Second books in a series often fall into one of two chronological places: a sequel or a prequel. But in the following email interview about her new socially- and environmentally-relevant dystopian sci-fi novel Bridge 108 (hardcover, Kindle), writer Anne Charnock explains that it’s chronological relationship to her connected 2013 novel A Calculated Life is actually parallel.
Photo Credit: © Marzena Pogorzaly
For people who have not read A Calculated Life, what is that novel about and what kind of world is it set in?
A Calculated Life is set late in the 21st century in the north of England where the climate is hotter than the present day. To sum it up…the novel is a coming-of-age story of a young woman, Jayna, who has superhuman intelligence. She is one of a new generation of simulants — genetically engineered for high intelligence, and enhanced with cognitive implants — who are leased to corporations and government institutions. However, Jayna is starting to make mistakes, which is really unnerving her. The root cause is her lack of intuition — the result of living a small, repetitive, and rule-bound life. She decides to take a walk on the wild side.
In this future world, normal citizens — people like you and me — are allowed to have cognitive implants if their families have been totally law-abiding, and they nab the best jobs alongside simulants. The people at the bottom of the economic heap, with no cognitive implants, live out in the enclaves, which are spartan. Even so, they feel they get a reasonable deal, because their housing is subsidized, and they get free electricity and free transport.
So, this is a society that is starkly stratified. More so than today. People have little hope of moving up.
And then what is Bridge 108 about, and how does it connect, narratively and chronologically, to A Calculated Life?
Bridge 108 has a different feel, a darker atmosphere from the outset. Whereas A Calculated Life focuses on “the haves,” this new novel focuses on “the have-nots,” namely, the people living in the enclaves, and the migrants working indentures at the fish farms and power plants that serve the enclaves. Many of these migrants have fled climate catastrophes in Europe, and hope to win the right to remain in England. Only two chapters in A Calculated Life are set in the enclaves, whereas the enclaves take center-stage in Bridge 108. And the timelines of the two novels run in parallel. In fact, one scene in the enclave appears in both novels, told from different viewpoints, and that was super satisfying to write.
Bridge 108 is a mosaic novel and follows the story of a climate refugee, Caleb, a determined twelve-year-old who is separated from his mother on their escape from wildfires and drought in Spain. He is trafficked to England and enslaved by a recycling clan in one of the enclaves. The story is told from the perspective of Caleb as he grows towards adulthood, and from the perspectives of adults he meets along the way, which helps to give a broader picture of the world.
It sounds like Bridge 108 is a socially-and environmentally-relevant dystopian sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
That’s pretty accurate. My own introduction to science fiction came in the form of social and political dystopias: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bridge 108 looks at how the lives of everyday people are affected by events beyond their control, so readers may see the novel as an example of “mundane” science fiction. Cli-Fi is another genre that is definitely “a thing” now, and Bridge 108 fits neatly within it.
So did you set out to write something socially-and environmentally-relevant or did you just start writing this story and it naturally (no pun intended) became socially-and environmentally-relevant?
I started out, with A Calculated Life, wanting to know what life would be like for someone like Jayna. How would she see us? We’re always intrigued by an outsider’s view of our world, aren’t we? And I wondered how I would feel, myself, to work alongside a creature like Jayna.
Ray Kurzweil’s The Age Of Spiritual Machines had a big impact on me and left me deeply concerned that we might face a species schism further down the line when cognitive enhancement becomes available. As with all technological advances, some people will have the money to pay for these cognitive implants (and the upgrades) whereas others will not. So I knew from the outset of writing this first novel that I’d be dealing with a stratification of society. This technology would inevitably widen the existing gaps. Kurzweil suggests that people won’t be able to communicate with one another across the gap — more of a chasm.
The environmental aspect of the novel is a secondary theme, and I introduced that theme to suggest that the future will feel unfamiliar in more ways than one! It’s a subject close to my heart, in any case. And Bridge 108, takes that secondary theme and gives it more prominence.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Bridge 108 but not on A Calculated Life or anything else you’ve written?
The specific influences on Bridge 108 are those books with a similar mosaic structure. I have always been drawn to fragmented narratives, and some of my favorites have included David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, the last chapter of which is set in the near future.
More than anything, A Calculated Life felt like unfinished business. In the months and years since its publication I repeatedly thought about life in the enclaves. It felt very real to me, and I wanted to explore that parallel society in much more depth.
What about non-literary influences; was Bridge 108 influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
Halfway through drafting Bridge 108 I watched the TV series My Brilliant Friend, which is based on Eleanor Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. This may strike you as an odd influence. Why would a story of two young girls growing up in 1950s Naples have any connection with a dystopian novel set in the future? Well, like Elena and Lila in My Brilliant Friend, my main character Caleb is trying to make a life for himself despite living in a poor community with an ever-present threat of violence. And the sets for the Neapolitan drama, seemed remarkably close to how I envisaged my enclaves.
You studied environmental sciences at the University Of East Anglia. How, if at all, do you think your studies influenced Bridge 108, and were there any times when you had to set facts aside for the sake of the story?
The University of East Anglia is the home of the Climatic Research Unit, and since my student days I have always followed any news about climate. I felt hugely satisfied to make climate catastrophe a major driver of events in Bridge 108. However, the catastrophic climate events happen “off the page,” since Bridge 108 is not “a disaster novel” as such, but a novel about people coping in their everyday lives with social and economic upheaval, made more complicated by rolling climate catastrophe. I believe the climate-change aspect of the novel is totally plausible. Wildfires are already a major and growing problem in southern Europe, and parts of Spain are already in drought.
As we mentioned, Bridge 108 is set in the same fictional universe as A Calculated Life. Do you think people should read A Calculated Life before Bridge 108?
They can be read independently and in any order. Each novel serves to flesh out details in the other. And I have chosen a particularly visual scene in A Calculated Life to replicate in Bridge 108 — a scene in a busy enclave market — and I’m confident readers will recall the scene regardless of any time lag between reading the two novels. But obviously, I love the idea of a reader jumping from one novel to the next, to extricate the maximum satisfaction from recognizing the overlaps.
So, are you planning on writing any more stories in this realm?
Never, say never! If I do return to this world it will be for one simple reason: time will tell if there is a character in Bridge 108 who I can’t live without. I may decide to return to their story and give them an expanded fictional life.
Finally, if someone enjoys Bridge 108, what similarly dystopian novel or novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that?
Difficult to name just one, but I’ll go for Clade by the Australian writer, James Bradley. Clade is a climate-related dystopia in which climate change plays out in the daily lives of its characters. It’s a great novel — also written with a fragmented structure — and I look forward to Bradley’s upcoming climate novel, Ghost Species.