There is a massive elephant in the room that needs to be addressed before I talk about The Boy on the Bridge. In 2013 Naughty Dog released a PS3 game called The Last of Us. You may have heard of it. You may have played it. If you have you’ll know it was mind-blowingly good. It had a great storyline, really great characters, and a great premise. It imagined zombies as people infected with a variation of the cordyceps fungus – you know, that one that David Attenborough talked about on the BBC’s Planet Earth programme where he showed us an ant infected by cordyceps spores climb drunkenly up a tree before the fungus erupted from the its head like some kind of slow, plant-ish chest-burster in one of the most creepy-ass bits of real-life TV ever. It was inevitable that this would capture the imagination, and a lot of people, us included, were really impressed with this kind of zombie as presented in The Last of Us. M R Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts came out a year later in 2014 and presented us with this same cordyceps-infected zombie. Now I have no problem with two different mediums presenting the same idea, nor with the fact that these two stories had quite a few similarities in their plots. I enjoyed both of them, independently of one another, and for what they were. They were two very different experiences for me. I am surprised, though, that this wasn’t picked up in the reviews of the time. Plenty of readers and gamers mentioned it, but is the chasm so wide between official book and game reviewers that this glaring similarity just wasn’t noticed by them? This gives me a lot to think about – the authority of ‘official’ reviewers versus the knowledge of bloggers/vloggers, the blurring lines between these two groups, between all groups as web content expands. I feel like the web is the great equaliser sometimes, and this was one of those times.
Anyhow, on to The Boy on the Bridge.
I rarely include Mike Carey in my pantheon of awesome authors (which I carry around in my head and try not to inflict on others – it gets messy). This is both upsetting, and unjust. Chatting with Thumbs about The Boy on the Bridge while I was still reading it, we started listing all the awesome things that Carey’s written, and it just goes on and on. In the world of comics, he’s written standalones like My Faith in Frankie and Re-Gifters, Thirteen and God Save the Queen, and the mini-series Spellbinders, as well as the phenomenal Lucifer (a spin-off from Gaiman’s Sandman comics) and The Unwritten; he also wrote a hundred odd issues of Hellblazer and is the ongoing writer for X-Men: Legacy. In the world of novels, he’s written the five Felix Castor books, two books with his wife and daughter (Louise and Linda Carey respectively), The City of Silk and Steel and The House of War and Witness, and under the new pen-name of M R Carey he’s written The Girl with All the Gifts, Fellside and now The Boy on the Bridge. And this is just the stuff we both know about. Talk about an over-achiever.
I think I don’t ever remember to add him to my internal lists and charts because he’s so various. None of the work listed above is really alike apart from it mostly being SFF. He seems as happy writing within someone else’s imaginative framework as he is making up his own. He also doesn’t seem to have that large a profile. You say the name ‘Neil Gaiman’ to anyone at all and they’ll probably have some idea of what he’s known for, and what he looks like. Say ‘Mike Carey’ to someone … not so much. I don’t know whether to be upset that Carey’s not being recognised for the dude that he is, or quietly gleeful that I’m always at the top of the library request list when a new book of his is released. Maybe a bit of both.
Right … now on to The Boy on the Bridge:
I loved The Girl with All the Gifts a couple of years ago (I haven’t got round to watching the movie yet, but Carey wrote the screenplay concurrently with the book so I do plan to see it), and I’ve enjoyed Boy just as much, despite there being no surprise ending and knowing a lot of the set-up going in. It’s a prequel to Girl looking at what happened to the crew of the armoured research vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin. Almost anything I say about Boy will probably ruin Girl for you if you haven’t read it yet, so please don’t read on if you want an unsullied Girl experience.
What’s most notable about the M R Carey books so far (apart from the incredible tension in all three of them) is that they are very much about character. In both Girl and Boy we’re shown quite small groups of people with very different agendas forced to work together in a world where the proverbial has most definitely hit the fan. In Boy this group is evenly split between scientists and soldiers living in the tight confines of the Rosie on a fifteen-month mission to travel up and down Britain collecting samples from ‘hungries’, infected humans now driven only by the urge to eat live protein. Zombies, in short. Tensions are already high. Civilisation has pretty much collapsed, and these two groups of people have very different priorities and world-views. Carey is even-handed in his characterisation. Everyone on the vehicle is human, they make mistakes, they think and say stupid things, they change their minds, they care about some people but not others, but not one of them is one hundred percent reprehensible, (well, one of them comes pretty darn close, but even he can be understood, if not exactly liked). We mostly get introduced to the world through the eyes of Samrina Khan, one of the scientists, although we experience a multitude of viewpoints through the course of the novel. Rina is special for a couple of reasons, one of them being her relationship with the boy of the title, Stephen Greaves. (I don’t know if Carey did it deliberately, but it took me a little while to appreciate that Stephen is only a fifteen-year-old boy. He is referred to as ‘Greaves’ such a lot at the beginning that I assumed him to be an adult, although I don’t know why using his surname should necessarily make me think that). And Stephen is my absolute favourite character. He’s beautifully written and a total scene-stealer. He is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and has difficulties with social interaction, but this also means he thinks very differently about the situations in which the group find themselves and he just may have the answers they’re looking for.
The other stand-out thing for me in this novel was the group of infected children that the crew of the Rosie disastrously encounter. They fascinated me. I loved everything about the first-contact scenes, and the contrast between their behaviour and the behaviour of the crew (particularly the soldiers) was interesting, if not very flattering towards the human race. In fact, I’m not sure that we’re the good guys in Carey’s version of the world at all. Or perhaps everyone is as monstrous as each other, but certainly Stephen’s belief about what humanity would do to the children in order to continue to produce a ‘cure’ is the more horrifying because even as you read it you know it’s true, (you only have to look at what we already do to rats, mice, rabbits, monkeys, cows, pigs … pretty much any creature other than ourselves). Which kind of makes Carey’s vision of the future of an infected humanity weirdly hopeful. Like a second chance.
I’m generally not into zombies. Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, all passed me by; Resident Evil (both the games and the films) leaves me cold (although I love that little hologram girl’s line “you’re all going to die down here” – that’d make an excellent text alert); 28 Days Later was watched, but not retained; Warm Bodies (book, not film) was mildly interesting; Shaun of the Dead was awesome, but Pegg and Frost always are. Carey’s zombies, though, are cool. They’re interesting, they’re explainable, they evolve, and they’re not just a wall of flesh and bone for us to throw many and various types of incendiary at. There are consequences in Carey’s world for doing that.
Thumbs just asked whether it would be better to read Boy before Girl since it deals with stuff that happened before Melanie comes onto the stage. The short answer is: no. A lot of the build-up and interest in Girl relies on the reader not knowing what’s going on, and reading Boy first would ruin that. Also, I feel that Boy is a very different beast to Girl. Carey knows that his readers already know the end-game so he’s not keeping anything back, but he is exploring the world a little more fully, which is really where the interest lies.
I read this to satisfy the “Zombies!” category on my Book Bingo card.