Today’s Book: “Submergence,” a novella by Arula Ratnakar, available in Clarkesworld
The Plot: When a marine biologist named Noor dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, a woman named Nithya volunteers to play back and experience her memories. What Nithya uncovers will not only illuminate the circumstances of Noor’s death, but a revelation about the bizarre organisms Noor was studying and a much larger conspiracy.
Autistic Character(s): The author!
“Submergence” is a work I can’t say too much about, since so much depends on watching events unfold and unravelling the mystery, but it’s a fascinating work of near-future hard science fiction that combines cutting-edge biology, neuroscience, alternative communication, and a sweetly odd queer romance – or possibly two.
At the heart of the mystery is an unusual species of sponge, P. meyeri, that can be used to create tailor-made cures to a variety of diseases – but that also reacts strongly and negatively to any intrusion. P. meyeri is even more special than it appears, and the most memorable part of the novella is the sheer sense of detail and wonder as Noor explores it in its natural habitat:
An intricate, coordinated display of flashing light is taking place throughout the chamber, in a beautiful recursive pattern revolving around one of the sponges, far more complex than any temple carving, any rose window, any generative design she’s seen. The sponge releases its larvae, and then a different beautiful light display centering on another sponge begins as that sponge starts to release its larvae. Using the scanner, Noor finds more of those microscopic shrimp fused to the exteriors of the sponges, somehow being controlled. She steels her churning stomach and holds back her revulsion regarding what she’s about to do.
The neuroscience of what Nithya is doing is explored in as much detail as the marine biology. Immersively experiencing someone else’s memories has an effect on her sense of identity, as she begins to absorb Noor’s beliefs, attachments, and feelings and integrate them into her own. Nithya and other characters do a lot of introspection about what this means, whether it’s okay, but Nithya is a protagonist who’s refreshingly excited and curious about the process; horror at losing herself isn’t a primary emotion for her.
“Submergence” also does intriguing things with the nameless youth movement that Noor’s daughter belongs to. Reminiscent of today’s youth protests against climate change, but more extreme, children who have joined the movement refuse to speak or show facial expressions until their climate demands have been met. They still go to school, go about their days, and communicate using text, but it is all done silently and expressionlessly.
From an autistic author, a youth movement like this feels like an especially clever invention. You can turn over any rock and find autism parents talking in tones of horror about how awful it is to have a child who won’t speak or won’t smile at them. Why not weaponize that horror for the greater good? (Ratnakar shows a range of parent responses to this movement, but she doesn’t show any children being very badly mistreated, and Noor is supportive of her daughter’s choices despite some misgivings.)
The ending feels a little bit rushed to me, with all sorts of grave difficulties and complex dilemmas just suddenly working out in the protagonists’ favor. But it’s a happy ending; and “Submergence” is worth the price of admission even just for its beginning and middle, where we slowly explore the intricate scientific puzzle that Ratnakar has laid out, and the beautiful, intriguing mystery of P. meyeri.
The Verdict: Recommended-2