“The Girl in the Road” has the Old World scientific precision of Jules Verne at his most fantastic. At the center is a serpentine assembly called “the Trail,” or Trans-Arabian Linear Generator.” It’s something like a critter tube laid across 4,000 miles of ocean surface between India and Djibouti, the tiny nation in the Horn of Africa.
Pilgrims and extreme hikers have been known to attempt crossing the Trail, but its official purpose is to produce — through the up-and-down movement of waves — “Blue Energy,” which is transmitted “via superconductor threads made of metallic hydrogen.”
Welcome to the next future as imagined by Durham, N.C., novelist and playwright Monica Byrne. Scheduled for arrival in about 60 years, Byrne’s tomorrow has airborne trains, undersea shipping routes and no shortage of gizmos, like the “aadhaar” (a unique ID tracking chip that makes people glow) and the “glotti” (a translating device to accommodate the many languages of South Asia and Africa).
An MIT graduate who once considered becoming an astronaut, Monica Byrne traveled around the world — Ethiopia, India, the South Pacific — gathering material for this incredible debut that propels her into the front line of young American writers who are moving beyond the blast of the Western Canon. For all its ingenious technological projection, “The Girl in the Road” is really a mythological quest decorated with psycho-romantic obsession and, occasionally, bloodshed.
The author’s two heroines have set out for Ethiopia on separate journeys. Meena, a 27-year-old Brahmin woman, is fleeing on the Trail from Mumbai in the year 2068. Among her tangle of motivations for this mad act, she hopes to track down her parents’ killer in Addis Ababa.
In the alternating first-person narrative, Mariama, a slave child from western Africa, has stowed away on a truck in the company of Yemaya, a surrogate mother figure and mentor. (“Yemaya” also happens to be the name of a Yoruban sea goddess.)
A former student of “nano and comp lit at ITT-Bombay,” Meena is in a “manic phase.” She believes a golden-bronze snake has bitten her, and that she is being pursued by the terrorist (or is it humanitarian?) group, “Semena Werk.” On the Trail, she confronts various sphinxes: oceanographers, pirate radio operators and apocalyptic surfers. (When spotted by passing sailors, they call out, mysteriously, “Hail Yemaya!”) For Meena, the Trail’s “scales” become stations on the way to an enlightenment she anticipates in the “final chamber” in Djibouti City.
At the beginning of her odyssey, Mariama has swallowed some prepared sea snake, which has sprung to life within her chest as a jealous spirit she calls the “kreen.” It’s a dangerous trek across Chad and Sudan, headed for the promise of revolution in Ethiopia.
Reptiles aside, the life journeys of Meena and Mariama parallel in eerie ways. They are orphans who share a recurring phantom, a barefoot girl who pops up here and there along the way.
Byrne scatters captivating poetic phrases through the prose like so many saltwater anemones. Eyes are “black blooms on white leaves.” Even inventions like elephantine solar panels (“The Sun Traps of Sudan”) are handled in lyrical fashion, as “yawning black metal butterflies, their wings opening and closing in concert.”
The dominant political structures of the later 21st century are only implied. India has become “the new America,” and Africa follows as “the new India.” (World power has shifted east, so our side of things might be headed south.) The nexus of “The Girl in the Road” remains Ethiopia and its ongoing struggle to expel the Indians (and Chinese), who have purchased vast tracts of land to exploit for their energy needs. Nevertheless, an “African rebirth” may be forthcoming. “The seas are rising,” and, who knows, the Great Rift Valley may flow yet again with torrents of foam.
Gore Vidal once said that writing historical novels requires “the ability to feel one’s way into a past time and live in its strangeness.” Doubtless the same can be said for “future time,” because there is plenty of lived-in strangeness in “The Girl in the Road.” Its multiple climaxes have the tranquility of slow motion detonations, and, long after the smoke has cleared, the diabolical moments coil inside the reader like Mariama’s kreen.
Monica Byrne embraces neither side of science fiction’s utopian/dystopian divide. She envisions the future much as it is today and dismisses “post-apocalyptic” as a classification for her novel. “The age of miracles is now,” she says, adding the caveat that “truth is revealed to us when we are ready for it.”
“The Girl in the Road”
by Monica Byrne
336 Pages; Crown; $26