Mar 11 2013 9:00am

Mermaid Science Fiction: Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters

In Great Waters Kit Whitfield Novel Mermaids Jo Walton ReviewKit Whitfield’s In Great Waters is a truly unusual book. It’s hard to describe—it’s an alternate history where there are merpeople and that has changed everything. The merpeople—or “deepsman” to give them their proper name—are like a missing link between people and dolphins. They only need to surface to breathe every thirty minutes or so. They have tails. They are immensely strong. They have language but they are sub-sapient, they’re at a very interesting cusp of alien that we don’t see explored very much. They can cross-breed with humanity, and we first see them through the eyes of Henry, who is a cross-breed, or “bastard.” He has a bifurcated tail and can only stay underwater for fifteen minutes, but he can lie and say a shark is coming when he’s being bullied by the other children. It’s a lie that always works, and it works on the adults too. Henry has more cunning than the rest of his tribe but has less strength and power. Then he comes out of the water and begins to discover the world of landsmen and how he can relate to them. We discover it all with him, how similar and how different that world is from our history, what a difference the deepsmen have made.

There are going to be no spoilers at all, because I’ve not seen anyone discussing this book. It’s a story that not only has an unusual plot but also a wonderful pattern of discovery that I really wouldn’t want to spoil.

The process of reading In Great Waters is a lot like being thrust underwater—it’s completely immersive. It’s dense and fascinating—Cherryh fans will like it. If I have to compare it to something it would be Cherryh’s Cuckoo’s Egg. The deepsmen are aliens. And yet, they are like us, and like dolphins—this is a carefully extrapolated and complicated culture and natural history. All the implications and second order implications of the existence of the deepsmen have been worked out, and the whole thing feels absolutely solid. By the time we get to our second point-of-view character, Anne, who is also part-deepsman but who has grown up in human society, she seems almost normal in comparison to Henry, whose worldview was formed underwater.

Whitfield is a British writer, and In Great Waters was published in 2009 in the US and the UK. It somehow never had the kind of attention I’d expect a book this good to have. This happens sometimes, and I don’t understand it. It was nominated for a World Fantasy Award (even though it’s clearly SF), but otherwise nobody seems to have been excited about it. This is the sort of book I’d expect people to tell me I want to read, but nobody did. I became aware of Whitfield because of her blog, where she was posting fascinating analyses of the first lines of novels and how well they reflected the rest of the work. I bought In Great Waters on the grounds that somebody who could be so interesting about Lord of the Flies and Nineteen Eighty Four might well have written a good book and deserved my $10 anyway. I was then blown away by how good it was.

Whitfield’s first novel, Bareback in the UK, Benighted in the US, which is Not a Werewolf Book in the same way this is Not a Mermaid book, has been optioned for a movie and I had heard of it. I’d never have read it if I hadn’t loved In Great Waters so much, because hello, werewolves? Me? Well, I read it recently and she made me like werewolves, though not as much as I liked the deepsmen. There are standard modes of writing about these kinds of things—standard genre ways of handling tropes like mermaids and werewolves. There tends to be an attitude that they are a particular kind of fun. This is very much not what Whitfield is interested in, and I wonder whether it might be off-putting to somebody who was expecting something more normal. I was expecting something from a writer who said that the first line of Nineteen Eighty Four was “vehemently simple” and I was not disappointed.

What she does in both these books is to take our culture and add something to it and look hard at what it changes. In Great Waters made me think about royalty and our historical attitude to it, and it made me think about co-existence with aliens, and about theory of mind. It’s a fascinating book.

I’m hoping other people have read it and want to talk about it. If you haven’t read it and you like SF with density and texture, you really should try it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Natalie Luhrs
1. eilatan
I love this book--it completely blew my mind and it's a damn shame how unknown Whitfield's work seems to be because both her books are brilliant.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
I have read it, and heard about it by word-of-mouth, but I never wrote it up because it fell in the vast time when I wasn't updating my booklog. Also I didn't love it the way many people did because it almost smothered me, early on, which I found very hard to take even as I was admiring its skill in constructing its POV.

I don't have time to re-read this review right now, but Abigail Nussbaum wrote it up back in the day.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Eilatan -- brilliant, but hard to categorize.

Kate: Thanks for the link.
4. TanjaW
Thanks for your book recommendation! I read Benighted last year, and definitely enjoyed it enough to purchase it after reading it through the local library. I'm not sure why I didn't pick up this book as well...maybe In Great Waters wasn't available at the time, but I have it on my To-Read list at the library now. :)
5. Jenny Davidson
I loved Bareback (I was sorry it was retitled for the US market, the original title is better if I suppose potentially misleading!), and somehow missed that she even had another book out - have just ordered this for Kindle, thanks for the rec.
Clare McBride
6. The Literary Omnivore
I loved In Great Waters, which I reviewed on my blog. I distinctly remember running errands and, while driving home, starting to worry about Henry. It's quite a neat trick of worldbuilding—utterly unique mermaids, but without any trace of Worldbuilders' Disease such an amazing creation might cause in another writer. The contrasting viewpoints do wonders for that. And then I'm fascinated by the gender play in the use of royal male nouns to refer to royal women all over the novel and Henry patterning himself after the legendary Angelica.

As for Benighted, I had a lot of issues with it, specifically the protagonist (whom I loathed) and its handling of minority issues. I hope Whitfield's future bibliography takes after her second novel.
7. JillRedhand
I read and vaguely liked In Great Waters, but I'm not as in love with it as many other reviewers are. I suppose my primary problem with it was that I really didn't think that the central conceit was justified; that the great nations of Europe would take on half breeds as their royalty, because it was necessary to maintain truces with the deepsmen who controlled the waterways, and to use those alliances to protect their own borders.

It was an interesting spin on how relationships between real life ruling families fulfilled the same purposes or enforcing truces and creating defense alliances, but those prosaic relationships were present in the book too; when the royals in the book form alliances with each other in the same way that historical royals did, then why do the royals all need to be mermaids as well? The deepsmen never played enough of a role in the plot for me to buy the necessity of appeasing them in order to make sea travel safe.
8. Pink Pig
@The Literary Omnivore: I'm pretty sure that the heroine of Bareback is meant to be an unreliable narrator. As the story goes on it becomes increasingly clear how damaged and aggressive she really is. In the end, her inability to conceive of how to make the world a better place made her, for me, a more realistic and resonant character.

A lot of stories about "minority issues" become rather two-dimensional allegories for real-world struggles, in which the author lays out the fundamentally comforting fantasy that being in a minority may not be too bad because either you get superpowers (vampires! x-men! no real-world minorities!), or because you can change or challenge the system (yay individualism!), or because, failing all that, at least you get the moral high ground.

The idea that the stresses and strains of being hated but needed might leave someone pretty permanently messed up and not really a nice or likeable person at all seemed more real to me than something improving or empowering or high-minded. I saw her as a sort of implicit rebuke of most tough minority heroines - a way of saying "yeah, but that's far too comforting a view of what such a person would actually be like - she'd really be quite complex and unpleasant and not always do the right thing."
9. Rush-That-Speaks
I love In Great Waters; not sure why I didn't write it up. It's the only book I've seen in which the alternate history is plausibly close enough to the history that really happened, and yet also far enough away, to make my knowledge of what really happened into a source of suspense.

I distinctly remember the moment of OH GOD X CHARACTER IS COMING FROM THE SAME PLACES AS THOMAS MORE AAAAAAAGH; it was this oncoming possible trainwreck where it would be totally disastrous for everybody if the Thomas More stuff happened, but it was very plausible for it to go down the way it did in real life. But also it could go differently for any number of reasons, and it was just an unbearably tense moment in reading the book. I have no doubt this was intentional on Whitfield's part, and asking around indicates that the plot still works if you don't have the referents in your head for the real-life history.

This is a very specific and impressive distance of alt-historical differentiation, and I am amazed anybody managed to hit it. In Great Waters was one of my Hugo nominees the year it came out, but it just doesn't seem to have been widely read and I have no idea why.
10. Sovay
Rush: I was just about to Google-search and see if you had written about the book . . . (I suppose it's still not too late.)
11. Maac
Whitfield's "Bareback" was one of the most true-to-my experience explorations of "minority issues" I ever read. I'd say writers like Zora Neale Hurston and het peers illustrated the real-world phenomenon of being unwittingly "color struck" more directly (due in part to genre -- realism), and with the cred of having actually lived it, but "Bareback" was such a pointed portrayal of how internalization of the mainstream's negative opinions of oneself works and feels that I was close to tears, and then went out and bought it for a bunch of people. Most allegories using supernatural creatures versus non-magic humans as stand in for Civil Rights struggles piss me right the frak off, but Whitfield put the power dynamic where it belonged. Mileage will, must, and frankly ought to vary, of course. (I apologize in advance for the terrible things I know the autocorrect on my phone is about to do no matter how hard I try. Sigh.)
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Rush: I was charmed by Thomas More and the unicorn horn.
Ursula L
13. Ursula
I've read both of these. Knew about them even before publication, as Kit was a frequent commenter at Slactivist, and I hang out there as well.
14. Maac
"het peers" = "her peers." I knew it was too good to be true.
15. Amaryllis
In Great Waters is on my fairly short list of books that I mentally categorize as "rich and strange."

Yes, "immersive" is the exact word. It's like being thrust underwater, and finding that you can breathe there, and not being able to re-surface easily. Anne and Henry stayed on my mind for a long time. And now I want to go reread it, just to talk about it again to every reader I know.

Also seconding the recommendation for the first-sentences series.
Clare McBride
16. The Literary Omnivore
@Pink Pig Fair enough; I think I disliked her so much that I was unable to conceive of her as an unreliable narrator. And now this makes me feel like I've rarely seen unreliable narrators in genre—either that or I assume they're not, since I often have to get reliable information about their world from them and therefore assume they're reliable in all things. An interesting point! I think where I differ on the novel's effectiveness, at the end, when she's confronted with a way to change the world, and she rejects it wholesale. It doesn't even make a crack in her worldview (not even for her to reconsider and then affirm it), which rang poorly to me.

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