The Bridge-World of Gregory Frost
October 31, 2011
There was a time when I read a lot of science fiction. I think of that period as physical adolescence, as distinguished from the mental adolescence which, as an American male, I have the constitutional right to prolong until my eighties at least.
My physical teens were a long time ago, not quite as far back as Mary Shelley or Jules Verne, but before Dune, before Le Guin. It was the tail end of what’s now considered the golden age of science fiction, dominated by Asimov and Heinlein. Asimov’s Mule became such an unforgettable malignancy that he appeared in my novel The Shame of What We Are.
Today, as a slowly maturing adolescent reader, I value realistic situations, complex characters, and a plot pertinent to current life on earth. These are not the staples of much science fiction or its twin, science fantasy. And yet I dip into the genre now and again, drawn back by the power of the best practitioners to imagine an alternative universe that obliquely and often savagely references our own.
These meditations are prompted by my recent reading of Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge, the first of a pair of novels positing a world of huge, perhaps endless bridges, one linking to another over a giant sea, with only occasional bits of solid land below. Most of the humans and humanoids live on one span or another and know of other spans only by rumor and legend. Underclasses, barely acknowledged, scrape out a squalid existence in the infrastructure beneath the bridges. Though the spans must have been built by great engineers, their origin is shrouded in creation myths. Social customs and government vary chaotically from span to span. Enigmatic threats abound.
So far, without having read the sequel, Lord Tophet, I can’t say I’m captivated by the characters, who seem strongly bound to archetypes. For my taste, too, the tale dips overmuch into the fantasy side of the genre, with multiple kinds of magic, talking snakes, a malevolent elf, a trickster fox, and an ambient medievalism.
But the image of this bridge-world haunts me, a fascinating nightmare. The cover art doesn’t begin to capture the vivid picture the author conveys. Here’s a description of one of the underworlds:
He lived neither on an island nor on land, nor even upon the water, but within the frame of a span itself. Chiseled supports and struts formed the foundation of the span, beams and cross-ties created an intricate latticework of layers between them. … Few houses beneath the bridge had roofs because there were no elements to protect anyone from—save the prying eyes of those situated above. The thick stalactitic surface of the span provided all necessary protection, and just acquiring the materials to erect walls was hard enough. In most cases divers, who lived on the lower levels, brought up the stone from the sea bottom, especially from around the piers, where the rocky ocean floor had been crushed and heaped as far down as anyone could see. It cost money to pay the divers, and more to have the stones hauled up on ropes and pulleys from layer to layer through the underspan hierarchy. Everyone knew that a stone was going to disappear here and another there as the pile of rock ascended, and if you were lucky and the pullers not too greedy, perhaps half of the original pile made the journey. It was the way of the underspan and no use railing at its unfairness; it had been thus for centuries and would be thus for centuries more. What it meant, however, was that walls were not built very high, but more like boundary markers than sides of a house. Most were not even as tall as the inhabitants themselves. … Privacy was at best an untested notion.
On Halloween night, with ghouls and witches outside, this is scarier, and truer. Gotta try not to dream about it.