The Deep by Rivers Solomon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book has an interesting backstory. It's based on a song of the same name, recorded by the rap group Clipping. (featuring Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame), which was on the Hugo ballot last year. Rivers Solomon, one of the nominees for the Campbell Award (now the Astounding Award) for best new writer, was asked to expand the story into a book. This novella is the result.
I tagged this "science fantasy" because it's definitely not science fiction--pregnant African woman thrown overboard during the Atlantic slave trade are not going to give birth to babies (merpeople, actually) who can live in the ocean, and the descendants of those babies are not going to expand to become an entire society of wajinru (as they come to call themselves) living in the deep. The scientific basis for the world is not the point. The point is memory, history, and responsibility; and the weight of all of these and the price one pays to bear it.
Yetu is our protagonist, the historian of the wajinru, carrying six hundred years of memories in her mind. She only shares them once a year, during the Remembrance, to remind her people of who they are and where they came from. (There is very little said about "our" world except for the mention of a past war between the wajinru and the "two-legs." Solomon does not go into specifics, but it got me to wondering if the wajinru, with their control of the ocean waters, wiped out most of two-leg civilization.) There is only one historian at a time, and the burden of the memories is killing Yetu. Thus, when it comes time for the Remembrance, she downloads all the memories into the minds of her people--and makes her break, swimming out of the deep to the surface, leaving her people behind.
This is an interior-focused, character-based story, with no villain as such. Yetu's fight is with herself, to come to terms with who she is and what she wants. During her surface sojourn--trapped in a shallow tide pool--she meets several two-legs, including one she becomes increasingly close to, Oori. Oori is the last of her people and cannot understand Yetu's turning her back on her history. This clash of values forms the heart of the story, as Yetu, in a sense, grows up. She returns to her people, determined to change the status quo, but willing to take the memories back if she cannot. This proves not to be necessary, as she teaches all of her people to take on the weight of the memories and, in essence, turns every wajinru into a historian, spreading the burden. Afterwards she goes in search of Oori, and wielding a little ocean magic, transforms the human woman into a creature who can survive underwater and brings her to the deep.
This is a layered, multi-faceted story, speaking to the weight of history and how trauma is transmitted from generation to generation. The metaphor is obvious, or at least it should be, and I freely admit that I as a white person cannot fully understand it. Stories like this are necessary, to illustrate and educate, and I'm glad Clipping. picked a talented writer like Rivers Solomon to expand on their vision. There's a lot to think about here, and if you like a fast, action-based plot, that is not this story. It is, however, tailor-made for those who can appreciate how speculative fiction can, in creating a parallel world, shine a bright, unflattering light on our own.
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