The Girl in the Road: Literary fiction with a sci-fi overlay

The Girl in the Road cover image

Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road is literary fiction with a sci-fi sensibility.

As a writer who likes to look at speculative fiction through the lens of climate change, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to read Monica Byrne‘s debut novel, The Girl in the Road, published in 2014. Though its portrait of two women connected across time and space is classified as science fiction by some, the novel has few of the trappings of sci-fi, apart from some gadgets and a sea-spanning platform that generates energy. This is literary fiction with a sci-fi overlay. However, the most pleasantly shocking aspect of this amazing story is how it subverts the received view of technology and economic colonialism as strictly a north-south phenomenon. In The Girl in the Road, these phenomenon are shifted 90 degrees to show it as a universal experience.

The novel interweaves two stories of women making harrowing journeys, both set in a future a few decades from now. Mariama is a West African slave girl who escapes and hitches a ride on a truck bound for Ethiopia with a cargo that’s not what it seems. In this world, the ancient kingdom, the only one never conquered by a European power, is dominated by India (China hovers nearby), which is practicing a colonialism not far different from the British Raj, though with money, rather than guns. The other journey is made by Meena from the far side of the Indian Ocean. Her destination is also the Horn of Africa, and over an accidental road made by a sea-crossing machine that generates energy from wave action.

The novelist is a privileged American white woman (that’s meant as an observation, not an insult), and I wondered at the beginning how she could write with any authority in voices of dark-skinned people. Apart from extensive travels, however, Byrne has done her homework, and by the end, I was convinced of her credibility. I also appreciated her subversion of the trope of the white dominance of dark-skinned people. This is a historical fact, but she shows that economically powerful nations, whatever the skin color of their dominant culture, will exploit the people and resources of another, if it suits their interests. In the world of The Girl in the Road, India’s perceived mistreatment of Ethiopia gives rise to violence and plays a role in Mariama and Meena’s ultimate fate.

Mariama and Meena live in a not-quite post-carbon world; The Trail, as Meena calls the energy-harvesting device, is a high-tech “green” (though she calls it “blue,” as in watery) solution adopted alongside wind and solar energy. The Trail’s superficially clean technology has its own environmental and human costs, putting the lie to green claims of energy purity if we’d only get rid of oil. And climate change is as real as the sun and water; sea level rise has destroyed cities and moved people inland, with storms adding a share of mayhem.

The joy of this novel is how it portrays climate change a fact of life that humans cope with ingeniously, while keeping the reader focused on the hopes, dreams, and nightmares of these two women. If anything, the impact of climate change and the high-tech solutions are just window-dressing on the unchanging human desires that drive the women forward, and the results of their inevitable meeting on their separate pilgrimages could have happened at any moment in history.

The Girl in the Road deserves a place next to Margaret Atwood‘s MaddAddam series and Kim Stanley Robinson‘s work in the growing canon of speculative fiction taking a serious look at how life will change on earth in the next few decades. We’re now living on a post-climate changed planet. Monica Bryne is one of the artists challenging us to adapt our thinking.

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