuseness which is a hallmark of her culture. As a neighbor notes of Mae, you are no longer a model of propriety.

At this point I have to be honest, I've led you astray. Thus far I have argued that Air rests on binary oppositions, conflicting dualities which shall stand in perpetual contrast to each other. That's really only half of the story though. The novel takes a step beyond the oppositions and deliberately muddles them up. There is already a foreshadowing of this synthesis in an early description of Mae, who embodies many of the contradictions within herself.

Mae can be identified with the poor and the technologically illiterate. Yet even early on she has an affinity with technology, the address system seemed to enter Mae's lungs... She stepped out of the van and breathed it in. In Mae, who uses Air to physically change the world around her (as she does to escape from the gilded prison of Mr. Tunch), many seeming oppositions are resolved. Or if not resolved at least find an uneasy peace.

Thus, ultimately these oppositions are more apparent than real. These oppositions break down as the story progresses and Air, the novel, revels in the consequences of this mishmash. The poor who look enviously at the fashions of the rich suddenly embrace a technology which renders fashion, and all other physical mediums of expression, as inconsequential. Yet at the same time the prophecy and potential of this new technology is only understood in the context of conversing with the old and technologically illiterate.

Mrs. Tung is the perfect personification of the novel's fusion of old and new creating something new. Mae begins to understand that a flood will surely come because of her tenuous dialogue with Mrs. Tung. The old lady dies in Air, because of Air, and what is left is air. And air rises towards heaven. Through Mrs. Tung, Mae becomes convinced of the flood which, as in times of old, will make everything new again.

At its core Air is a paen to the awesome possibilities opened up by technology. Indeed, Air demonstrates how technology allows transcendence over previous dichotomies. Technology levels the playing field, as when Mae uses Air to sell clothes with traditional native designs or when Kwan uses Air to record the true history of her minority group. After all the upheaval (societal, cultural and personal) the future is understanding and beautiful.

And the child beamed - smiling, joyful, dazed.... Mae spoke to it through Air. My little future. You are blind but you will not need to see, for we can all see for you, and sights and sounds will pass through to you from us. You have no hands but you will not need hands, for your mind will control the machines, and they will be as hands. Your ears also burned away, but you will hear more in one hour than we heard in all of our lifetimes.


Air has a lot of discordant balls up in the air (no pun intended) but manages to handle them all deftly. While it is a commentary on technology it is also a personal love story as well as an exploration of the third world coming to grips with the present. All this is told from the most unlikely of narrators, a middle aged Chinese wife cum fashion expert who hails from somewhere in Central Asia.

I don't necessarily agree with the novel's central argument: that technology will offer a synthesis of age old oppositions (rich/poor, body/soul or spirit, traditional/progressive). However I can appreciate the leaps it makes and the entertaining story it tells.

As an aside, for some reason Mae's speech to her new born child (quoted above) reminded me of Jor-El's admonition to his infant son Kal-El (Superman!) to basically grow strong in the strange world he was being sent to as the last of his race. Both have the same tone of hope amidst disaster.

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