This Former NASA Intern Just Wrote The Best Sci-Fi Book of the Year: Monica Byrne on “The Girl in the Road”

A future where India is the major world superpower, gender is flexible, and energy comes from waves? This writer’s version of the near future feels much more real than apocalyptic nightmares we’ve come to dread.
Monica Byrne in India

Monica Byrne on a train to Mumbai during a research trip. Her debut novel, The Girl in the Road, casts a future where India is the world's new superpower. Photo courtesy of Monica Byrne.

When I asked Monica Byrne if she had always wanted to write novels, she told me she wanted to be an astronaut first: “I’ll come back from Mars then write the Great Whatever Novel.”

First, she worked at NASA. Then, she did postgraduate work in organic geochemistry at MIT—all the things that one must do to become an astronaut and travel to Mars.

She never ended up there, but the story of Byrne's transition from NASA to novelist and playwright highlights much about the woman who, as she wrote about her time at NASA, “craved extreme novelty and infinite variety.”

The Girl in the Road Book Cover

The Girl in the Road
Monica Byrne
Crown Publishing Group (NY)

In Mumbai, Meena flees her lover Mohini’s apartment after witnessing terrible violence. Afraid for her life, she begins the long, dangerous walk across "The Trail," an energy harvesting bridge connecting India and Africa. She is headed east, to Ethiopia, in search of her parents and her past.

Across Africa, in Mauritania, Mariama, a child born into slavery, also sets off on her own. She finds shelter with a caravan moving westward across the Sahara Desert for Addis Ababa ...

Byrne is eager to share her views about any subject that comes about, whether it’s environmentalism (“the environmental movement is mired in sentimentality”) or the progress of technology (“I'm typing this interview on a Mac Air, which would be a fucking miraculous godlike device ten years ago”).

Following her on Twitter or Facebook offers plenty of variety, too: She recently Skyped in to a book club taking place in Guatemala; I read something about her heading into a sensory deprivation chamber. And she’s soon headed to Iran for research on her next book which is set in a cave in Belize.

But it's her first book, a literary sci-fi novel called The Girl in the Road, released this summer, that I wanted to talk to her about. If that book contains anything, it's Byrne’s drive for extreme novelty and infinite variety.

The Girl in the Road is set in the second half of the 21st century, after geopolitical power has shifted to the East. India has replaced the United States as the world’s political and cultural superpower, and Africa is also on the rise. Byrne’s novel tells two overlapping stories, each of a young woman traveling to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa's new cultural capital.

Byrne's story is full of humanity—also, of love and violence and trauma—built around issues of our own day: Climate change and sea-level rise threaten coastal nations. Transgender and LGBT communities continue to fight for acceptance. The plot engine of The Girl in the Road is the horrors of violence, and the journeys undertaken by the protagonists take place in a world that remains dangerous for women.

 

And yet, despite the future setting and the violence found in The Girl in the Road, the book is not apocalyptic or fantastic. It takes place in a world that seems very plausible, if not optimistic. Clean energy technologies have been implemented. The world has undergone a new sexual revolution and gender and racial identities are somewhat embraced as fluid rather than static. Discovering the future world of The Girl in the Road feels as much like exploration as it does fantasy.

Byrne's pursuit of space travel ended when she was 24, but her eagerness for exploration remains obvious.

I wanted to learn more about this possible future, the woman who created it, and why so much of it involves contemporary issues.

Christopher Zumski Finke: I’m curious about how you got to The Girl in the Road, but I’d like to start all the way back if you don’t mind. Where did you grow up? What were your parents like?

Monica Byrne photo by Donald E. Byrne

Monice Byrne. Photo by Donald E. Byrne.

Monica Byrne: I grew up the youngest of five children in the tiny college town of Annville, Pennsylvania. My Dad taught religion, ethics, and American studies at Lebanon Valley College. We had a big old Victorian house a few blocks up the street. Our (Catholic) church was across the street. My best friends were all within a few blocks' walk. My house was like the professor's house in Narnia—we'd just explore for hours on end. We made a clubhouse in the loft of the old stable on the property, where we uncovered horse bones. I was bussed to Catholic school at Our Lady of the Valley in the neighboring city of Lebanon.

Zumski Finke: What was Annville like?

Byrne: In many ways very conservative, but I always had a sense of a wider world and a much more progressive politics, which came first from my parents (progressive Jesuits both), and my siblings inherited and expanded on that.

Zumski Finke: Tell me about childhood in The Professor's house.

Byrne: It was an idyllic childhood in pretty much every way, except one, which was that my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was seven. She had it removed, but both the operation and the radiation treatment caused major damage that made her condition progressively worsen. She first lost her vision, then her mental presence, then her mobility. During my adolescence I effectively stopped talking to her because I felt so furious at losing her, and so guilty for feeling furious, and didn't know how to express any of it, so I just focused on being a perfect student. She was bedridden by the time I was 16. She died when I was 20.

She was such an extraordinary woman and I can't overstate how much the loss of her has affected me.

Zumski Finke: Did you always plan to write novels?

Writing and art and making up stories always came so naturally to me, that I discounted them.

Byrne: In the years when I wanted to be an astronaut (14-24), writing novels was always a facetious afterthought, as in, "I'll come back from Mars and THEN write the Great Whatever Novel, ha ha ha." I couldn't allow that to be what I actually wanted to do. It may sound weird, but writing and art and making up stories always came so naturally to me, that I discounted them. I thought I should do something with my life that was hard for me, not something that came naturally.

Zumski Finke: The Girl in the Road is about the overlapping journey of two young women who have suffered, directly or indirectly, terrible violence. But it is also about climate change, the energy crisis, LGBT equality, trans acceptance, over-reliance on technology, and more.

It seems like a very modern book, socially and thematically. Did you intend to be this inclusive about social issues? Climate change?

Byrne: On a personal level, I feel much more strongly about social issues than environmental ones. The Girl in the Road reflects a changing world. It's always been changing, and will continue to change.

As for social issues, that was a very conscious theme of The Girl in the Road. I was writing the future I both wanted to live in and could reasonably expect to exist, 50 years from now. It's far from perfect—some things are better, like energy diversity; but exploitation of the weak is still a global theme, and while queer identity may be accepted in Thrissur [part of India that has broadly accepted the trans community in the novel], it's not necessarily in the rest of India, or the rest of the world.

But there are lots of little things I was conscious of—like, for example, making a lot of the default pronouns/incidental characters female. Because I'm a conditioned animal, like we all are—I'd first conceive of the character as male. Then I'd ask myself, "Any reason why the character has to be male?" The answer was almost always, "No." So I'd change it. I'm writing the code for the future I want to see.

Zumski Finke: You were conscious about the social issues you included. Are you drawn to them personally?

Byrne: For sure. I'm a queer woman. I'm honestly not sure how I could live in this world and not be drawn to these issues personally. I live them, daily.

Zumski Finke: Can you share a little about how you got involved in these issues?

Byrne: I don't see it as a process of "getting involved," which to me is a framing that bespeaks the privilege of not having to live it day in and day out. It would take a whole book to describe how being female has circumscribed my experience of the world, and therefore, the art I make.

The Girl in the Road reflects a changing world. It's always been changing, and will continue to change.

I mean, where would I start? Where I wrote an editorial in my high school newspaper about the wrongness of domestic abuse, and got food thrown at me in the cafeteria for a week? Where my graduate school adviser at MIT had an unspoken policy of not taking women into the field because he "didn't feel comfortable with them"? Where I went on a research trip for my next novel this past spring and a guide who was supposed to be helping me held me down and forced my legs open in front of his friends as part of an elaborate joke I didn't realize was happening until it was happening? And those are just the macro-aggressions. Just from being female. Micro-aggressions happen on a daily basis, and have, for 33 years. There's no way I can't be "involved in these issues."

I can say that I've had a family that's been nothing but supportive of me. My dad is wonderful; he never told me there was anything I couldn't do. When I told him in college that I was in love with a woman, he didn't bat an eye.

I learned feminism from my sisters. We were politically progressive and socially liberal in a conservative town. My mom headed the local chapter of Amnesty International, and would go to church on Thursday nights to hold meetings and letter-writing sessions. She went out of her way to befriend those in our (very small, very white) community who she thought might feel lost or out of place, especially immigrants. I remember a Bangladeshi woman named Dilsud, in particular, sitting very stiffly on our living room couch in her resplendent sari. Mom was acting from both compassion and curiosity. I very much feel like I got, from her, a similar curiosity—befriending whatever is strange to me, whether it be new places or new people or new philosophies, and absorbing it, making it not-strange.

Zumski Finke: In the book, as you mention above, transgender individuals have received cultural acceptance in portions of India. Why did you decide to include trans issues in such detail?

Byrne: It wasn't necessarily a choice to address trans issues qua trans issues. Trans issues are human issues. It's just who Mohini [a trans character in The Girl in the Road] turned out to be. I have trans friends, so Mohini reflects the community I live in.

Zumski Finke: Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories are extremely popular right now. But I read elsewhere you did not want to create an apocalyptic future for The Girl in the Road? Why not?

I'm writing the code for the future I want to see.

Byrne: Besides just being an overdone literary trope, I just don't see apocalypse happening the way people seem to fantasize it happening. To me it's far more interesting to experience (and describe) the future as a slow taffy stretching from the present.

I'm only 33, but that's what it looks like so far. We're still here. We intermix more. We clash more. We're becoming ever more human. That journey of increments is far more interesting to me.

Zumski Finke: So would you say you are optimistic about our collective future? For example, do you think that some of the creative technological solutions to climate change that you envision in your book are possible?

Byrne: As far as lives on this planet go, I have a really comfortable and easy one. So when I answer whether I'm optimistic about our collective future—and my first instinct is to say "yes"—I have to own that that's where my answer comes from.

I think the climate solutions described in The Girl in the Road are absolutely possible, with the (some might say cynical) caveat that they'll happen when they become an economic necessity, and not a moment before. That's the only explanation I can come up with for why we're not all already solar-powered. Peak oil is coming, or peaking, or has already passed, but we're all still in a dreamy dream of endless abundance.

Meanwhile, the smart businesspeople and smart scientists are a step ahead, figuring out how to scale up and profit from new models. Unfortunately the climate is already jacked. We'll watch the unprecedentedly violent thunderstorms from our solar-powered rocking chairs.

Mary in Ethiopia photo by Monica Byrne

"The woman is in every place." —The Girl in the Road
A paper icon of Mary stuck in a corner of a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Photo by Monica Byrne.

Zumski Finke: In the novel, the balance of global power has shifted away from the United States and Western nations and moved to India and Africa. What led you to that reframing?

Byrne: It's just what I see already happening in the world, in terms of population growth, economic development, mass-produced technology, reverse brain drain, and so forth. So I thought it was a plausible extrapolation to say the effect has grown by 2068.

We're still here. We intermix more. We clash more. We're becoming ever more human.

There's also a dash of contrarianism and wish-fulfillment in there, too, of course! I loved India and I loved Africa. I love what is strange to me and have a really difficult time with people who are afraid of what is strange to them. I find that attitude a lot in the States, and especially among the people I grew up with, so it's a form of me saying, "Get used to it."

Zumski Finke: Your fictional future seems very possible to me. How much effort did you put into making it realistic?

Byrne: I put a lot of effort into figuring out a realistic future. But it's so hard to predict. I've lived through (and continue to live through?) a burst of technology and connectivity that is probably unprecedented in human history. It's hard to know whether we've reached a plateau, or whether innovation will continue to accelerate at a similar pace for the next several decades.

But I make one baseline assumption, which is: We'll still be human. We'll always be human. Human nature stays the same. In Thomist terminology, the accidents may change, but the substance does not. So I can write about humans in 30,000 B.C. (as Kim Stanley Robinson did in Shaman) or 30,000 A.D., and the song remains the same.