In rural Karzistan in the near future, Mae is the village of Kizuldah’s fashion expert, designing dresses for special occasions, recommending make-up and hairstyles for her customers, and traveling to the big city to keep in touch with all the latest trends. Mae’s livelihood is threatened, though, when Kizuldah receives its first taste of technology – a television that provides them with both entertainment and Internet access. Will the village need a fashion expert when a single command can access the world’s latest fashions?
But Mae doesn’t have much time to worry about this career dilemma before the village is introduced to an even newer technology, Air. Air is to be broadcast directly into users’ minds, and it begins with a simple test broadcasting a few operas and informational speakers. The Air test is a catastrophe in Kizuldah. Some are so distraught by the intrusion that they injure themselves, and Mae finds herself inside the mind of an old woman when she dies. However, the connection is not severed like it should be, and Mae continues to feel remnants of Mrs. Tung’s thoughts and memories long after the moment of death.
Instead of surrendering to these newfound difficulties, Mae charts a new course. She looks to Air for inspiration and begins to redesign herself as an independent businesswoman. She teaches herself how to use the television to peruse the Internet and tries to teach others the skills that she suddenly realizes are so important. She finds a new and controversial love. But she finds it increasingly harder to hold it all together as Mrs. Tung’s spirit struggles with her own and memories, reality and potential prophecy meld.
Mae is a compelling and well-rounded character, and the reader is easily drawn into her world. The village of Kizuldah is a character in its own right, providing much of the conflict in the story, but also setting the stage for the larger issue of technological haves and have-nots mentioned in the book’s subtitle. While a construct of fantasy, Air is also a logical step forward from the Internet. Since the technologies presented in the book are not so far removed from those currently available, Ryman incites some lingering apprehension towards the all-pervasive nature of technology.
Air contains elements of science fiction, but at its very heart, it is a story of human struggle. Struggle against progress, against internal and external enemies and finally, against nature itself.