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WDSF Review: “Each to Each” by Seanan McGuire

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The Women Destroy Science Fiction edition of Lightspeed Magazine starts off with a short story by Seanan McGuire entitled “Each to Each”.

The title is a reference to the T.S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” about a poor sod dealing with a uninspiring sex life, likening sexual politics to the nine circles of hell, a la Dante’s Inferno.  The titular line comes toward the end of Eliot’s poem: “I have seen the mermaid singing, each to each./ I do not think they will sing to me.”  In McGuire’s piece, the line also comes at the end but with a twist.

Though I found some of the exposition intrusive at times that I would have expected more narrative urgency (particularly when encountering the bogey) and I suppose the use of present tense could be justified as the narrator’s altered consciousness as a side effect of her mods, I quite liked this one, and overall it sets a good tone for what is to come.  The image of plunging boldly into the depths is an appropriate beginning for this project.

There are several reasons it makes for a good choice to lead the pack.  First, it could be classified as “hard” SF as the science is integral to the story–and the biggest gripe from the voices grumbling about the feminine ruin of SF tends to be that women don’t take the science seriously or don’t handle it with the adroitness that men do.  The mermaids here are the work of the laboratory, never straying into fantasy except in comparison, where the allusions abound.

Also, the setting is in a submarine, an environment that has been pretty much limited to men in much the same way that SF had been regarded as a man’s genre.  I wonder if the conceit is meant to be taken to its fullest extent: in the story, it’s discovered that women “were better suited to be submariners [because they] dealt better with close quarters, tight spaces, and enforced contact with the same groups of people for long periods of time.”  Yet, despite the apparent strides within the Navy, the women realize that they are still treated as property and advertising gimmicks in a world still controlled primarily by men.  And then there is the siren call of another world…

The English major in me particularly enjoys the literary references–the major one being Prufrock. I have half a mind to assign a compare/contrast essay to some of my students over this one.  The point of comparison that really struck me was that of agency. J. Alfred is passive in his navigation through the perilous seas of sexual attraction in a Victorian world. He watches, burns with lust, feels humiliated and slighted. The targets of his lust are alien creatures to him, mermaids that cavort in the waves while he strolls the sands in his white rolled-up trousers. Yet in “Each to Each”, the narrator brings her will to bear on the situation. She knows how to play the game to get the results she wants from the very people who would inhibit her drive.  And yet, the waters are muddied by the suspicion that, perhaps, her will might have been compromised by the changes she has undergone.  Is it her agency when it emerges from what the scientists (men) have wrought?

Off to a promising start.  Keep the destruction coming!

 

 

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