The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey | Book Review

The Boy on the Bridge (The Hungry Plague, #2)The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much more than a zombie story, M.R. Carey’s The Boy on the Bridge blends science fiction and horror themes into a legit work of character-driven contemporary literature with insightful things to say about the human condition. The characters are complex and the dramatic tension builds throughout.

The Boy on the Bridge is set in the same universe as Carey’s first novel, The Girl With All the Gifts, which I enjoyed very much four years ago but remember few specific plot details. You can read either of these books without spoiling the other.

During the height of the Hungry Plague (aka zombie apocalypse), a small team of soldiers and scientists are dispatched to traverse the withered United Kingdom countryside to collect scientific samples that might help understand the plague and how to defend against it. The team is confined to the safety of Rosie, their oversized land rover, with occasional tension-laden excursions into the open. Discovery of a new kind of hungry presents the core scientific mystery and a Pandora’s box of moral dilemmas. Conflicting ideas about duty and loyalty drive the crew to make complicated decisions that bring the reader toward a devastating but thoroughly satisfying end.

Boy on the Bridge presents a slow start. It took me a few chapters to figure out where we were and what was happening but the action layers nicely to build a claustrophobic sense of dread and inescapability.

Boy on the Bridge is a dystopian novel with a hopeful heart. If you can enjoy reading about the collapse of civilization and the possibilities that might come after, this book will make you very happy. After, of course, it has already broken your heart.

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The Things We All Fear

I have a fascination with those things we all fear. I’ve written a bit about zombies and my suspicion that their place in the current zietgiest describes a kind of existential dread somehow related to our discomfort with our transhuman, technologically-drenched future. I’m not alone.

There are other people interested in these same ideas. They are more eloquent and more studied on the topic. One such person is Dan Engber, who became fascinated by the fear inspired by quicksand in the 1960s. He noticed that kids today aren’t really worried about quicksand the way they were a few years ago. It doesn’t show up in their games the way it did when he was a kid. He wondered where that fear went. Why did people stop being afraid?

Engber did a study of twentieth century films and discovered a sharp rise in the depiction of quicksand during the 1950s and 1960s. Radiolab does a great podcast with Engber, in which he speculates that rampant fear of quicksand corresponds to a distrust of exotic cultures and terrain in an age of extreme exploration and globalization. This fear became a metaphor for how people thought about the war in Vietnam. In short, the fear of quicksand represented a distrust about involvement in far away places and then became a controlling metaphor that shaped thought about that very involvement. If this interests you at all, you should give the podcast a listen. It is worth the 16 minutes.

I admire Engber and the way he conducted his exploration of the quicksand trope through twentieth century culture. This kind of study is fascinating and really, really useful. I’m interested in finding other studies that work along these lines. Links or citations are appreciated.

Fear is both an intensely personal experience and a culturally-defined expression. Fear is primal. It is also communal. The literatures of dread — horror films and stories — may not be meaningless drivel after all. A thoughtful mining of the nightmares we share with one another may give us our best look at ourselves, what we value, what we abhor and where we are headed as a species.

I know the zombie genre could keep researchers busy for a long time. What other cultural fears could we explore to find clues about ourselves?

What’s With All the Zombies?

If you spend time in America, you will have noticed all the zombies. Seriously, they are everywhere: in our TV shows, our movies, our literature, even our phone commercials. We are deeply fascinated by the living dead.

I grew up loving horror films but never really liked or understood the zombie subgenre. When I was a kid, zombie films were thin plots stitched together with guts and gore. The perverse frisson came from rather blunt places — children eating their parents’ brains with garden trowels. Not much subtlety or subtext.

Then, as now, I liked my horror dark, cerebral and full of existential dread. There should certainly be blood and guts but there should be darker things still — existential threats, commentary on man’s inexorable slide toward annihilation, the loss of hubris when one finally peers behind the veil and sees the mechanics of reality and realizes that the universe does not need us. We are grist for the mill. I dug Hellraiser, Nightbreed and Barker’s other films way more than any of Romero’s works.

I still find zombies a bit pathetic. And yet, I am fascinated by the resurgence of the subgenre and am deeply enthralled by my favorite story cycle of the moment, The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead isn’t really about zombies. Zombies are a plot device. The story itself is about community, survival instinct and how the choices we make either reinforce or diminish our humanity. Really brilliant stuff told over a story arch that is calculated each week for exquisite tension.

So , as much as I loathe zombies and love The Walking Dead, I am getting really interested in studies about how a particular age’s monster stories reflect the emotional or psychological sense of the times. In other words, the monsters we project in our stories reveal the deeper discomforts of our shared mindset.

During the Cold War, we had alien invasions which bespoke a fear of global conflict. The 70’s gave us slasher films, an expression of new sexual codes and gender roles. The last decade gave us vampires, a fascination with blood and disease. And now, zombies.

What should we make of the current zombie invasion? What does it mean?

I think Chuck Klosterman has it right in his article “Bonus Feature/ Reconsideration: The Real Reason Why Zombies Are Scary” (New York Times Magazine, October 27, 2013, Lifestyle: page 47). The fear of zombies is an expressed fear of monotony, the kind of mindless repetition brought by technology that dehumanizes our daily lives and bruises our souls. Here’s how he puts it:

Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It’s always a numbers game. And it’s more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails, or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will never be finished with whatever it is you do. The Internet reminds us of this every day. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed.

This, I think, is a reality more terrifying that drained corpses and dangling entrails. The very likely prospect that I will never successfully deal with all those emails or read all those tweets or watch all those shows captured on my DVR. This is why zombies are so terrifying. It isn’t because they are the dead and we are the living. It is because we are already both. We are horrified by the prospect of becoming more of what we already are — the undead, the walking dead, corporate customers in a 400 emails-a-day kind of world.