The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, by S.L. Huang

In a modern interpretation of the epistolary novel, S.L. Huang’s 2016 novella, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist examines one of the oldest unknowns, the vast depths of our own ocean system.  Drawing from myths of mermaids as old as sea travel, this story is one of first contact, politics, and, in its way, love.

Told from the perspective of Cadence Mbella by some  unknown writer, it is made up of recordings of her own subvocalizations during the time that she attempts contact with a recently discovered species of intelligent sea creatures who leave so deep in the ocean that they can’t even see, but communicate and sense in other ways.  But something goes wrong when a militarized group attempts to circumvent her research and instead kidnap one of the so-called mermaids.

This sets off a series of events that eventually leads Dr. Mbella back to the sea, to discover, as deeply as a human can, the extent of the Atargati way of life.

Despite its short length, the novella manages to present the reader with a lot to consider; from its in medias res beginning to its heartbreaking and eye-opening conclusion, the language Huang uses to tell the story is some of the most evocative in the contemporary SF canon.  This is one of those stories that redefines what it is to be human, what science is, and how we think about myth and culture.

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Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is downright confusing
to read for the first hundred or so pages.  And that’s entirely the point.  In a universe-spanning tale of action and intrigue, Leckie
confronts—and forces the reader to confront—the idea of knowledge, particularly
self-knowledge, and how we can truly know anything, particularly ourselves.

Breq,
as she refers to herself, is a person trekking across the universe on a
personal quest.  She is also a
ship, the Justice of Toren, in the
imperial fleet, watching everything her crew does.  She is the mind not only of the ship itself, but also of a
thousand bodies who assist her officers in their duties, maintain order, and
above all serve Anaander Mianaai.           

Jumping
straight over the how of creating
real artificial intelligence and giving it emotion to boot, Leckie takes up the
ethics of the act.  In putting a
ship’s ancillaries—those human bodies who have been refitted to and connected
to the greater mind of the ship—in direct opposition to the ship itself, its
officers, ad the people of annexed worlds, Leckie explores how self-knowledge
is truly created and understood. 
Do we as contemporary humans understand ourselves wholly from a
subjective viewpoint, or only as separate and opposite from those around us, be
they  either sentient or
non-sentient?  She obliquely, and
then directly through one of the characters Breq encounters, asks whether
creating intelligence also creates a soul, and a separate will.

In
a story in which half the characters are different iterations of the same
person, Leckie does an outstanding job at characterization, imbuing her main
characters with that something that
makes a character unique and alive. 
Other than Breq, who is the point-of-view, Leckie doesn’t attempt to get
into the heads of her characters, letting their actions and interactions tell
their stories.  As in life, what is
assumed, what is said about someone, often tells just as much as the truth.

Readers
who enjoy modern space opera and military science fiction will enjoy Leckie’s
vision of a far-future inter-galactic empire, particularly those who enjoy the
vision and knowledge that Alistair Reynolds puts into his novels but want a
little more introspection in terms of character and motivation.  Those who love the exacting
anthropology of Ursula K. Le Guin or Elizabeth Bear’s science fiction will love
the long step into a new future that Leckie takes with her work.  Readers who enjoy explorations of self,
such as those created by Toni Morrison will surely find much to love in the
more cerebral aspects of Leckie’s work.

What I’m Reading Now

The Sharing Knife: Legacy.  My plan had been to do a quick character re-read on a selection of epic fantasy that I own, and talk about constructions of beauty in various male and female characters, and how physical descriptions of each relate to their actual characterization and character arc.  Then I got caught up.

Legacy is actually the second book in a two-part series by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I, forgetting how engrossing it had been the first time I read it, got completely swept away by Beguilment, the first book, and am now reading the second over again.  Hopefully (maybe?), this won’t happen with every book I plan to read for this “beauty essay,” as I’ve titled it in my Scriv file, as many, if not all, of the books I plan to use are parts of series.  Well, ok, I probably won’t be tempted to read all of GRRM again.  But some others I have planned include Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series book 1: King’s Dragon, Brandon Sanderson’s standalone, Elantris, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth book 1: Wizard’s First Rule, and Gail Z. Martin’s The Summoner (part of the Necromancer series, among others.  

Yes, some of the books are by male authors, but I’d like to do a bit of a gender comparison, as well as simply pointing out tropes and ways that authors have used beauty in the past as part of narrative.  Maybe this could even be the start of a larger project in which people who have read other epic fantasy by a variety of authors can help to compile more statistics as a way of further examining this genre that we all love.  

Anyway, back to my reading and, eventual, writing.