Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

Asimov's Oct/Nov 2011My story recommendation of the week is for "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson, cover story of the October/November issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (cover by Paul Youll).

The past few years, Kij Johnson has been winning awards with short parables, such as the delightful "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," the disturbing "Spar," and the delightful-but-then-disturbing "Ponies." "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" is quite different from those pieces -- longer and more deliberate, less flashy -- but similarly rewarding.

Kit Meinem is in charge of building a massive bridge over the great river bisecting the empire that employs him. This has never been done, because the river is covered in "mist." Mist is a misnomer; this layer is lighter than water, but still dense enough to support boats on its shifting surface and strange varieties of "fish" beneath. The "fish" are poorly understood, especially the largest and most dangerous, which the locals unimaginatively call "Big Ones."

The huge undertaking will demand all Kit's skills both as engineer and politician, as he tries to maintain the support of the locals. Kit becomes fascinated with the ambivalent reactions of the local ferry operators, the beautiful Rasali Ferry and her brother Valo. The bridge will put them out of work (compelling them to change last names), but then again it may save them from their profession's customary early death -- each ferry crossing is a hazardous trip.

The huge bridge symbolizes Kit's desire for meaningful interpersonal connections, but Johnson employs the metaphor delicately enough that it's never annoying. At novella length, Johnson is able to coax the relationships between her characters along gently, in a way that proves most satisfying. For example, halfway into the story, Kit and Rasali have spent a fair bit of time together but it's not clear how close they have become. Then, while Rasali is on the opposite bank, Kit sees one of his bridge workers killed. Kit first worries how the townspeople will react, then flashes back to a university instructor talking about how Kit relates to people:
You're good with people, I've seen it. You like them. . . . But inside the framework of a project. Right now it's your studies. Later it'll be roads and bridges. But people around you -- their lives go on outside the framework. They're not just tools to your hand, even likable tools. Your life should go on, too. You should have more than roads to live for. Because if something does go wrong, you'll need what you're feeling to matter, to someone somewhere, anyway.
When Rasali returns to Kit's side of the river, she immediately helps him to express his own grief over those who have died under his command, and we realize, even if he does not, that Kit now has someone to whom what he's feeling matters.

The science fictional aspects of this story mostly stay in the background, and some readers may find the tale lacking in drama, but I don't think it would benefit from extra explosions or action sequences. This a story of believable characters, who experience real confusion and pain, and I grew to like them very much.

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