Architects and engineers, with their geometry and aesthetics, physics and mathematics, would seem the natural stuff of science fiction. (And indeed, someone like Kim Stanley Robinson has capitalized fully.) It’s thus a more difficult trick to insert one into a fantasy story. Upping the ante further, Kij Johnson added romance to the mix and penned her elegant 2011 novella The Man Who Bridged the Mist.
The Man Who Bridged the Mist is the story of Kit Meinem, an engineer sent by the Empire to take control of a bridge project already begun between the towns of Nearside and Farside. The bridge to span a quarter-mile gulf of what the locals call mist, it takes some time for him to get a ride across the temperamental mist from the ferry-women Rasali to takeover the project, the conditions needing to be just right to attempt the dangerous crossing. Competent only beginning to describe Kit, his eventual arrival on the far shore sees him deftly handling the takeover and management of the teams working on the foundations, suspension materials, and towers. The bridge a major new facet to life in Nearside and Farside, it’s the people, as they live with the dangerous mist and the just as dangerous construction of the bridge, that Kit must handle, however.
Ebbing smoothly like the ocean, Johnson has full control of the narrative of The Man Who Bridged the Mist. The syntax, the pacing, the technical details—each fit into place, resulting in a poignant story that sets a weight upon the heart at the last page. The only weak point is the occasional maudlin lines which pop up. Contrived ideas like: “After a while, Kit noticed that a large part of the pattern that made a bridge or a tower was built entirely out of people” come and go, reminding the reader that this is not the most profound of stories, but one to be enjoyed with a cup of tea and a blanket.
Thus if I have any reservations about the story, it would have to be its fairy tale undertones. Certainly the bridge is a tactile, concrete element the story depends upon, and the small town details of life have a proper quotidian feel. But Kit seems a larger than life character—a Hallmark presentation as it were, as does the relationship that develops between he and Rasali. And all this is not to mention the (semi-)trite decision on which the story closes. But that is the stuff of romance, and is perhaps to be expected, so one must be thankful Johnson did not wade too deeply into the waters of mush.
In the end, The Man Who Bridged the Mist is quality storytelling that achieves emotional resonance. Johnson has written more literary, more sophisticated works, making the novella a story to relax into and enjoy for its bittersweet mood. The symbolism of the bridge used in rather overt fashion, the story built on top and the smooth prose guiding the narrative nevertheless have enough substance to see it through the waters of over-sentimentalism—though they do lap threateningly at the gunnels at times.