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2021 Hugo Award Series – Short Story Category
Read Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Mermaid Astronaut” published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies on February 27, 2020 in Issue #298: Science-Fantasy Month 5.
Minimal Spoiler Review
“The Mermaid Astronaut” is a delightful mix of The Little Mermaid and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Semley’s Necklace”1. Its main character, Essarala, is unsurprisingly a mermaid who becomes a crew member of a spaceship. At its core, the story explores the interaction between personal ambition and its consequences, both wonderful and tragic.
Lee writes the story as a conventional narrative with the fantastical flourish of fairy tales. Combined with the lavish décor and succinct strings of setting descriptions seen through Essarala’s perspective, this reader (that’s me) felt that the much sought after sensawunda. What makes this so effective, to my mind’s eye, is the clean and poetic prose which dives into Essarala’s mind and heart. Her travels interact with memory and new friends. Grounded in her feelings of adventure, the reader is likely to share those sensations.
As a last note before the spoiler-y bits, perhaps what I appreciated most is the kindness and gentle love of family and friendship that permeates the story. The conflict doesn’t come from any hateful or hurtful character actions, and it’s a relief to read a story that achieves this while maintaining its impact.
I hope that’s not saying too much, in itself. If you haven’t already, you can read the story—just a smidge under 6000 words—and scroll past the spoiler jump image for more in-depth thoughts on the story.
1 a.k.a. “The Dowry of Angyar”, this short story was the first piece of the Hainish Cycle to be published, and later served as the prologue to the novel Rocannon’s World (1966).
Spoiler Content Below
Now, first I want to defend the stance that my “Semley’s Necklace” mention isn’t a spoiler:
Whether or not you’ve read “Semley’s Necklace” is unimportant. Le Guin’s story is another science fantasy tale dealing with time dilation, but unlike its predecessor, Lee takes the reader’s knowledge of time dilation as a given. The grace is in how Lee molds this expectation to work double for those stray few who might not put together the consequences of nearly-as-fast-as-light (NAFAL) space travel. For those familiar with time dilation, the reminders of Essarala’s parting from her home world function as dramatic irony; for the unfamiliar few, these moments foreshadow the tragedy of the witch’s price.
Essarala’s sacrifice is one likely familiar to many readers, though under its more “normal” permutations: acceptance to a great school or exciting job far from home. On an even more basic level, Essarala’s conflict represents the exchange of time many people make as adults, removed from familial settings and shifting into another stage of life.
This story wants to tell its readers that family and self-actualization–the sacrifices so many make to improve themselves—have mutually beneficial value. Its main message, in my reading, is that these life values don’t negatively impact each other, but rather Like the bristling future space-farers in Lee’s story, the exchanges made—while difficult—have a positive impact for both sides.
Another triumph of this story is the magnitude of world building present in a mere 6000 words. Lee allows readers to infer a larger scope through specific details. The mers are matriarchal, and is suggested to be a female-only society. Many other sea-faring societies are mentioned, painting the picture of an ocean full of cross-species civilizations who all participate in a peaceful coexistence with one another. And while space isn’t totally peaceful—a gunnery officer to protect against pirate attacks is mentioned in passing—the overall picture is one of inclusivity, exchange, and sharing the wonders of the galaxy with those far from and close to home.
The last remark I’ll make is that I have the distinct feeling this is a story that means something different to every reader. Let me know what it means to you in the comments, and if you need to check it out again, I’d encourage you to (re-)read Lee’s story.
– Chris Airiau
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