Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.
S. L. Huang’s The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist is a novelette put out by one of my favourite blogger-fanzine-publishers (they keep expanding! Where do they find the time?), the Book Smugglers. I bought one of their limited run of print copies, of which I believe a small number of the run are still available, because it’s rather a pretty little edition.
Huang’s novelette is a strange little piece, narrated in first person, some present, some past tense. The narrator is The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist of the title, and has the voice to match; precise, at times frustrated with popular thinking and approach to her field and discipline, but with a combination of cold logical admiration and loving feelings towards her subjects. This book really is about the scientific process from her point of view; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge, how we go about fundamentally anthropological pursuits, how we attempt to communicate with and understand other cultures. It’s a brilliant approach to an inverted Little Mermaid retelling, because it stops it being a Little Mermaid retelling – that is, one doesn’t realise until the end that that is what is happening (especially given the resistance of the narrator to the terms “mermaid” and “siren”).
The plot, as the end of that paragraph gives away, is conventional; or rather, a twist on convention, and then another twist. The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist plays with the Little Mermaid story, changes and alters it in interesting ways to provoke more thoughtful, interesting ethical questions, twists it on its head; Huang neatly uses the viewpoint of an increasingly undisinterested scientist struggling to come to terms with the loss of her objectivity to ask the reader questions about love, about sexuality, about humanity, about what one would and should give up. It’s a neatly done trick, and the use of the varying tenses gives a real sense of immediacy to the present tense, since it so readily distinguishes “real-time” narration from retrospective thoughts.
This is also a deliciously queer novelette. The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist has a lesbian protagonist and one of the main secondary characters is nonbinary in some sense, using the pronoun ze/hir; while the homosexuality of the protagonist provided a faultline with her family in the past, the enby scientist is presented as having a happy home life, being a competent scientist, and hir gender has no bearing on hir approach to science, except for a rejection of simplistic presentations of sex and gender when communicating how human society works. The way Huang works in the queerness is subtle and beautifully affirming and brings warmth to the heart of this enby.
All in all, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist is an excellent example of what a novelette can do that a novel perhaps might not so well; S. L. Huang has here produced a brilliant science fictional reworking of The Little Mermaid that is the perfect length for what she wished to convey.
DISCLOSURE: I am friends with the Book Smugglers, and have met them in person and drunk with them on multiple occasions. This book was purchased at full price.
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