Friday 16 February 2024

Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock (47North) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #285 (January–February 2020), which also included a wide-ranging interview with the author.

In A Calculated Life, Jayna, a simulant in the midst of a low-key rebellion, goes on a sneaky trip to the Enclave market on Clothing Street and notes with distaste a striped cotton shirt with a fake fur collar. Nauseated to see such disparate things stitched together, she asks her friend Dave who would do that kind of work. Migrants, he tells her. Bridge 108 introduces us to the boy who made that shirt, and shows us how proud he was of it, and what it signified for him.

Caleb is a migrant boy of twelve years old who has been separated from his parents for some time. Europe is so dried out by global warming that starting a wildfire in France will see you imprisoned for life, and an arsonist in Portugal could face the death penalty. England and Wales, for now at least, have what we would consider a pleasant Mediterranean climate, warm enough for vineyards and sleeping outdoors in the summer.

Caleb’s father left Spain first, but stopped sending messages back after five weeks. Twelve weeks after that, Caleb and his mother set off for England, in hopes of nothing more than indentured labour and a difficult path to becoming a citizen. The boy speaks and writes English well, which made his mother think he might find good work here as an adult. But the journey was extremely difficult, full of violence and danger.

After his mother went missing on the road, Caleb was caught by a trafficker and sold to Ma Lexie and her underage sweatshop. That is where we meet him. His flair with the shirt earns him a promotion, to be supervisor of the other children, a position which provides him with a set of keys, and thus the opportunity to escape. But where can he go? And would it be wise to go on the run with a girl he knows only by way of brief messages thrown from her roof to his?

Caleb is pretty much the typical hero of a juvenile science fiction novel. He’s friendly, resourceful, loyal to his friends, hard-working, keen to learn, and everyone he meets seems to like him (as will readers). In a Robert Heinlein book he might become a starship captain. In a Jack Vance book he would find the people who hurt his parents and make them pay. But in this book he is continually frustrated, by people who betray him, by a bureaucracy that barely cares, even by the weather.

This is an England where people are inoculated against addiction and the most well-off get bionic implants. Life choices are limited for anyone without those enhancements. For the people Caleb is able to move among, success means getting the job of janitor for your apartment block, so that you can run a side business on the roof. Every page of the book warns against allowing the march of technology to worsen and accelerate the stratification of society.

As in the author’s other books, we see events from multiple, enlightening points of view. Skylark is a trafficker who hunts children, and Evie puts them to work, but the book shows us why they do it. We see how few options they have themselves, and how they justify what they do by imagining even worse outcomes for the children.

The book being in continuity with the author’s other titles adds context to everything we see here. This is the same world in which Jayna’s boss Benjamin held lovely barbecue parties for his friends in A Calculated Life, and probably the same world in which Toniah can make a living as a feminist art critic in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Not everyone in this world is suffering to the same extent as Caleb.

When interviewing the author, I asked whether Amazon and 47North discuss with their authors the data that they garner from our reading, but if anything her novels seem quite the opposite of what one might expect to emerge from such a process.

Yes, we might expect a data-driven novel to be this short and focused, but there are no great battles or explosive climaxes here, just small victories and quietly crushing defeats. Caleb isn’t trying to stop the end of the world with some grand plan. It’s happening anyway, and all he can do is try to find somewhere comfortable to sleep. It would be nice to think that this is where the data does lead in the long run: to an interesting and thoughtful book that keeps readers engaged throughout, both emotionally and politically. Stephen Theaker ****

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