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Hidden Treasures: Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood

Hidden Treasures: Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood
Book Name: Azanian Bridges
Author: Nick Wood
Publisher(s): NewCon Press
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fiction / Alternate History
Release Date: April 4, 2016

Hidden Treasures is a series that reviews small press and digital first SFF.

Okay, so this is technically science fiction rather than fantasy. But even if you’re a die-hard fantasy fan, don’t let that put you off. Azanian Bridges will make you think – hard – as all good sci-fi does. Yet at the same time, the sci-fi aspect of it is very light. Although the plot ostensibly revolves around technology – an Empathy Enhancer that gives people direct insight into each other’s thoughts and feelings – we are given no details of how it works. In that respect, it could as easily be magic as science. The real point of this story, and one that belongs just as well in fantasy as in science fiction, is an exploration of human relationships and the insidious nature of racism.

To that end, the book is set in an alternate present-day South Africa in which apartheid is still maintained. Martin, an Afrikaner psychologist, has helped to develop the Empathy Enhancer (often referred to simply as the Box). Sibusiso, an amaZulu student, has become his patient after a breakdown that’s the direct result of seeing a friend killed at a political rally. The plot concerns the efforts of the governing regime’s Security Police to get hold of the Box, which they see as a potential weapon for use in interrogation, against Martin and Sibusiso’s determination to keep it out of their hands – to start with for quite different reasons, but gradually for one and the same. Because the Box might well make a terrifying weapon, but it also offers the potential to break down oppressive regimes like apartheid. As one of the characters says, “you can connect to anyone, regardless of race, and see how similar we are”.

As you might expect, questions of race and racism are woven throughout Azanian Bridges. How easy it is to have prejudices and preconceptions, even if you don’t think your views of people are affected by their race. How easy it is for people to overlook injustice if they’re not the ones being oppressed by it. How easy it is, even, for someone from an oppressed group to help perpetrate the injustice, taking the side of their oppressors because it’s safer and more profitable to do so. The book offers a searing indictment of apartheid – and, indirectly, of any regime that gives preferential treatment to one group of humans over another, rather than recognising our essential sameness – without ever making sweeping judgements of the people within it. Although the perceptions and experiences of the characters are inevitably affected by the colour of the skin they were born in, first and foremost they are flawed and interesting individuals.

They just have to see each other that way.

It’s no surprise, then, that bridges as a metaphor are scattered throughout the book. A bridge can connect two sides, but it also requires effort to build and maintain. As a psychologist, Martin himself sees his job as partly one of building bridges between himself and his patients, but gradually he comes to the realisation that real bridges have to be built from both ends. To understand each other and to break down the barriers between us, we have to give up something of ourselves as well as being open and receptive to others. Wood’s fascinating exploration of these themes also touches on mental health, in particular the continuous mental pressure that comes from being part of an oppressed people, and the way that the entire identity of a racial group can be crushed and distorted, not only by overt oppression but by the less malignant – though perhaps even more destructive – attempts of one culture to contain another by reframing everything according to its own worldview. (One of my favourite lines in the book was when Sibusiso says to Martin, “Stop squeezing my world into yours.”)

I particularly loved the little glimpses of wider alternate history that consider how today’s world would interact with a South Africa still in the grip of apartheid, and how the rest of recent history might be slightly different too (perhaps the most intriguing line in that respect was “Obama and Osama to meet the Soviet bloc in Peace Talks above the Berlin Wall”, which conjures up an entire world of differences that I wanted to know more about). And I also loved the flashes of humour; though Azanian Bridges explores some very serious topics, the characters themselves offer many light-hearted moments – not only the two main POV characters, Martin and Sibusiso, but also the supporting cast around them. (I should probably mention at this point, for anyone keeping score, that although the two protagonists are both male, there are a couple of well-rounded and interesting female characters as well.) Indeed, I found all the characters easy to empathise with – the author himself doing his own job of building bridges with considerable aplomb.

And of course, alongside all this thought-provoking stuff, we have the plot – which is basically that of a thriller. There are some genuinely tense moments, leading up to a devastating final few chapters. I won’t say too much about those here, for fear of spoilers, but they certainly had an impact. I found that Azanian Bridges lingered in my mind long after I’d finished it, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes a thought-provoking read.


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