This week we’re doing Helen Keeble’s A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc-or-A Lullaby. This one got nominated for a World Fantasy award, a nomination it definitely deserved. This story is poignant and beautiful and has one of the more interesting treatments of mermaids I’ve ever seen. I’m fan of mermaids, so doing neat things with them is always a win.
That said, I think the major strength of this story is the choice Keeble made about the two narrators. This story is rife with “halfness.” At the beginning, Professor Boswell is halfway to modern sensibilities on the subject of mermaids: he believes in the possibility of their intelligence, but he’s willing to take them prisoner and murder children for dissection in order to prove it. Sunlight-Reaching-Deep is similarly willing to accept that humans have agency and could be benign in intent, but doesn’t accept that they have any capacity for communication or compassion. The story we get is their mutual journey from this half-ness to an fuller understanding of their counterpart. It succeeds so well because of how their journeys work in paralell.
The first step in their journey is the disposition of the eggs. Prof Boswell has to get around to even recognizing them for what they are and the value his specimen will place on them. Meanwhile, Sunlight-Reaching-Deep makes up a story that winds up foreshadowing the whole arc of the story. The eggs/children wind up being the medium that catalyzes their mutual journey and serves as the bridge for their understanding. Boswell sees humanity in the concern centered around the eggs, SRD accepts that even a grave threat can be mitigated by accepting ignorance and benign intent. It’s not much yet, but it’s a flag of openness on both their parts to going further – there’s something to work with here. This signalling is really important because otherwise, the Professor would be unlikely to survive reader judgement, and his observations of SRD give the audience the visual cues needed to ground the lyrical POV sections we’re getting.
That initial step, though, is followed by mutual doubt. The Prof doesn’t make any immediate break through in communication. Not all of the eggs are returned and the living circumstances are not good ones. The Prof does as he would and doubles down on his scientific endeavors, trusting his faith in his hypotehsis to get him through. Meanwhile, SRD is doing everything he can to deny the circumstances, changing what we know must have been a tragic ending for the eggs to a tragic ending for the “half-maid.” This doubt introduces a vulnerability in both characters that helps endear them to the audience, but it also creates the space within the story for the idea of change – the story’s ending can be altered, the hypothesis shifted. So even as confidence in the journey wavers, we’re affirming the potential for its success. And of course, by the end of that section the plot rewards us for that affirmation of hope: the mermaids have arrived, supporting the Prof’s theory and giving SRD hope of rescue.
The lovely irony there, of course, being that the Prof is going to be less willing to let SRD or the eggs go if they’ll support his theory, and that rescue for SRD is bad news for the Prof. From such tension is the break between two parts of a story made.
With the second part we have the watershed moment. Our catalyst-bridge hatches and disaster ensues. SRD is completely grief-stricken to see all of his children slaughtered and the Prof interprets helplessness and despair as indifference. The journey is arrested while both give over to doubt, which makes perfect sense now that the mechanism that had been powering the journey has been removed from the story. (Also, how fantastically macabre is it to picture floating in your children’s blood? Nice!) This is where the story enters “Screw mutual understanding, we’re killing us some Other,” territory. The merfolk definitly get the upper hand on that phase of the journey, but given the stakes involved – an entire, utterly forgettable boat versus five rare indiiduals – that’s okay.
Then children come back on the scene, the separated eggs start hatching. This is one of the little scientific details I really love about this stoy. In nature, clutches of eggs have signalling mechanisms they’ll use so that they’ll all hatch around the same time, so having the isolated eggs come out of sync with the rest makes a great deal of sense as well as being convenient for the narrative. I have no idea whether Keeble was coming from a “Did her research” perspective, but she got the details right which makes reader me happy.
Anyway, the kids are back and, like ninjas, more potent in smaller numbers. There are only four of the total sixteen, but they live. They live more successfully than they would without the Prof’s meddling. SRD is back on board for the journey. Unfortunately, the Prof hasn’t gotten the memo that path to mutual understanding is open for business again and is about to blow it up when, wham!, Jack to the rescue.
Halfness and mutuality are our driving themes through this story, right? It wouldn’t work if the egg/child catalyst-bridge mechanism were entirely one-sided. We need a human child to enter the scene or it would be the merfolk doing all the contributing to the plot engines and that wouldn’t be fair or just – this would be an icky story about natives caving in the facing of onrushing colonialsim/imperialism instead of a tale of mutual progress and understanding. Sucks to be Jack since he’s the only human kid around to offer up to the plot engines, but hey, he’d have been extraneous and never gotten even his short fictional life otherwise. And I’m pretty sure that if the Prof had either ether or the gumption required to keep Jack from suffering the human contribution to the cause wouldn’t have been pricey enough for fair play, so the kid not only had to die, but had to do it slowly and painfully. Something we should all keep in mind when signing up for fictional existences.
SRD winds up losing twelve kids and his freedom, but in exchange he gets the chance to save uncountable future children. The Prof loses Jack, several valuable specimens, and his clean conscience, but he gets vindication on this theories and the opportunity to have the scientific fame he wants. Each learns to value the other. But, and here’s the reason this story stands above similar stories, halfness is still the theme of the day. We’ve haven’t achieved mutually comprehensible utopia, and we’re not even promising it. SRD still thinks the Prof is crippled and insane. The Prof almost certainly thinks SRD is, at best, equivlaent to a “savage” (and a female one, no less!). But there will be interaction, learning, and less slaughter going forward, so while we’re not there yet, there’s the opportunity of getting there.
Then again, we’re out of eggs and kids, so either they’re going to have to find a new mechanism, or this whole endeavor is about to end badly.
Next week: Brief Candle by Jason K. Chapman.
Then Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu.
Followed by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber.