Every now and then I happen upon a story that reminds me why I love science fiction so much. I love its imagination, the way an author extrapolates from the factual to the bizarre; and the more she can pack her fiction with solid science, the happier I am. Mira Grant achieved this for me in her NEWSFEED trilogy and her PARASITOLOGY series. Now she does it again, even better than before, in her new novella for Subterranean Press, Rolling in the Deep.
Grant starts from the premise that Imagine Network (which bears a striking resemblance to Syfy TV in our own reality) has moved from B-grade horror movies and reruns of science fiction classics into the production of documentaries. These documentaries, however, are not straight reporting; they involve searches for fabled creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, with the facts manipulated to entertain as well as to provide cover for the legitimate scientists who agree to participate.
In May 2015, a new documentary is in the works. The SS Atargatis is headed for the Mariana Trench in search of mermaids. We know from the outset of Grant’s novella that this voyage will not end well, for instead of a 2015 documentary about mermaids, we are provided with an excerpt from a 2017 documentary entitled “Modern Ghost Ships: The Atargatis.” This preview tells us that the Atargatis and all its passengers and crew were lost at sea — or, at least, that Imagine wants us to think they did. Still, if it’s a hoax, it’s a big one, because no one has ever again seen any of the scientists, crewmen or actors who set sail on that ship.
After that introduction, we flip back to May 2015, when an unlikely set of people are gathering on the Atargatis. Captain Jovanie Seghers knows she’s going to have her hands full dealing with idiot paper pushers from the network, television personalities worried more about getting the right light than anything else, prima donna scientists, and a troop of mermaids: women who wear tails and frolic in the water as a means of making a living, who Imagine plans to have appear in its documentary in fleeting glimpses to give the actual science being done some oomph.
Grant manages to tell us a good deal about oceanic science when she introduces her cast of scientists, plenty about the state of the media when introducing her camera operators and on-air personalities, and a good deal about the fad of dressing up as merfolk and frolicking in the water. I particularly enjoyed the work the scientists did in exploring the Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, and attempting to learn more about its wildlife, the chemical composition of its water, and other genuine scientific inquiries. No one on board really believes that there is the slightest chance that the scientists will discover mermaids, but everyone plays along. The scientists, in particular, have an opportunity to do some groundbreaking work that could make their reputations.
Once the science starts in earnest, though, things quickly get strange. An early probe returns with blood instead of water in one sampling tube, and it shares as many characteristics with mammalian blood as with fish blood. The on-air personality who interviews the scientists is thrilled when they reluctantly admit that it is an aberration. But things take a turn for the worse when a crewman disappears, and worse still when one of the mermaids doesn’t make it back from a deep water dive. And they keep getting worse as Grant follows the scientific trail she has carefully laid down from the very first paragraphs of her tale.
Many Easter eggs lie hidden in this tale, if one cares to root them out; check out the ship’s name, for instance, or look into the “documentaries” done on mermaids by Animal Planet in 2013. But Grant does her best work in showing us how her sea creatures are constructed and how they work, all based on extrapolation from real science. It’s a delight to see her imagination work as she draws her mermaids and shows them in action.
My delight in Grant’s talent at scientific extrapolation did not lessen the horror of this novella one iota, however. These creatures make Jaws look amateurish. What would happen after an expedition like this one ended in an empty ship floating two hundred miles from its last known location? The immediate investigation seems content to leave it all a mystery rather than tracking down the source of the strange lights in the water and the odd noises at night, but how long before someone decides to investigate further? And what if these creatures decide that the land is as big a source of food for them as the sea is a source of food for humans? That chill you feel as you finish this book may be a trickle of seawater down your neck.