We continue our coverage of the 2021 Hugo Award finalists with a look at two more contenders in the Best Short Story category: “The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee and “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad…
Essarala is a mermaid fascinated by the upper regions that lie above her aquatic homeland. She collects treasures dropped into the sea by the people of the land, but these are not enough to satiate her curiosity. Her desire is to travel beyond the surface herself – a desire that is hampered by the fact that she has a tail rather than legs. However, she is eventually given the opportunity to bypass this handicap and get her wish to escape the confines of the water – but at what cost?
This premise, of course, owes a considerable deal to Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Little Mermaid. Author Yoon Ha Lee makes no attempt to hide this source of inspiration; indeed, he wears his influences on his sleeve, with even the story’s opening paragraph fitting well within fairy tale conventions:
On a wide and wondering world in a wide and wondering galaxy, there lived a mermaid. She was not the only mermaid who dwelled in the deep and dreaming oceans of her world. An entire society of mers shared rule of the seas with the whale-sages and the anemone-councils, among many others. This particular mermaid had named herself Essarala, which means seeks the stars in the language of tide and foam.
The twist, as implied by the title, is the presence of a science fictional dimension. While Andersen’s mermaid yearned to walk the surface of the Earth, Essarala’s dream destination is further still: she hopes to each the stars. It looks as though she has finally got her wish when a spaceship lands, carrying with it a crew of alien scientists who communicate with the mermaids. Unfortunately for Essarala, though, this vessel from the stars contains only drinking-water for the crew, not water that can sustain a mermaid passenger.
And so, like her Danish precursor, Essarala visits a witch who lives beneath the sea and strikes a bargain. In exchange for payment, the witch will grant Essarala the new legs she needs to walk upon dry land – and the dry decks of a spacecraft.
As well as adding an SF element, Yoon Ha Lee tones down the spiritual aspect of the narrative. In Andersen’s story, a key part of the mermaid’s quest to become human was the detail that, if she could remain human, she would gain an immortal soul and so be allowed into the afterlife. “The Mermaid Astronaut” has no such talk of heaven or the hereafter. Instead, Essarala’s transformation is framed not as her gaining a soul, but rather as her moving from a world of magic to a world of science:
Nevertheless, while Essarala’s innate magic as a mer protected her from the crushing depths of the sea, and the variances in pressure, it gave her no such defense from a starship’s acceleration. As the starship blasted off for a destination whose name she didn’t know, she caught only the merest glimpse of her native ocean from above, and the glittering of sunlight on the waters, before she lost consciousness.
That said, the story’s portrayal of the scientific world has a touch of magic not far removed from the undersea realm. The aliens, who come in various shapes and sizes (“Some of them walked on two legs and some on six, some of them had six fingers on their hands and some had tentacles instead, some of them had friendly waving eyestalks and others no eyes at all”) are scarcely less fantastical than the mermaids: they even have a sect of initiated “engineer-priests” who alone know the secret of faster-than-light travel.
“The Mermaid Astronaut” is able to find a common ground between fairy tales and science fiction in that both are capable of generating a sense of wonderment from an easily-digestible cause-and-effect system. Andersen’s story is a set of straightforward bargains: lose a voice, gain two legs; lose a body, gain a soul. Science fiction, even in its more fanciful form, is likewise built upon the same basic physics of action and reaction. As Yoon Ha Lee’s story nears its end, Essarala realises that her trip to the stars comes at a cost; this cost is rooted in real-world science, and yet allows for a conclusion just as bittersweet as the end to Andersen’s fairy tale.
As tidily-constructed as it may be, there is room to ask exactly what “The Mermaid Astronaut” achieves. Nothing in the story can be called new, and little can honestly be called surprising. The underlying plot is clearly recognisable as that of Andersen’s familiar story. The science fictional elements are nothing particularly original. The basic concept of mashing a fairy tale with cartoonish sci-fi has been done before – just look at Cold War kidflicks like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), Pinocchio in Outer Space (1965) and Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon (1965). Even when the story is reaching beyond its most obvious reference points it never strays from the familiar, as with the brief shout-out to H. P. Lovecraft (the items floating down from the surface world include “scrimshaw depicting sacrifices to eldritch gods”).
“The Mermaid Astronaut” has its charms, however, and they are the charms of a snow-globe: a sweetly familiar object which, when picked up and shaken, briefly regains its novelty value. For the short period before the flakes settle, we can allow ourselves to experience that sense of childlike wonder, from a time when the seas were swimming with mermaids and the night sky peopled with aliens.
Humorous short stories about AI and androids have become, if not an annual fixture, then at least something of a semi-regular presence at the Hugo Awards. 2016 had Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please”; 2019 had Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots”; and now 2021 has another story by Prasad: “A Guide for Working Breeds”, originally published in the anthology Made to Order: Robots and Revolution.
The story – which is framed as a series of text messages between two robots – establishes its humorous tone at the start. The younger AI, initially called Default Name, asks their randomly-chosen mentor Constant Killer how to keep their vision “dog free”. Constant Killer initially assumes that they mean fog-free, but no: Default Name’s optical input is suffering from feedback that makes them misclassify things as dogs.
One message indicates that Constant Killer has tried to drop out of mandatory mentorship, only to have their request for exemption declined. And so the relationship between the two develops, with Default Name choosing different monikers and eventually settling on Kleekai Greyhound (like Constant Killer, they were inspired by the letters in their serial number). The wide-eyed young AI then goes looking for new employment, leaving a clothes factory to work at a maid café; once the human maids have left, Kleekai Greyhound is the only maid present.
While an outwardly lighthearted story, “A Guide for Woking Breeds” has a sense of unease running through it, with hints at the violence going on in the world in which the two robots exist. Constant Killer belongs to something called Killstreak, which involves taking part in deathmatches against (presumably human) combatants. This becomes evident when we read a gleeful message sent by the Killstreak administrator: “CONGRATS! You’re the Ariaboro area’s top killer!! A bonus target, SHEA DAVIS, has just been assigned to you! Send us a vid of your kill for extra points”.
When Kleekai Greyhound mentions their employer’s expectation that maids “be mean” to customers, Constant Killer misunderstands this call for a sultry, dominant demeanour and suggests ways of inflicting bodily harm:
The tabletops in your establishment look like they’re made of dense celluplastic, so you’ll be able to nail a customer’s extended hand down without the tabletop cracking in half. With a tweak to the nozzle settings of your autodoc unit and a lit flame, it’d make an effective flamethrower for multikill combos. The kitchenette should be the most easily weaponised part of the cafe but it’s probably best to confirm. Before I go any further with tactics, do you have a detailed floorplan?
“A Guide for Working Breeds” is a story that invites the reader to fill in the blanks. We see Constant Killer going from an attempt to drop out of mentorship, to anonymously sending Kleekai Greyhound whatever presents suit their current situation (including a document entitled Is This Illegal? A Guide for Working Robots), yet the details of the transition occur outside the IM conversation that comprises the story. It is within the blanks that a curious sort of alchemy plays out: even as Constant Killer introduces Kleekai Greyhound to the world of violence, the latter introduces their mentor to the concept of cuteness. The actual events that result from this are left to our imagination, but we are shown hints in the conversation – such as the moment where the two robots discuss whether a racoon can be used as a weapon.
We are ultimately left with more blanks than story – a necessary detail, perhaps, to prevent the darker implications from overwhelming the quirky humour that is central to the narrative. By any measure this is a light, frothy piece of work, and any heavier dimension will be supplied by the reader. But as noted, the presence of a frivolous entry on the Hugo ballot has become something of a tradition; in 2021, that role is fulfilled by “A Guide for Working Breeds” .