Now we come to Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” from Asimov’s. You can read it here.
This is a lovely story — actually, a love story, and few other things besides. Kit Meinem, of the capital city of Empire, arrives at the small town of Nearside, which is situated on the great mist river that divides the land in half. The mist flows through a deep gorge, and in the mist swim creatures, from very small to very large. The mist, the creatures, and the measurelessly deep gorge are all inimical to people — the mist itself is caustic, and the creatures will attack any unfortunate who falls in. If someone does fall in, he is presumed to be eaten before he reaches the bottom, although in truth no one knows what the depths are like.
The only way across the river is by ferry, a dangerous passage, for the mist can suddenly open holes in which a boat will sink, or form into steep hills that will overturn a vessel. And then there are the Great Ones, the largest of the creatures of the mist — they may come to the surface unpredictably, to a ferry’s ruin. Kit has come to build a bridge over the mist.
On the day of his arrival, Kit meets, and soon falls in love with, Rasali Ferry, the woman who ferries people across the quarter-mile-wide river of mist. She is confident and capable, but, as the story progresses, there are suggestions that her delays in ferrying are not because the mist speaks to her, as the townspeople say, telling her when it’s safe to cross, but because she is as much afraid of the mist as anyone else. Kit and Rasali’s love remains unspoken for a long time; after all, Kit is only supposed to stay for as long as it takes to build the bridge, and Rasali expects to be as short-lived as the rest of her family members who preceded her in her job of operating the ferry.
The fact that boats will float on the mist makes this story a hybrid fantasy/science fiction, I suppose. But, this premise aside, the spirit of the story is firmly SF, in the character of the protagonist, and in the character of the world. Mist is a natural phenomenon to be overcome by engineering and science. Engineers work with the physical properties of stone and metal, bedrock and windforce. The terror and majesty of the Great Ones are memorably encountered several times, in fleeting and suggestive half-glimpses, the first time when the sound of blasting disturbs them from the depths:
Behind the levee the river mist was rising, dirty gray-gold against the steel gray of the clouds in a great boiling upheaval, at least a hundred feet high, to be seen over the levee. The mist was seething, breaking open in great swirls and rifts, and everything moving, changing. Kit had seen a great fire once, when a warehouse of linen had burned, and the smoke had poured upward and looked a little like this… Gaps opened in the mountain of mist and closed; and others opened, darker the deeper they were. And through those gaps, in the brown-black shadows at the heart of the mist, was movement.
The mist subsides: the terror and the majesty are being defeated by a man of orderly mind and habits, and by his bridge, the greatest bridge that has ever been built, although it will soon be surpassed as technology advances and new projects are carried out. All is progress and Empire is forward-looking and growing.
If there are any dark satanic mills producing the iron supports, bolts, and chains for the construction, we are not allowed to see them.
This is a subtle story and its explorations into character, progress, and love are fascinating and well crafted. Kit adds another professional achievement to his resume, but Rasali’s job will no longer be needed. What does Rasali gain? She gains more than one thing: first, rather than a release from danger, an opportunity to risk her life in further exploration, plus a companion who will leave behind his blueprints, but not his rational, always-analyzing mind.