Humans live deep within an apparently lifeless planet covered by massive ice sheets. Having to survive in confined spaces has bred a unique culture where deference and non-confrontation make co-existence possible.
Osaji’s opportunities are limited by the need to care for her aging grandmother. But all that is about to change as circumstances push her toward a journey like no other.
Arkfall is one of those pieces of fiction that seems to be reaching for a Golden Age sensibility – both of science fiction, with its sense of discovery and the new, and of exploration, with its rather more immediate sense of discovery. Gilman’s story certainly draws very strongly on both sensibilities, but is also a more modern work than that might imply.
There are two plotlines to Arkfall; one is the mutual adjustment to life on Ben of Osaji, our protagonist, who is a native to the planet but struggling with the collective-good model of society and the stifling impact of familial responsibilities, and Scrappin’ Jack, a spacer merc who strikes the reader as something of a caricature of an American pioneer. This is a problem for the work; Osaji seems to be an attempt to represent Native American cultures and traditions, but without any real depth or thought put into that, as a foil for Scrappin’ Jack, something reinforced by Gilman’s reference to Lewis and Clark in the introduction to this edition of the novella. That approach flattens out and completely fictionalises Native American culture insofar as it is at all present in the first place, which is only minimally at best; unfortunate because this is actually quite an interesting plotline as we watch these two intensely different characters negotiate the necessities of living together and interacting, and see how the compromises between them evolve.
The second plotline of Arkfall, and perhaps its subsidiary plotline, is actually the better and more emotionally impactful, and that is watching Osaji care for her grandmother, Mato, as she sinks further into dementia. This is presented beautifully, sympathetically, and honestly; while some of the most visceral scenes that can ensue are left out of the text, the increasing loss of self brought on by dementia, the disconnection from the world, the pain of watching someone fade away and stop being themselves, are all conveyed expertly and with a real sensitivity to the way that this can bring about an awful lot of pain for all involved. Gilman manages to not sentimentalise dementia nor to make it into some strange, alien, other thing, instead striking a difficult balance between the two that represents a more honest reality.
Had Arkfall been about Mato and Osaji, or even Mato, Osaji and Scrappin’ Jack, it would have been a wonderful, painful story, the kind of short piece that sticks with one; as it is, that unfortunately gets lost in the very problematic and somewhat messy wider story of cultural negotiations that has serious problems.