If I say the science fiction in Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road (2014) isn’t quite science fiction enough, I mean the remark in the same way I mean that the Xindi arc in season three of Enterprise wasn’t quite Star Trek. That third season was bold, exciting television–the kind of television they should have been producing all along–but it was only tangentially-tied to the Star Trek universe, and even those tangents were loose.
Byrne’s novel is certainly ambitious. She aims to create, not the great American novel, but the great World novel, by positing an Earth in the year 2060 that is culturally-saturated by India and China. The idea’s been played with before: Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle depicts an Earth upon which Japan and Germany won the Second World War. Fans of the sci-fi television series Firefly will recall that, mixed in with all the tropes of the American Old West, was a strong sense that the cultures in conflict there had once been deeply influenced by China.
There were spaceships in Firefly. There are none in The Girl in the Road. There is, however, a bridge of self-renewing energy powered by metallic hydrogen that spans the Arabian Sea and connects India with Djibouti in Africa. A woman named Meena uses the bridge to escape people she thinks are trying to kill her by various means (including by snakebite), but not before trying to commit suicide by jumping in front of a commuter train. Her mentally-unstable condition calls into question the truth of her claims about her life being at risk, but her decision to take the bridge turns Byrne’s novel into a quest tale that is, by far, the most exciting element of her work.
Interwoven with Meena’s escape is a parallel tale from thirty years earlier involving transporters of an early form of metallic hydrogen. The two transporters, Mohammed and Francis, discover a stowaway, Mariama, who is trying to escape slavery and the cruelty of her master in Mauritania. The three of them are soon joined in Senegal by Yemana, a woman who becomes Mariama’s protector. Part of the worldwide scope of Byrne’s novel is attained through the meanings associated with these character names: Meena, Mariama, and Yemana are all Earth goddesses; Mohammed and Francis are prophet and saint, respectively. Byrne eventually brings these two parallel tales together, but not before some long excursions into Ethiopian life, Indian philosophy, the dynamics of female bonding, and the effects of seeing a dead girl in the road.
To my mind, these excursions were quite interesting but, for other readers, they prove troubling and problematic. Byrne did quite a lot of research for The Girl in the Road, immersing herself in the culture and languages of Africa and India as much as possible. She lays to rest (for most people) the issue of whether a writer not born into a culture can write about that culture perceptively. I had already settled that question in my mind long ago: she can. But not everybody is satisfied with the result.
They are not satisfied, either, with the way in which the relationship between Mariama and Yemana is developed. There is a scene of love between the two which comes perilously close to rape. If it is not rape (I do not think it is), it is at the very least the depiction of the exploitation of a young girl by an older woman who ought to acknowledge the consequences of an act the girl is too young to realize.
My own most significant dissatisfaction comes from the manner of the resolution of the problems Mariama and Meena face. We know that the destiny of the two women is–and must be–linked together, but that resolved destiny, tragic as it is, is little different from the resolutions of dozens of mysteries we might read. Byrne works very hard to create a world in which the primary voice we hear is female, and what a refreshing change that is. Yet, the actions of those females, operating within a matriarchal society, are not fundamentally different from the way in which women act within the patriarchy. Your lover spurns you? Do her in; kill him, and be as bloody about it as you like. Alfred Hitchcock would understand this mindset; I, and more than a few women, do not. For all the inventiveness Byrne shows in connecting her tales, she does not overcome this fundamental weakness. For years, the claim has been made by Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, Marilyn French, and a multitude of others that the matriarchy is superior as a way of life to the patriarchy. If that is so, The Girl in the Road does not show it, and that is disappointing, particularly in a science-fiction novel. If matriarchy is ultimately to show that superiority one day, the foundation of that superiority must be in better, non-violent conflict resolution. Otherwise, the matriarchy will remain what it is at present: the patriarchy, run by women.
We may get to the future I envision. We won’t get there by 2060, and we won’t get there by the blueprint Monica Byrne lays down. She takes us part of the way there, but the way is blocked, not only by a girl in the road, but by a host of behavioral issues our present world has yet to overcome.