Nick Wood's Azanian Bridges is a socially acute fast-paced thriller that propels the reader into a world of intrigue and threat, leading to possibilities that examine the conscience of a nation. The novel featured in the Guardian's picks of the best SF of 2016.
In a modern day South Africa where Apartheid still holds sway, Sibusiso Mchunu, a young amaZulu man, finds himself the unwitting focus of momentous events when he falls foul of the system and is taken to a designated 'black' psychiatric hospital. Here he meets a well-meaning white clinical psychologist, Martin van Deventer, who is working on an experimental device intended to enhance communication by linking mind to mind.
Sibusiso is now in possession of a secret coveted by many but which he sees as a means of offering hope to his entire people. Pursued by the ANC on one side and Special Branch agents on the other, he has little choice but to run.
South African author Nick Wood has been around for a while, but this is his first novel, both an SF thriller and a searing examination of Apartheid told through alternate history. Shortlisted for the Campbell, BSFA, Sidewise and Nommo Awards, it even comes recommended by the late, great Ursula Le Guin, who called it "chilling and fascinating". Definitely not one to miss. – Lavie Tidhar
"I read Bridges with much pleasure… Chilling and fascinating."– Ursula K. Le Guin
"A very good novel indeed; the emotional intelligence is as high as its political insightfulness – the whole is compelling and moving."– Adam Roberts
"Azanian Bridges fuses two well-used SF tropes – alternate history and a single technological invention – to great effect… What follows is a fast-paced thriller, an intelligent examination of prejudice in all its forms and a convincing portrayal of characters under extreme stress."– The Guardian
"Azanian Bridges successfully avoids the minefields of the genre, refuses the temptation of an easy ending, and succeeds splendidly in telling a powerful story about language, power, technology, and the illusion of the 'rainbow bridge'."– Strange Horizons
"A deeply-felt examination of Apartheid and its lingering effects through the lens of speculative fiction... challenging and thought-provoking."– Lavie Tidhar
Chapter 1 – Sibusiso's Start
I never knew it would be so hard to say goodbye – especially to my father. (I leave him until last.)
"Sala kahle, tata!" I say, bowing my face so he cannot see my eyes.
For a brief moment, he holds me close to him and I can smell the Earth, sweet, sharp sweat and the decades of cattle manure on his skin. His jacket buttons poke into my stomach – he has indeed dressed for this occasion too. He is so like a fragile bird – a kiewietjie comes to mind for some reason – but then he pushes me away, turns and walks off in a hurry and without looking back. He has left me with a little gift, a small beige plastic digi-disc, on which I can record the happenings in my life. I put it in my pocket.
Since when did my father get so old, so delicate, so suddenly?
I look over my brother and sisters' heads to watch his stiff blue-jacketed back disappear into the house. The brown door shuts against yellow brick and the late afternoon sun glints off the corrugated silver eaves and roof.
Behind our master's house, I hear the cows sounding out as a dog barks, unsettling them.
Lindiwe is crying openly but I keep my own eyes dry. I am the eldest son; I am strong.
There is time for one last hug before the taxi arrives.
Mandla grips my arm tight. "Careful brother," his eyes are almost on a level with my own, despite the three years I have on him, "There is much danger and distraction in the city."
I nod and brush my lips with the back of my left hand to hide my smile: "I hear what you say, Mandla – you repeat father too – but I will be careful."
He grins and puffs his 15-year old chest, which looks increasingly like a solid drum of utshwala besizulu – but only the finest of beer.
There is a high-pitched car hooter sounding behind me. Father had to pay much to have the man detour off his route to come here.
My five sisters wave as I step with difficulty into the crowded taxi; the door is slid fully open, the minibus is silver and muddy brown from the farm tracks splatter of early-summer showers.
The driver accelerates before I can sit. I fall into a large woman's lap and realise there is indeed no seat. She shovels me aside with a large forearm and I sway, trapped between her fat hip and a thin man's sharp thighbone. He wriggles a bit like a contortionist and my buttocks manage to find some sticky leather to ease the weight off my feet.
My grey Sunday slacks sticks to the seat, as we sway around and bump over farm potholes.
The 'gamchee', as the Cape Coloured people call them, waves a hand towards me from the front seat: "Where you going again, boy?"
"Fundimiso College, Im-, Imbali," I say, finding it hard to breathe, crushed as I am as the large woman squeezes against me.
The gamchee turns to the driver, who is accelerating into a violent right-turn onto the tarred road: "Seems like we have a clever boy in our taxi, hey Smokes?"
Smokes just grunts from under his Man U cap and shakes his dreads. I see he has an OPod plugged into his ears.
I plug an earpiece into my ears, folding my arms tightly over my old music pod and the rands strapped in a leather purse across my stomach inside my white buttoned shirt, the purse hot and wet against my skin from the late afternoon heat.
The sky still looks clear – no gathering thunderstorm tonight it seems. I glance across at the passengers swaying and talking in front of me. They're arguing about the price of bread.
I am too tired to listen and try to sleep. Keeping my arms crossed across my hidden money pouch, I doze in fits and starts to random braking, accelerations and Church-Rap from the Crischen-Niggaz.
I finally fall asleep to Muth'fuckas Who Don't Know Jesus …
The fat woman is climbing over me and I see she has a baby hanging off her right hip, swinging it onto her back as she steps outside. It's built like me; it keeps right on sleeping …
Then I see the driver getting out too – what's his name?
I look across to the open door and see I'm the last one inside. I stretch and rub my eyes. My OPod has gone silent.
A big white man with a fierce brown handlebar moustache and blue police cap sticks his head inside: "Out, kaffir!"
Hayi no, it must be a roadblock.
I step outside, sweating hard, although the sun is low and the air is cooling.
There's a mellow yellow police van parked in front of us. We're pulled off to the side of the road, traffic whooshing past us and down the hill, down into the smoky valley of umGungundlovu – or Pietermaritzburg as the boere like to call it.
So close, why did they have to stop us now?
Fierce-moustache policeman is going through the driver's papers. Two other black cops are rummaging through our taxi, looking for guns or drugs, probably both.
"Hey, line up!" the white cop shouts, throwing the driver's papers back at him – Smokes, that's his name, catches the papers deftly with a weary shrug of his shoulders and turns back to his cab.
We stand in a ragged line, all nine of us, as he slowly works his way through our dompas. My hands are clammy as I pull mine out of my hip pocket.
He moves alongside me and snatches it from my hand; as if angry they've all been in order so far.
I sweat, even though it's getting cold, the sun sinking below the city's smog.
He looks at me and I'm reminded of Ballie Boetze, the big white South African world-boxing champion from several decades ago – whose face has received a nostalgic comeback on TV since his death, advertising Rocket Jungle Weetie-Oats.
"Hey, why you sweating so much, boy, what you hiding?"
"Nothing, sir!" I hate my sweat and my use of "sir", but all I want is to get to College safely.
"Ach man, they can go!" He slaps my dompas into my open palms.
I see the two black cops are standing behind him, hands on hips, empty.
"Next time I'll give you a bledy fine for over-crowding, hey!" he shouts at us as we climb back into the taxi.
Smokes lights a cigarette, but no one says anything.
This time I find a space next to the window and keep my face averted from the others, watching the lights popping up like fireflies, as the quick dusk deepens into murky darkness.
The rest of the journey is made in a tense silence – as for me, I shake until the end.
I miss my father already.