Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood: a review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood: a review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

By Maureen Kincaid Speller

Azanian Bridges — Nick Wood (NewCon Press)

Other commentators have already discussed the alternate history setting of Azanian Bridges (Paul Kincaid on this site and Gautam Bhatia at Strange Horizons, while Mark Bould also provides a useful list of other African alternate histories on his own website), and I don’t see any real point in recapitulating what they’ve already said so well.

Instead, I want to focus on the relationship between Martin van Deventer, the white psychologist, and Sibusiso Mchuna, the young black man whom he is attempting to treat. Sibusiso, a trainee teacher, has withdrawn into himself after witnessing the murder of his friend, Mandla, at an anti-government rally. At a loss to know what else to do for him, his father has agreed to his being admitted to the local mental asylum for treatment. We can only speculate as to why his father did this rather than taking Sibusiso home but for now consider it as only one among many markers of the fact that Sibusiso is metaphorically as well as literally a long way from home, living in a white world, among people who have no idea about him.

In an early conversation, Martin asks Sibusiso what he enjoys most about the music of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron, which he has apparently been listening to (Martin is uncertain as to who Scott-Heron is, and wonders if he might be black). Sibusiso replies: ‘The fact that black people make such wonderful music’.

What to do? How to respond? I am a liberal Afrikaaner, non-racialist in my attitude. For me, colour is not an issue, not here, not now. (29)

But colour and race are all he can think about at this moment. However unintentionally, Martin simply cannot stop ‘othering’ the people around him. That Sibusiso smells of sweat sends him into a consideration of whether this is just bad personal hygiene, poverty or a ‘cultural factor’ rather than ‘does he have access to a deodorant?’. Why is Sibusiso unresponsive to his questions? Martin notes that Sibusiso initially wouldn’t talk to the Zulu nursing staff either (Martin just can’t kick the habit of using tribal designations for all his ‘non-racialist’ attitude) and wonders if he was afraid they might be government informers.

Here, our task is to make him better, not to vet his political views or activity. […] Psychology is politically impartial in South Africa – even if we have no trained black psychologists to see Sibusiso either. (30)

Martin knows that he is ignorant in some way but nonetheless he just can’t fathom it out. The answers are right there in front of him but he cannot see them, because he is himself beset by ‘cultural factors’, the ones that mean he cannot put himself in the place of his patient and think about how it feels for a black man to be questioned by a white man in an institutional setting.

He doesn’t even get it when he introduces the Empathy Enhancer box into their consultation, and Sibusiso says: ‘It looks a box the Security Police would use.’

I look at him with surprised shock: forthright views indeed for an endogenously depressed patient, especially a black one. (33)

Sibusiso’s own narrative of the same incident is much more revealing. ‘You’re not going to connect that to my genitalia are you, Doctor van Deventer?’ he asks, noting how Martin’s hands freeze on the switches. So, we can see that Martin lies even to himself, is squeamish, a little prudish even. Sibusiso notes wryly that Martin finds it somehow hard to believe that he can speak English (‘What’s wrong with my English, black man that I am? [34]) and wonders if Martin will in turn wonder how he knows the word ‘genitalia’. Whether Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks exists in this alternate world can only be guessed at, but it is clear that Martin is uneasy at Sibusiso’s able use of English, and that Sibusiso himself is deeply insecure, not for the reasons Martin supposes, but because he is struggling to exist at all.

Sibusiso continues to annotate Martin’s lack of comprehension at his reluctance to use the EE box: ‘There are things in my mind that are precious to me’ – and shows how he is himself conditioned to not ask questions of a white man, making it difficult to ask the most important question: ‘Why should I trust you, Doctor?’ (50). Only when Martin reveals he is a draft-dodger can even a tenuous link form between them. Sibusiso poses another question to himself at this point: ‘Why does he need his box? It looks like he is not such a bad reader of my expressions, after all. […] Ah, it is a toy that smells both of his sweat and his ambition’ (51). Here, perhaps, Sibusiso slightly misreads Martin, but it’s not surprising. If, as Mark Bould suggests, the novel itself is an Empathy Enhancer, the one thing we do learn about Martin is that he is terrible at understanding people. Not just Sibusiso (and by extension, his other patients at the asylum), but Dan Botha, the co-inventor of the EE box, and Martin’s childhood friend (except, as we see, Dan was also his childhood tormentor, and it seems that Martin has never truly been able to break free of his influence). Martin is divorced, estranged from his parents, and barely capable of spotting that he is the victim of a honeytrap until it’s just too late. The one thing we never see is Martin treating a white patient – one wonders if he actually has any. And yet, without a trace of irony, Martin can say of himself ‘I build bridges’ (48). In fairness, at the point he says this, he has been visited by the Security Police, who want his box; has experienced an epiphany of sorts, and faced down a number of his own fears, but even so, his belief, however genuine, is romantic, almost delusional. He still has a long and uncertain road before him.

The bridge is striking – a significant early portion of the novel is shaped by the metaphor of the Umgeni Bridge, a rope bridge that Martin visited with his wife on their honeymoon, tried to cross but failed because he was too afraid. Martin’s moment of epiphany comes when he revisits the bridge, which seems oddly different, and this time crosses it. Martin obviously sees the EE box as his bridge to working with his black patients, a technological means to short-circuit his ignorance about them, because he doesn’t know how to use words properly. The point is, he has never had to know how dangerous words can be. Nor can he truly see how his box might be exploited by others, not until the Security Police arrive.

For Sibusiso, of course, there are never enough words. Or the right words. Or words addressed to him. As the activist Nombuso argues with Sibusiso’s friend, Bongani, as to where Sibusiso is going for the weekend, Sibusiso notes, ‘I tire of people talking about me as if I were not there’. And indeed, for much of the novel so far, Sibusiso has been rendered invisible, one way or another. Lost in the city, lost in the asylum; once the activists learn of the existence of the box he becomes, as much as anything, a means to an end, a small cog in a larger machine. Yet, in these encounters, and especially in his conversations with the nurse, Jabu, conversations that we do not witness (a truly confidential therapeutic process), Sibusiso finds strength and purpose. Martin comments several times on Sibusiso’s transformation, noting how he takes up more space, and takes control of that space. Sibusiso himself, when he meets Mamma Makosi, notices that she ‘speaks as if we own the borders and spaces within’ (83), and it is through her intervention that he begins to come to terms with his own private landscape in a way that Martin, even with his EE box, cannot. Put simply, their terms of reference are too different for them to make easy connections. The white man’s terms of reference cannot help him; in a way Martin is not wrong in understanding that there are ‘cultural factors’ at play. Martin’s problem is that he can never fully understand those ‘cultural factors’; what is really needed is his acknowledgement that he cannot understand them; that language can and must fail him, EE box or no.

Which takes us back to that bridge. In North America the white colonial settlers believed that the children of indigenous people and colonisers (variously called half-breeds, mixed breeds or mixed bloods, or métis, depending on where in time and place they were) were somehow better placed to act as translators and facilitators between the two groups because of their mixed parentage. In truth, the métis often found themselves caught between two cultures, not entirely comfortable with or welcome in either, but nonetheless extraordinarily burdened by the expectations of both groups. There is a sense, then, of various responsibilities having been placed on Sibusiso by others – his family, his college, Martin, the various activists he becomes involved with – to act in part as their bridge with one another. Sibusiso learns quickly how to take up actual space and cross physical borders but something else is also happening. Martin talks at one point of Sibusiso’s psyche becoming ‘colonized with identity politics’, although he quickly realises that he himself is the coloniser, but having raised Fanon’s theorising about the oppressed black person who is obliged to navigate a white world according to how they perform whiteness, there comes a point for Sibusiso when he rejects the bridge. Or, rather, one might argue that he has himself crossed a bridge but, unlike Martin, he has not returned. Instead, he is pushing on into new territory, the territory of his own psyche.

At various points during the novel, Sibusiso has sought to express his inner state through invoking figures such as the Beast and the Bird, symbols that resonate powerfully for him but that Martin cannot interpret, nor indeed hope to interpret. When Sibusiso is finally, almost inevitably arrested, he is tortured physically but also mentally, with the EE box. He has already discovered a way of subverting the machine’s use, to some extent at least, but if I understand the novel’s final section correctly (and there is no reason that I should – indeed, there is, I think, some reason to say that I cannot and should not ever properly understand it) Sibusiso is exploiting the box in order to construct and explore his own psychological landscape, to ‘own the borders and spaces within’.

What precisely happens in Room 619 is difficult to determine. Somehow Sibusiso manages to get out of the window, or is pushed out, and, depending on how you read it, jumps or falls to his death. In our world, Police Room 619 is the room where, in 1977, the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was interrogated so brutally that the walls were left splashed with blood from the appalling injuries from which he would later die. The authorities claimed he died on hunger strike; the photographs taken by the campaigner, Donald Woods, clearly indicated otherwise. Biko’s death became a rallying point for anti-apartheid protesters worldwide and initiated an intense period of campaigning against the South African regime. ‘Biko’, recorded by Peter Gabriel and released in 1980, generated further awareness among people, myself included, who would perhaps at that point have described themselves as non-political.

Sibusiso will have a similar posthumous existence, with recordings of his thoughts, taken from the EE box, sent out onto the internet by the activists,  enabling everyone to walk in his shoes and gain some sense of what is happening in South Africa. Finally, perhaps, Martin’s box has found a use, but only because of its theft by Sibusiso, and the involvement of a lot of other people in transforming its theory into a practical form. One of the few genuinely delightful moments of a dark novel is when the box is converted into a computer game and small hand-held units distributed for free through drug-courier networks.

There’s more, so much more, to this novel, and I could probably take a few more thousand words to unpick it to my complete satisfaction, but even that wouldn’t be an end to it. And that’s partly the point. This is not a story with neat and tidy endings. It’s a moment among many moments; a pause as one piece of action reaches an end and before the next begins. We know that apartheid was finally abandoned in South Africa, and may expect it to happen here, as well, but we also know that all over the world similar situations are developing all the time, requiring constant action. Martin will continue learning what he can and can’t do, and how to exploit his privilege, for the struggle. There is no end to this, and therefore there is no end to this novel. It can only ever draw breath, ready for the next assault.

This is, though, an astonishing first novel. A little rough round the edges maybe (and in sore need of a copy editor or proofreader in places), but the rawness, the intensity, the sheer viscerality of the writing carries the story through. It deserves, no, demands your attention.


Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and reviewer. She is Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons, and Assistant Editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. She also reviews for Interzone and Vector. She is a former Arthur C. Clarke Award judge, and a former James Tiptree Jr. Award judge. She also blogs at Paper Knife.

>> Read Maureen’s introduction and shortlist




  1. Abigail Nussbaum 1 week ago

    This review gets at my main issue with the book, which I otherwise admired: I don’t see what it gains from being a science fiction story. In part, this is obviously Woods’s point: not only is the Empathy Engine insufficient to achieving the kind of understanding Martin imagines it could engender, it isn’t even necessary. To understand patients like Sibusiso, Martin needs to open his eyes and move outside of his comfort zone, to understand that things he thinks of as “just the way things are” are a painful and often damaging reality to others. But the EE itself does nothing to achieve this, only the situation its existence kicks off. As you say, there are some interesting extrapolations of how the EE might be used later in the book – the video game idea in particular. But these are asides, not what the story is about.

    I really enjoyed Azanian Bridges as an examination of the interaction between a well-meaning but clueless member of the oppressing class, and an intelligent but despairing representative of the oppressed. The use of psychology in particular, and the setting of a psychiatric hospital, gave Woods the opportunity to say some smart things about the intersection between politics and mental health, the way that focusing on the personal can make treatment meaningless, and the way that an unjust system can end up pathologizing thoroughly rational reactions of despair and anger towards it. But all of this would have been just as powerful in a realist (and probably 80s-set) novel. The added value that the book achieves by introducing the SFnal feels all but negligible.

  2. Paul Kincaid 1 week ago

    Abigail, I honestly don’t understand how the book could possibly work except as science fiction. The whole political, economic and social structure upon which the whole novel depends is that of an alternate history. The Empathy Engine is a McGuffin, a device to get the plot rolling, but it is not what makes this novel science fiction. And setting the novel in the past, at the height of apartheid, would not work either since the character of the oppressive state is different. It is essential within the nature of the book that the white population is oppressed without fully realising the extent, and that the economy is in steep decline compared to an outside world from which most South Africans (white and black) are rigidly excluded; neither of these things was true in apartheid-era South Africa. So you have to read this book as science fiction.

    • Abigail Nussbaum 1 week ago

      The whole political, economic and social structure upon which the whole novel depends is that of an alternate history.

      Yes, and not a terribly convincing one. As Gautam writes in SH, the novel doesn’t really feel as if it’s set in the 2010s, and the geopolitical justifications it offers for apartheid’s persistence feel like handwaving. You may be right that the precise economic effects that isolation due to apartheid has had on white South Africans were not something you’d find in the 80s (this is not a period or place that I know a great deal about beyond the broad strokes), but to me these details didn’t feel like the crux of the book, much less its SFnal nature. If anything, the book’s setting felt trapped in the 80s to me – there was no real consideration of how an additional thirty years of apartheid might have changed the regime and the resistance to it, much less how both might look in the age of the internet, social media, and online resistance movements.

  3. Paul Kincaid 1 week ago

    There’s an awful lot about the internet, and about how the regime has blocked access to it (think of North Korea today), so that the only people with any access to it are those who have been able to find ways of penetrating the wall. Thus it is one of the symbols of resistance throughout the novel. The world that Sibusiso finds when he get to Kenya, and what the Chinese are able to do with the Empathy Enhancer, quite succinctly shows how the world has changed, and more particularly how South Africa has regressed. There is also a lot about how the regime has become more repressive, more violent, and how the need to become more repressive as it struggles to restrain increased internal resistance has a knock-on effect so that the white population is similarly subject to unprecedented levels of repression. The fact that the South Africa we see feels like the 1980s is precisely the indication of how much has changed in the additional 30 years of apartheid. Which is precisely why I think the novel is such a subtle and convincing alternate history.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *