This week, a little special edition from Book Smugglers Publishing arrived at my house and made lying in bed all day a bit more bearable. I know it was a limited print run, but I still find it so charming that the Book Smugglers included a personalised thank you note and a bookmark. The story itself was also wonderful, although it took me a while to get into it.
THE LITTLE HOMO SAPIENS SCIENTIST
by S. L. Huang
Published by: Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016
Paperback: 70 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: Dr. Alan Zanga is to blame for this.
A dark retelling of The Little Mermaid from the author of HUNTING MONSTERS
I suppose if this is going to be recorded somewhere for posterity, I should set the record straight. The ghostwriter will probably cut it all, but hey, it’s the principle of the thing.
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 still 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.
If you’re remotely interested in fairy tales, you know that Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end the Disney way. Most of us know that and expect retellings of this story to be just as sad. But knowing that going in can also make us blunt to retellings of this melancholy tale because… well, we know the mermaid won’t be happily married to her prince, so why even get emotionally invested, right? S. L. Huang found the perfect way to bring back all the horror and gravity of what the protagonist does to become someone else, as well as twist the knife she puts in your gut right at the end. I can’t say it was a happy experience but it was damn well done!
Caddie Mbella has one passion in life: the study of the atargati (don’t call them mermaids!), a deep-sea species that baffles scientists all around the world. Caddie happens to be very good at what she does. In fact, she is the only one who can sing the way the atargati sing and is thus able to communicate with the “mermaids”. But of course, the government sticks their fingers in what could otherwise be beautiful science, kidnaps an atargati and keeps her in captivity for further study (and who knows what else). Caddie can’t bear the thought o fit and frees the atargati, knowing that from now on she has to live the rest of her life on the run. She takes that risk gladly, except without her studies, without the atargati, she has nothing left. A quick visit to a witch doctor, some DNA-manipulation, and you can see where this flipped Little Mermaid tale is going.
There were several things that made me absolutely adore this retelling and one thing that bothered me a bit. I loved that Caddie is a lesbian kick-ass scientist (in case any Puppies are reading this: although there absolutely doesn’t need to be a reason for Caddie to be gay, it is truly important for the story!) whose passion for her job shines through in her entire narration. At first, it may feel a tiny bit like a lecture, but then again Huang is introducing a whole new species to her readers, and a bit of background knowledge is totally appreciated. The fact that Caddie delivered it only helped to flesh out her character while doing that crucial bit of initial world building. And the atargati are fascinating! They resemble human females just enough to have earned the name “mermaid” in the wider world, but they are sight-less, genderfluid species who communicate through underwater song. I found learning about them as interesting as Caddie.
However, that introduction was also my one issue with the novella (or novelette?). Because we have to learn all this information at the beginning, I didn’t really connect with the plot that much. My interest was there, but there was no emotional connection to either Caddie or the atargati yet and that made the book feel somewhat slow at first.
That all changes, however, when Caddie frees the captive atargati, has to go on the run, and eventually finds that witch doctor who can turn her into a sort of mutated atargati – with an expected life span of a few months, at best. That was where the emotional hooks finally took hold of me and it was also the first time since I was a kid that I truly felt how gigantic the decision Caddie makes really is – and how equally big the original little mermaid’s decision was (I mean, giving up your species is pretty heavy shit). As it becomes clear that Caddie has lost her purpose in life she pretty much agrees to go on a suicide mission, paved with pain and loss, for one chance to see the creatures she loves so much, live with them and learn from them. Remember when the sea witch tells the little mermaid how every step will hurt like she’s walking on knives? Oh, and how she loses her voice? Those bits are brilliantly incorporated into “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist” and the loss of the voice especially becomes one of the most painful things for Caddie to endure.
S. L. Huang does a wonderful job of describing the underwater world of the atargati. Considering that Caddie is now missing both her sight and her ability to speak/sing, you’d think there wasn’t much left to tell. But I found the descriptions of atargati society fascinating! It was also the part of the story that let Caddie shine as a character and even offered a sort of romance. And then the ending came and it absolutely broke my heart! Even though I knew it wouldn’t end well – at least if it was a faithful retelling – it still hit me really hard, like a knife being turned in a wound. I may or may not have cursed out loud while reading it…
All things considered, I really loved this version of The Little Mermaid, how it is both simple and clever in the way it translates the old fairy tale to a near future world. Iliked the author’s Hunting Monsters stories but I loved The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, and I am hoping very much she’ll give us more fairy tale retellings. So here’s my plea to the Book Smugglers and S. L. Huang: Please, can I have some more?
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent