Lauren Beukes on why she tackled the multiverse in sci-fi novel Bridge

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“Stories are doors into other universes…”

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When you are 5 years old, you tell your mother you are going to be a writer because you have found out it is a job you can have, just like vet and astronaut, and she is the one who taught you to read and you know that stories are doors into other universes. You don’t know that choices are too.

It takes you years to get there and instead of publishing your first novel (all teen angst and epic fantasy) you fall into journalism and learn how to write, which is really how to listen, how to observe. You think of this as an accident.

You find yourself interviewing high court judges and unhoused sex workers, electricity cable thieves and teenage vampires, a vigilante group who describe themselves as “lions among the sheep”, drag queens, and rape court prosecutors, email scam victims and a wry psychiatrist at a private addiction facility where international patients come for “rehab safaris”.

You are the head writer at an animation studio, acting out a giant robot attack and doing all the voices with the rest of the script team to make sure the jokes land and the pacing works and you’re not asking too much, because someone has to draw this, someone has to animate every frame. None of you know what you’re doing, but you’re all doing your best.

You are having a little cry, hidden away on the balcony of the animation studio at the rejection letter from the high-flying agent who says your debut novel is “like having sex on a skateboard” which is apparently not a good thing. You could give up, stick with animation, go back to journalism. But you are nothing if not stubborn. (Your mother’s daughter).

You are sobbing in the prosecutor’s office because he is holding up the one single page of the shoddy police investigation and explaining that he can’t take the murder of your friend to trial and up until this moment, this very second, you realise you believed, naively, in the fairytale of justice. You don’t have a choice but to let it go. The family wants you to let it go. But it surges through your writing, the rage and the pain, and you craft endings where you can have justice, of a kind. Fiction means something too.

You are shaking with overwhelm at the Arthur C. Clarke Award ceremony where your second novel, Zoo City, has just won, not knowing that this will change everything, everything. You sell a new book with your new agent for a big advance, and discover money gives you choices you didn’t have before: to quit everything and write.

You are five novels down and writing is an excuse to do cool research, to interview detectives and artists and neurosurgeons and you have something brewing. You are hanging out in the lab of your friend Hayley Tomes at the University of Cape Town in South Africa where you will talk tapeworms and epilepsy and she will press a slice of rat brain on a slide into your hands at the end, because of course you want one to take home. You will name it Pinky, this desiccated bit of brain, like dried snot on the glass, and go away and think about how hard it is to change your mind, your life, and how great it would be to have a parasite that did it for you.

You are sitting at home in Cape Town, no longer locked down due to covid-19 regulations, but still locked in because South Africa is on the red list and you are not allowed to fly anywhere at all and definitely not to Chicago, where they are filming an adaptation of your book The Shining Girls with Elisabeth Moss and Jamie Bell.

At the same time, the rolling electrical blackouts across the country are getting worse, every day. Someone else close to your family is killed for no reason, a young Black man sitting in the back of a taxi, waiting to go home. The air is like breathing knives and you want to fly away.

You are packing up your whole damn house in three weeks, before the next coronavirus wave hits and the UK re-implements quarantine hotels: seven suitcases and a portion of a shipping container. You have fantasies about taking nothing with you, but you have art prints you love and reclaimed furniture (not swank enough to be vintage) and books and cats and a slice of rat brain on a glass slide. You can’t just walk away from it all, you and your teenage daughter – you are already leaving behind an entire life.

You feel guilty for being able to emigrate, for having a choice.

You are watching the London psychiatrist uneasily, like she is an oracle, waiting to hand you your fate and she adds up the scores and raises her eyebrows, “I wasn’t expecting you to test so highly on hyperactivity.” And so it is that the gods decree that you do have ADHD as you have come to suspect, and this explains so many things and maybe you are not useless and awful after all.

All this is already folded into your novel, Bridge, without you knowing, without you being aware. It is in the subconscious magic of writing, the process of putting fingers to keyboard and seeing what surfaces like sharks from the depths, which were always down there, circling.

Maybe it is the ADHD that makes you so magpie-curious, picking up these shiny ideas and trying to figure out how to weave them together: music theory around harmonics and resonant instruments and inducing altered states and neuroparasitology, threaded through a story about mothers and daughters and the choices we make.

Isn’t it true for every story you’re writing, every city you go to on your research trips, every person you interview, you think: “I could live here, I could do this: be an artist, a cop, a scientist, a sex worker.” Bridge is the culmination of all that, it is about all the versions of you, every path not taken, every door you have opened or closed.

What if there was a way to access that (like stepping into a book), a way to live all those other lives, your otherselves, to reconnect with someone you had lost, to reconnect with who you are supposed to be? What would you risk? What price would you be willing to pay?

You have already changed worlds, switched up jobs and loves and friendships, become someone new. You are always in the process of becoming. You are always the sum of your choices.

You can choose to be here, now.

Bridge is the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club. Sign up and read along with us here


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