S. L. Huang’s 2017 The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist is a standalone SF retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
Dr. Cadence Mbella specializes in piscianthropology, the study of atargati culture and society. Not much is known about the atargati, the so-called mermaids, except that they live in the abyssal depths of the world’s ocean and they are as intelligent as humans.
As Mbella warns anyone reading her ongoing account, it is a mistake to allow the arbitrary terms that humans apply to the abyssals to shape human perceptions. The atargati are quite unlike humans or their myths. Exactly how unlike, Mbella is going to learn first-hand.
Scientists like Mbella see the atargati in a rational, objective way (or so they assure themselves). The military is far more concerned with questions like:
Are the atargati a threat?
If so, are they one we can direct at our enemies?
How can we best pursue this investigation in a way seemingly calculated to piss off the atargati en masse?
Just how bad are we at judging the character of the scientists we rope into our little venture?
To which the answers are:
By kidnapping an atargati named Òiôaaa.
The military doesn’t hang onto their prisoner for long. Mbella and her co-conspirator see to that. Alas, while her ally manages to maintain plausible deniability, Mbella is forced to flee, leaving her old identity and her research in the past. This does not put an end to her obsession with the atargati or with Òiôaaa in particular.
When Mbella is offered the chance to become an atargati, how can she refuse? The cost will be pain and ultimately death — the conversion process is imperfect — but surely true love can triumph over all obstacles?
This may be an unfortunate choice of bedtime story for a child obsessed with the Disney version of The Little Mermaid. It’s also possible that it is exactly the right story. I suppose it depends on the kid. And how you feel about the Disney product, which is a sentimental musical about a woman pursuing an apparently illiterate man whose people prey on intelligent beings from her realm. Whose people sing comic songs about dismembering and consuming her fellow citizens.
Come to think of it, Disney’s Little Mermaid is pretty dark. Maybe you should steer your kids away from it. At the very least, do discourage them from killing and eating their significant other’s kith and kin. Which can only lead to awkward dinner conversations.
Huang is reaching back to the original source material of which the Disney version is but a hollow echo.
Hans Christian Andersen had a rather complicated love life, full of infatuation and pining from afar, and completely bereft of anything like consummation. This leaked into his stories; The Little Mermaid is long on desire and short on immediate, tangible results. The prize Andersen’s mermaid wins with agony and sacrifice is a chance to enter a three-century-long quest to earn herself a soul. Success in this new quest is not guaranteed.
Huang’s infatuated little scientist is not as lucky as the mermaid who inspired her. What she wants is unreasonable and the route she embraces to win it is, as she knows up front, going to kill her. Still, she puts out a good effort, If what she gets at the end is unfair and not at all what she wanted, she at least learns quite a lot on the way to that final destination. And isn’t learning what science is all about?