Happy MerMay, my Literary Sea-Wyrms! In honor of both Short Story Month and the Instagram Mer art challenge, I’m going to review five mer-themed SciFi/Fantasy tales from the analog issues I mentioned in my Little Free Libraries post. These stories blend SciFi tropes like time and space travel, aliens, and sentient technology with “softer” speculative themes like folklore and psychological drama.
I’ll mainly focus on the most obviously sirenian tale, but I if you can find copies of these back issues, I also highly recommend the following:
“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand,” by Vonda N. McIntyre. Sticks and Stones issue. July/August 2020. A fable that demonstrates the connection between a culture’s reverence or fear of snakes and their general attitude toward nature — specifically, their understanding of natural medicine. This story first appeared in the October 1973 issue of analog and was one of those outstanding “outliers” that were chosen even though they focused more on mysticism and mythology than “hard” scientific principles.
I mean, of course I was drawn to a story about mystical snakes… And I’m tentatively putting Dreamsnake, the novel in which “Of Mist” eventually became the first chapter, on my TBR list.
“Sticks and Stones,” by Tom Jolly. Sticks and Stones issue. July/August 2020. A space saga about a crew sent to find Earth-like planets for future colonization and then barred from returning to Earth itself (something something alien bacteria, political maneuvers, etc). They end up in a strange solar system with only two discernible planets, and one of them is inhabited by an oddly humanoid species of squid. A future form of the Tobyverse’s Cephali, perhaps?
“Mimsy Were the Borogroves,” by Lewis Padget. Minerva Girls issue. September/October 2020. “Lewis Padget” was the pen-name of Catherine Moore and Henry Kuttner, who collaborated on this 1943 story about a boy who finds a geometric box full of weird toys by the river.
The toys spook his parents out, but enchant Scott and his little sister Emma, exerting an eerie influence on their minds. Meanwhile, some 80 years earlier, an English author writes a nonsensical story while sitting by the river, inspired by the little girl who plays with equally nonsensical toys beside him.
This is closer to sci-fi horror than the other stories, but in a very cerebral way. It blends math and fairy tales in a very esoteric way. Being barely math-literate myself, I can relate to the adults watching Scott and Emma solve problems with their “magic” toys (though I was both amused and disturbed by how often the parents turned to martinis to soothe their anxiety and confusion).
Maybe this is how other mathematicians felt while watching Maryam Mirzakhani (see the Little Free Libraries post) solve all those mind-bendingly abstract problems that had eluded them for ages.
“Minerva Girls,” by James Van Pelt. Minerva Girls issue. September/October 2020. Penny, Selena, and Jacqueline have been best friends since forever. In seventh grade, they McGyvered themselves a submarine/clubhouse out of a gas station storage tank, and called themselves the Minerva Girls — “three goddesses trapped in a middle school,” happier hanging out at the bottom of a quarry lake than at the mall or movie theater.
Now they’re spending their last summer before high-school planning their biggest extracurricular project yet: turning the submarine into a rocket so they can take a field trip to the moon. And they need to work fast; both Selena and Jacqueline are moving at the end of the summer, so this is going to be their last friendship adventure for a while.
Bookwyrms, you know how much I love a good middle-grade girl friendship story. Penny, Jacqueline, and Selena are so badass and relatable, wishing they could delay entering the adult world as long as possible. Wishing their teachers wouldn’t give them such a hard time for not being great at every subject. Wishing their parents would stop making all their decisions for them. And, btw, building submarines, video communicators, and moon rockets in their spare time.
This might even be a queer friendship story, since the narrator (Penny) vaguely hints that she and the other Minervas are asexual. Best of all, though, is the optimistic ending that validates the girls’ friendship as an ongoing phenomenon rather than giving us some bittersweet message about the inevitability of “growing up” and “giving up childish dreams.”
And now, our feature presentation!
While the above stories were more distantly related to water spirits, Sean McMullen’s “The Chrysalis Pool” is much more on-the-nose about its inspiration. There will be SPOILERS, but they’ll be clearly sectioned off after a general summary.
“The Chrysalis Pool,” by Sean McMullen. Minerva Girls issue. September/October 2020.
CW: references to suicide
How many scientists actually build the devices that make their discoveries? Not many. Most experimental equipment is assembled and operated by lab technicians. We are paid a lot less and are never recognized, but more often than not we are first to see the breakthrough results. For a few minutes, we stand alone on the edge of a new frontier, then we vanish from history. For me, there is no better feeling than being there first, and alone.Pg. 61
Lucian is a hardware specialist who receives a very unusual request from Alice Marshall, a psychologist whose patient is experiencing extremely vivid hallucinations. For the past two months, while jogging around the university campus at night, Leo Hawker has been haunted by a water nymph. Naked even on the coldest winter nights, she calls to him, beckoning him into the water.
Of course she never appears when there’s a camera — at least one that Leo himself is aware of — so Dr. Marshall wants Lucian to devise some other way to prove the nymph isn’t real. And she won’t agree to do anything unethical like hiding a camera on Leo without his knowledge.
So Lucian hides one anyway, in a tricked-out jogger’s cap built to track Leo’s brainwaves and location. What Dr. Marshall doesn’t know won’t get her fired, and it may even save Leo’s life. Or it might drive Lucian himself to do something reckless in the name of power and curiosity.
Dangerous Waters ahead.
This is one of those stories, like in The Emoticon Generation, where the What if? matters more than certain logistics. Like explaining why a doctor whose ethical standards are “a very high brick wall with razor wire on top” would not immediately call an ambulance after her patient nearly drowns in an icy pond in the middle of the night. A patient who might even be suicidal.
Of course, since the narrator himself sees ethical boundaries as “more of a speed bump,” it could be that Dr. Marshall’s bar isn’t as high as he implies; Lucian just sets his bar so low that anything else seems imposing. Marshall certainly doesn’t act like a paragon of conscientiousness by the end of the story.
Anyhoo, it’s what happens in the weeks after Leo’s near-drowning that matters. He starts to act more like the technically-royal descendant he is (something something King Edward, unofficial baby, yadda yadda…basically, he has enough princely DNA to make him an acceptable specimen of mermaid bait), in the most arrogant sense.
He’s more assertive, yes, but he also starts hanging out with “high-octane” jerks who think they’re entitled to cruise above the law in their factory-fresh Audis and Mercedes.
And Lucian, socially progressive gentleman that he is, thinks this is a change for the better. He thinks the Rusalka visions and the near-drowning experience are a neurological trigger for certain people — a way to wake up their dormant personalities, which then “hijack” the brain and turn the person into a more badass version of themselves.
He calls it a “neurochrysalis” that opens to reveal the mental caterpillar’s more glamorous evolution…except the butterfly personality is somehow separate from the original caterpillar personality? And the butterfly is also a mermaid?
Oh, and Lucian assumes the visions are tied to the most cliche gender roles — men being drawn to sexy women and women being drawn to children in danger or “wickedly alluring bad boy[s].”
Point being, Lucian wants in. So he manufactures a near-death experience for himself. And it works…but I love how McMullen makes it very ambiguous whether it really was a neurochrysalis that hijacked Lucian’s brain or whether he just started believing in himself.
The change in Leo seemed more sudden and extreme, but only because we don’t have access to his inner thoughts. He may have been more inclined toward arrogance than Dr. Marshall observed. Maybe Lucian’s initial suspicion was closer to the mark than his neuro-mythological hijacker theory —
I.e. Leo was sick of his dead-end job and his depressing personal life, and it was only a matter of time before he either took himself out with a Romantic bang (drowning while imagining himself “in the arms of a beautiful water nymph”) or decided to pursue a more exciting lifestyle. The meek jogger was just a mask.
Lucian, meanwhile, doesn’t even have an actual near-drowning on which to blame his newfound confidence. He never actually got in the water. He has a rare condition that makes him extremely sensitive to the cold, so he reasons that just standing at the edge of the frigid water, seeing the beckoning figure (who’s fully dressed in a lab coat this time), was enough to switch on his inner Rusalka (yes, I do love that this chauvinist is at least capable of imagining his inner #boss as a woman).
Or not? Lucian’s an unreliable narrator, but in a strangely half-aware-yet-not-quite way. He ends by asserting that, in fact, his decision not to enter the water means his inner Rusalka never did take over. It was his own original awesomeness that made him a success…
So. What do you think, Bookwyrms? Can we trust any of Lucian’s theories? Is this whole story — or at least the ending — a hypothermia dream?
And what are some of your favorite short mer-stories or nereid-vellas? Is the connection obvious or does it take some interpretation? Entice me with your best siren tales!
And if you’re in the mood for something cheekier and more whimsical, I highly recommend listening to The Mermaid Podcast’s #MerMay episodes from last year, in which Laura von Holt reads her original short stories based on artwork submitted to her personal #MerMay Challenge. You can even get a PDF copy of all three stories if you sign up for her newsletter.
Labyrinth screenshot from YouTube.
Arthur Rakham’s painting of Undine, from the book by Baron Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, found on WikiGallery.
“City folk just don’t get it” GIF from imgur.
Title card from Lindsey Ellis’ Beauty and the Beast remake review on YouTube.
That Nathan Fillion Castle GIF from giphy.