The Critics’ Corner
The Bridge as Chessboard
by Don Webb
The Bridge: a New Beginning, by veteran contributor euhal allen — Bewildering Stories respects his preference for lower case in his name, a style he uses for personal reasons — concludes in this issue after a run beginning in issue 460 (January 2nd).
Sequels and prequels are not unknown, but this may be the first time Bewildering Stories has published an interpolation. “Bridge-NB” — as I call it, for short — follows The Bridge, part I and precedes The Bridge: Requiem for the Blue Planet (part II) in terms of the novel’s interior chronology.
The Bridge began eight years ago, in issue 99 (May 31, 2004) — in Year 2 of Bewildering Stories — and concluded in issue 165 (Sept. 19, 2005). At seven years’ remove, A New Beginning has all the advantages of revisiting old friends.
The interpolation fills in a gap in the narrative but does not break any new ground in terms of plot or characterization. That’s good, because it maintains the novel’s coherence. But it also has a “for the record” quality that may seem slightly melancholy.
The characters may age in narrative time, but readers have grown older at their own rate, and their memories diminish accordingly. Only by starting — or restarting — with part I will readers know who the characters are as well as the significance of what they do. Taken out of context as it is, A New Beginning will strike newcomers and veteran readers alike as somewhat puzzling.
The Bridge is highly “plot-driven,” to use a colloquial term. The characters resemble chess pieces maneuvering against a shadowy opponent whose game is not always visible. In that metaphor, Cyr would be a king; Katia, a queen; Me’Avi, perhaps a bishop; and other characters are knights and pawns. The object of the game is to win by rescuing Earth from calamity, by preventing its “englobement” — isolation from galactic civilization — and by establishing a human presence in the galaxy.
The structure of A New Beginning is the same as that of the rest of the novel. Each chapter comprises subsections in which different characters do different things — all simultaneously. The result is a kind of tapestry of short stories, each interrupting and overlapping the others.
The necessarily linear format of written language makes it hard to keep track of who’s who and what’s happening. Ideally, perhaps, The Bridge would be formatted like a newspaper: each chapter would occupy a separate page; and the subsections would comprise separate columns, each with its own headline. Such a visual organization would match the novel’s structure, but creating the presentation would be difficult, and on-line readers would probably find it too hard to read.
The Bridge contains the overarching themes of culture, politics, and — to a much lesser degree — economics. And yet even on such a grand scale, the novel has a very interior quality. Some scenes and events take place outdoors, but the settings — with exceptions such as Archie’s Alaskan tomatoes — are usually incidental. In any case, a sensual quality is notably absent, and visualization is left up to the readers.
Many of the characters are related to one another, much like the people in the medieval kingdoms represented on a chessboard. Readers will find it impossible to keep track of who is related to whom, but the narrative mercifully restrains such intricacies to manageable proportions.
The most interesting character is Katia. She is an almost implausibly successful politician and certainly a master manipulator of people and events. She arranges to fake the death of Professor Melichson, who may be a rook — a powerful but flanking piece — in the chess metaphor; and, to top it off, she recreates him as an entirely different person. If it weren’t for Katia’s noble motives, her occasionally strong-arm but mostly devious machinations would make her a figure to fear; but such is the role of the chess queen.
One can easily see the hand of the chessmaster at work. The characters in Katia’s “court” are of the same emotional color; they think alike, each in his or her own role. “Pieces” of a neutral or the opposite color, such as Dr. Martini in “Collusion” (issue 463), tend to be bumbling caricatures and are in any case hopelessly overmatched.
Katia herself, in A New Beginning, parallels the underlying theme of the rest of the novel: she has a near-death experience but is resuscitated by Cyr, an artificial intelligence, in his role as a benevolent “king.” As in chess, the king supports the queen and the queen protects the king. And as with Katia’s fate, so it will go with Earth and galactic civilization generally.
Thus, we may suppose, the record of The Bridge is now complete. The chess problem has been solved, and the resulting position will lead seamlessly into that of The Bridge: Requiem for the Blue Planet.
Copyright © 2012 by Don Webb