My apologies for the interruption of my review of all the Sidewise Award nominees of 2016. I had hoped to write my next review before the arrival of my daughter, who was supposed to show up on July 18 at my wife’s scheduled c-section, but she had other plans and came a few days early. Thankfully both mother and child are fine so its time to review Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood.
Azanian Bridges is set in an alternate history where apartheid (a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa between 1948 and 1991) never ended. This is due in part to the Soviet Union also existing to the present day and continuing the Cold War. With bigger fish to fry, the rest of the world cares little about what is happening in South Africa, thus allowing apartheid to persist. Things are starting to change, however, as President Obama is in talks with the Soviets to end the Cold War once and for all. There are also a few references to an “Osama” as an American ally, presumably because the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan has not ended in this timeline either.
Thus our story is set with the Cold War ending and the world becoming less tolerant of the cold sore that is South Africa. As economic sanctions tighten, civil disorder is on the rise across South Africa. We get a glimpse of this country in transition from the point of view of our two main characters: a young Zulu student by the name of Sibusiso Mchunu and a liberal Boer named Dr. Martin van Deventer. Sibusiso is attending college where he witnesses one of his friends getting gunned down by the police at a protest. The experience leaves him with PTSD and he is committed to an asylum. Dr. van Deventer becomes his therapist and convinces Sibusiso to become one of the first test subjects of a device he invented that allows the people hooked up to it to share their memories and experiences.
Dr. van Deventer thinks this device will be invaluable in helping people deal with their trauma, but the naive doctor doesn’t realize that what he has here is a mind-reading device, something the South African Police’s Special Branch want to get their hands on. Meanwhile, Sibusiso befriends a group of revolutionaries who want him to steal the device for themselves, not to read minds, but instead to get white South Africans to empathize with those they oppress and hopefully end apartheid once and for all.
Azanian Bridges is a well-written novels that tackles a difficult period of South African history that, in the grand scheme of things, only recently ended. I read it shortly after I finished Underground Airlines and found myself comparing the two novels. Both deal with de jure racial inequality in two different countries continuing long after it ended in our timeline. To be honest, I felt Underground Airlines had a bigger impact on me since I am an American and have a better understanding of my own country’s past, but if you have any knowledge of South African history, there is enough about this world that Nick created for you to enjoy.
And yet the actual history plays a secondary role to the primary purpose of Azanian Bridges: that we can have peace if we can bridge the divide between peoples. There was a powerful scene early in the book where the reader sits in on a session between Martin and Sibusiso from the perspective of Martin that we later see again, except this time from the perspective of Sibusiso. It was unnerving to see how two people could have the same conversation and yet have vastly different emotional reactions to it. It was a powerful piece of writing, but unfortunately it only happens that one time. I would have liked to see it used a couple more times to better showcase how both men make a connection between each other that overcomes their differences, with the difference between each scene becoming less and less drastic, but what we did get was still good.
So Azanian Bridges certainly gets a recommendation from me. If you want to read an alternate history that does its best to teach the power of empathy, then this is a book you want to check out. Will it win the Sidewise Award though? Well I’ve still got one more book to review in the long-form category…