Morse, David. 1998. The Iron Bridge. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Reviewed 19 July 1998

The Iron Bridge (cover) For no apparent reason but the jacket blurbs, this one got thrown in with the speculative fiction books at the local library, so I thought I'd check it out. Wendell Berry usually has pretty good taste, but the ellipses in his blurb should have been a warning. Another one should have been the lack of any commentary from anyone recognizably associated with speculative fiction.

That this novel cannot rise above the mediocre is not due to poor research by the author, or a poor initial concept. In the mid-21st century, life on Earth is shutting down due to vaguely defined overstressing of the ecosystem by the industrial revolution. Ecosophia, a small commune, determines to send someone back in time to stop the industrial revolution. Maggie Foster, a thirtyish women, returns to 18th-century England through a New Ageish cryptoscientific method that dumps her near the Darby estate in the Severn Gorge. Her mission: make the Severn Bridge a failure by forcing adoption of an inferior design. This failure is supposed to head off the Industrial Revolution. Mr. Morse clearly understands his subject matter—eighteenth-century ironfounding and engineering—and, in a nonfiction book, this material would be fairly tight. In this novel, it's a bit infodumpish, but not excessively so.

Neither does this novel founder upon poor characterization. Maggie Foster, Abraham Darby, and John Wilkinson are fairly full characters, with their flaws and strengths, obessessions and blinders. The major difficulty with characterization in this novel is not the characters themselves, but the inconsistent choices for POV shifts. For example, at one point we've gone three chapters in a row in Maggie's frame, and then shift to Abraham's frame in the middle of the next one. Other POV shifts occur at chapter boundaries, though.

No, this first novel slips into a different gorge of ignorance. Mr. Morse clearly did not consider whether Maggie's mission could succeed before he got near the end of his book. The book betrays an almost "butterfly sneeze" naïvité about historical forces, which simply does not wash. Compare, on the other hand, Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch (4 stars), which at least worries about the value of the ultimate resolution . . . and stays satisfyingly ambiguous. Morse, however, never gets that far. The book shows signs of a radical change in the author's thinking near the March 1776 chapters, at which time Mr. Morse probably realized that Maggie never had a chance to succeed.

Greater familiarity with classics of alternate history would have helped Mr. Morse immensely. He would have learned that historical change is not a matter of a single "incident," such as the failure of the Severn Bridge hoped for by his protagonist, for a very simple reason: Prior to the bridge's failure, others would have been built successfully. The major works, such as Pastwatch and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (4 stars), create alternatives through changes of very large events. "Pure science" alternate histories, such as Gregory Benford's Timescape (4 stars), rely on significant changes in knowledge levels rather than events. Morse's objective—the derailment of the Industrial Revolution—requires significant changes in character and thought for a hell of a lot of people in a hell of a lot of countries.

In any event, Maggie Foster's mission was doomed to failure from the outset, but Mr. Morse's writing doesn't show that he understands that until well into the novel. Watt's work with the steam engine would have been a much more enterprising area for interference in the Industrial Revolution, and it's even on the periphery of the novel. If Mr. Morse meant to imply that the "single event" theory was flawed, his writing simply fails to so imply. At best, this novel tries to show that changing this particular event was impossible; it doesn't do a good job of closing down alternatives, though, and that's simply inexcusable given the rich literature of alternative history that, through its successes and its failures, shows at least how to write about the subject.

Overall rating: 2 stars
This is the price of "slumming" by so-called "mainstream" writers who have not learned the hard lessons other writers in speculative fiction have already taught through their successes and failures. The initial concept for the novel is quite enchanting, but Morse utterly fails to match the characters he's created to the circumstances, and fails to match his circumstances to his initial concept. Not a truly bad book—it's better than the run-of-the-mill mainstream novel—but not much better than that, either.

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