Sunday, 6 July 2014

"From the Ocean's Depths" by Sewell Peaslee Wright

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Magazine: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, March 1930

This sentence may tell you everything you need to know about this story and the writing style:

"Sea-bronzed men, with hard, flat muscles and fearless eyes; ready guns slapping their thighs as they–– "

Should I go elsewhere, leave you two alone? Ah yes, another story where the underlying sexual tension lies less between the men and the beautiful white, pale mermaid with tawny hair, and more between the men themselves. These are always fun, although there generally comes a point where I wish they'd just admit their attraction and leave the mermaid at the bottom of the pool.

But hey! The scientists aren't crazy amoral madmen in this one! They're even kind of the hero!

So here's the whole sordid story. One scientist, on the verge of finishing his thought transference devices, takes a walk by the ocean. There, he sees a woman washed up on shore, and carries her home, where she wakes up, darts away, and dives into his salt-water pool, and starts breathing again. (That seems like an awfully long time to have gone without breathing, but what do I know?)

She keeps attacking him when he tries to get into the pool to talk to her, and also his manservant, and he hypothesizes it's because he and his manservant are too "swarthy," and calls his whitest friend to come over to talk to her.

I'm not kidding. The mermaid is literally waiting for a white enough man to approach her.

Once the white-enough friend arrives, the scientist has him put on his thought transference device, and shows how it works. It means the white-enough friend learns that his swarthy scientist friend thinks of him like this:

"Very nice old chap, Carson, impressive even in his bathing suit."

And suddenly, we're less concerned with the mermaid again!

In a stunning turn of irrationality (perhaps caused by awkward attraction?) the scientist tells the friend to get the mermaid to put on the helmet, but for him to keep his head above water, because: 

“The salt water would short the antennae, you see. Try to get her to wear one, and then you get your head out of water, and don yours."

Wait, wait, wait. Why would it short out your antennae and not hers? Your science is bad. Or just strange. Or plot-protected. I'm going with bad.

At any rate, the white-enough friend (or as I could call him, nice old chap Carson) goes down to talk to the mermaid, who does not try to murder him, because apparently the whole "waiting for a white guy" hypothesis is true. Strangely, she doesn't swim. She walks on the floor of the pool. In fact, in the upcoming thought transference, it appears all the merpeople walk on the floor of the ocean, and do not swim. That's a lot of wasted space. And would really put you places the sun don't shine.

Also, weirdly, although nice old chap Carson is seeing her memories, which would have been experienced through her eyes, the memories don't use her gaze. He sees her, from outside. She seems to remember herself someone else's perspective. 

At any rate, nice old chap Carson finds out that she was attacked by a shark, and hence got washed up on shore. Also, he gets to see her memories of stories of evolution, of white people going back to the seas and gradually developing gills. (The details are a little, well, fishy.) Also, he finds out that she thinks he's gorgeous. But perceives him with larger nostrils. Because merpeople find large nostrils sexy, obviously.

Nice old chap Carson convinces swarthy scientist to let her go back to the ocean, the thought transference device works, all is resolved. Or is it? There's a hint that the mermaid may come back for sexy large-nostrilled white dude. And that is not a sentence I ever thought I'd be writing.

Let's see. There is a woman! She's a mermaid, and falls in instalove, so other than the gills, she's pretty much like most of the women in these stories. She has no other distinguishing characteristics. Not even snappy dialogue. Or, you know, dialogue. Merperson and all.

Weird focus on whiteness and the whiteness of merpeople. There's a swarthy scientist, for whatever gradation of colour "swarthy" means here.

And lots of suppressed homosexual desire.  It's been a while without a story with some good heavy subtext. I've been missing it. It's as close to varieties of sexuality as we ever get in 1930s science fiction magazines, I guess.

All in all, this is a disappointing story. It's not particularly offensive (not more than the others, anyway), but not much really happens. Boy finds mermaid, mermaid attacks him because he's not white enough, mermaid likes whiter boy, they talk via telepathy, mermaid goes back to the sea. 

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