THE IRON BRIDGE
By David Morse
436 pp., $25
Unlike the universe, most things don't start with a big bang. In fact, most beginnings are subtle, but we prefer definitive starts. This week's Fourth of July holiday is a good example of that tendency to extract and enshrine a single moment from the swirl of history.
David Morse's engaging new novel, "The Iron Bridge," forces us to consider the complex forces that converge to change the world.
In the rapidly growing tradition of apocalyptic fiction, Morse's story begins in a future decimated by war and modern technology. The scientists in Ecosophia, a small commune of survivors, have decided to redirect human history by tampering with a crucial moment in the past.
They send a young woman named Maggie to Shropshire, England, in 1773. Her mission is to introduce a small error into the design of the world's first iron bridge. She hopes that a dramatic collapse of this proud monument will stunt the Industrial Revolution and push humanity toward less deadly applications of technology.
Materializing naked in an 18th-century English village, Maggie passes herself off as a widow from the colonies who's been accosted by robbers. Over the course of many months, she works her way into the home of a young Quaker named Abraham Darby, who owns the largest iron works in the world.
Readers might wonder why the historians in Ecosophia didn't send a man back to this highly chauvinistic culture, but Maggie does her best to exercise what little influence a woman could.
Much of the novel's best chapters concern Maggie's torn motives, her efforts to complete the mission while treating her kind hosts with respect and love. Ironically, though she's trapped in the heavy confines of the past, Maggie finds a kind of freedom she never enjoyed in her own anarchistic future.
Unfortunately, the novel's sexual content makes it inappropriate for young readers who would otherwise enjoy this story.
Morse's extraordinary talent is for history, not science fiction. In his 21st century, the rivers are poisoned, the earth is burnt, and everyone talks like a radio show therapist, but fortunately most of the novel stays in the past. His depiction of 18th-century England provides the closest thing to time travel we've got at the moment. And he perfectly conveys the fascination of shaping and controlling the "liquid sun" of molten metal.
The real heat in this novel, however, stems from the history of ideas, not iron. The Quaker ironmakers of this period found themselves in the forge of a horrible conflict between their product and their opposition to war. After all, nothing influenced the price of iron in the 18th century more than political conflicts. Young Abraham Darby struggles to maintain his purity from other war profiteers, but the marketplace, like history, doesn't easily allow for such clean separations.
As Maggie grows more devoted to the Darby family and their doctrine of the Inner Light, she realizes that deflecting history is more complex and more personal than she and her future comrades ever supposed. Suspense drives the book's plot as plans for this original iron bridge lurch forward, but ultimately the real action takes place in the "awful silence" of Maggie's personal commitment to help others.
With this first novel, Morse has quickly established himself as a writer about the past to watch for in the future.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.