Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman

The claustrophobically confined life aboard living submarine craft and cramped space in underwater habitats is redoubled by the constrictive responsibility of being the sole caregiver for an “aged,” an unproductive senior with dementia. Osaji cares for her grandmother, which precludes many preferred assignments and marriage.

Care for seniors, not a common topic in science fiction, is sensitively handled. The indirect speech and passive-aggressive behavior within overcrowded living spaces is well considered. (For example, a request to return to the ship: “Will she be coming in soon?” The reply: “She will be pleased to.”) The author tips her hand a bit by providing Japanese names for most characters, except a loud American-sounding gaijin named Scrappin’ Jack Halliday.

Due to an undersea volcanic eruption, Osaji, her grandmother, and Jack are cast adrift far from known waters on a water-covered planet. The story turns toward planetary romance as they discover unknown flora and fauna, and glimpse an abandoned underwater city. The story has a leisurely pace and resolves well on several levels.

Still, practicalities kept coming to mind: How would pressure not be an issue, diving at various depths? Would a biological submarine (the “ark” of the title), based on autopoiesis, be as maintenance free as the story suggests? Would they actually rely on currents and not include a propulsion system? Would a society capable of space travel not have sophisticated imagery of the entire planet’s undersea floor?

It’s an interesting choice as both the lead-off story and the longest story in the anthology, and a mostly satisfying one.

"Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman, originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2008
Link: Year’s Best SF 14 summation and table of contents


  1. Hi,

    I'm using Arkfall for a book discussion I'm leading, and ran across your blog. Did you read the F&SF interview with gilman? She mentions that she did not really "cover" all the "practicalities", as she figures readers wouldn't want long discussions. I tend to agree- the langorous, oceanic quality of the story would be ruined by Blue Marsesque technology spates.

    Ddon't you think it is a fine line where "science" fiction becomes "fantasy" fiction? If I write "I took my water pressure tablets before going out the pod"-- we know that's bs "science". But in some stories we don't mind (I thought about it, but didn't care, the writing and story line were so well done) while in others, it drives us nuts.

    I'm more turned off by the stereotyping of Japanese = polite community v. Jack the Ugly American. The story lost power with this, it's too bad she did not leave the names more neutral.

  2. Hi Schizo Librarian,

    I’ve just now read the interview you mention. It’s a charming interview that doesn’t change my interpretation of the story. I prefer a story to stand on its own and this one does pretty well.

    Explaining a new world to the reader is, perhaps, the central challenge of writing science fiction. You mention Blue Mars, and I think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) is one of the finest examples of how to successfully incorporate world-building explanations within a story. He explains terraforming, economic theory, political theory, the new Mars constitution, and more at great length. I know some who disagree, still I think Robinson’s Mars series is one of the best long-form science fiction works in recent decades.

    Gilman, at much shorter length, does a good job of presenting the concept of living ships using autopoiesis and the passive-aggressive social interactions that would result from cramped living spaces. To be successful the author has to explain just enough to forestall the reader asking too many awkward questions. In this case I don’t think Gilman has been as rigorous as she needs to be, resulting in the questions at the end of my post above.

    The use of Japanese names and politeness, combined with portraying Jack as the Ugly American does border on stereotyping, but I think the story gets past cultural assumptions and treats the characters as individuals.

  3. Thanks for responding Strangelove.

    I just wanted to let you know that I completely agree with you re the Mars series- definitely one of the best long-form sf works, as you say. I've read them twice, and the only reason I probably won't read them again, is there's just so much else to keep reading.