A curious thing has happened in the realm of apocalyptic fiction of late – the arrival of hope.
Previously hope was nowhere to be seen, an unimaginable luxury in a darkly dystopian world where civilisation had collapsed, humanity had surrendered to its basest instincts and Darwinism was having an absolute field day.
It was all over, including even the shouting and the Fat Lady’s singing, and so there seemed to be little point in wondering what might come next.
But lately, authors have begun to wonder what it might look like if humanity held fast (ish) to its hope springs eternal mentality and dared, even in the face of cataclysmic collapse to start building something, anything again.
It’s a daring gambit when things are so bleak, but it’s paying off in spades as M. R. Carey’s latest novel, The Boy on the Bridge, brilliantly illustrates.
A companion novel to The Girl With All the Gifts, and set in the same universe – it is not, except in the most tenuous of ways, a sequel of any kind which is a relief (the main connection is the vehicle that transports everyone the Rosalind Franklin and one key character) – Carey’s new work is hopeful though not, it must be stressed, a zip-a-dee-doo-dah Disneyesque romp through the tulips of future horror.
The world it inhabits is far too broken down and almost irretrievably lost for that; but that doesn’t mean that there is no hope, however far off and desperately uncertain it may be and Carey does a fine job throughout the book of balancing the darkness, of which is much, and the light, glimmers here and there, in ways that feel authentic to the human experience in just about every respect.
To be fair, there isn’t much evidence of any kind of light through much of The Boy on the Bridge which not only includes the traditional human vs zombies – called “Hungries” in this imaginative, highly original and thoughtful take on the zombie apocalypse – but meditations on democracy vs. dictatorship, the capacity of humanity to self destruct even when its back is against the wall, and the cruelty and prejudice by people against people, things and events they don’t understand fully.
They’re not all as fully explored as they could be, but M. R. Carey does an impressive job of presenting us with a titanic struggle between what came before and what is now, while making it abundantly and painfully clear that there are threads that run through both scenarios.
You know, of course, going on, that the twelve people on the Rosalind Franklin, a mighty science lab come terrifying military machine on wheels that is sent off from Beacon, the last redoubt of British humanity in the UK’s south to the desolate surrounds of a post-human Scottish north where Invercrae is a creepy ghost town, won’t all make it home alive.
In fact, as the crew, split between scientists, led by the snivelling, cowardly Dr Fournier, and military personnel, commanded by the remarkable Colonel Carlisle, a man of greta ability with a reasonably sturdy moral compass, grows ever more morass-like, a yawning chasm that no one seems able to adequately fill save for Samrina “Rina” Khan.
She is a forthright, thoughtful young woman who finds herself pregnant to another member of the team – a devastatingly unenviable position in a time and place more suited to ghastly horrific death than incipient, hopeful birth – who is the sole shepherd of Stephen Greaves, a 15 year old scientific prodigy, who may be autistic or socially tramautised even as he teeters between being humanity’s great last hope or the one who sends a dagger through its barely beating heart.
Along with a mixed group of others, each of whom is given enough character development to make us care enough for them – the only real failing of The Boy on the Bridge is that the central anchoring relationship between Rina and Stephen isn’t as powerful as that between Miss Justineau and Melanie in The Girl With All the Gifts – they are the possible architects of a cure, the last great hope for a species fast being eclipsed by their immediate zombie forms and by the unique hybrid between the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which zombifies its hosts in mere minutes, and humanity, best represented by Melanie.
Properly taught and if you recall, Melanie and her friends were being before Miss Justineau succumbed to the now airborne pathogen, this new form of humanity might be the last best hope for humanity to reach an accommodation with a virulent parasite that is, on the surface at least, inimically opposed to their continued existence as self-aware creatures.
For much of this almost poetically at times-expressed book – there are some exquisitely-rendered lines that take your breath away, beautiful and yet emotionally dark all at once – the rare moments of hope are damn near extinguished by the sheer enormity of the odds standing in their way.
And honestly as you enter the final act, it’s hard to see how this is going to turn out remotely well for anyone; that it does, is miraculous, and that any sort of happy ending, compromised though it may be, happens at all, and happens mind you without sounding cheesy and all too convenient, is testament to M. R. Carey’s remarkable ability to forge an apocalyptic tale like no other.
The Boy on the Bridge is less a cautionary tale than an authentic, deeply immersive take on humanity, now and in the future and the capacity it holds to either be the architect of its own doom or the source of its own salvation, if only it can decide which it wants to be, and in enough time to make any kind of difference,