The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga 978-1-534-43986-3, $19.99, 176pp) November 2019.
Rivers Solomon’s The Deep has a pretty colorful and convoluted history, but one that suggests how SF and Afrofuturist conceits are increasingly interacting with the broader culture. The idea of a utopian underwater society built by the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves thrown overboard from slave ships was first conceived by a Detroit electro-pop duo called Drexciya, then developed into a Hugo Award-nominated song for NPR’s This American Life by the rap group clipping. (whose members are listed as collaborators on the novel; as of this writing, the song is available online). This, in turn, was further elaborated by Solomon into this hauntingly lyrical fantasia. Part furious indictment and part ecological fable, The Deep raises provocative questions about the weight of history, the nature of utopia, and the complex role of memory as both a blessing and a curse.
The horrors of the Middle Passage, like the Holocaust or indigenous genocides, seem to both demand and resist fantasy: on the one hand, the imagination needed to even approximate it in fiction requires resources beyond those of realistic or historical fiction, while on the other, invoking the tools of SF or fantasy risks turning historical outrage into comforting myth. I’ve met Holocaust survivors who insisted that the only genre capable of representing their experience is personal testimony – that fiction should just not even try. I disagree with that for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that, in the case of those drowned women in The Deep, there can be no testimony; the only way to memorialize them is through imagination. Solomon’s way of doing that is a powerful combination of anguish and hope: the undersea society of merpeople, called the wajinru (“chorus of the deep”), are able to sustain their hope only by repressing all ancestral memory of their origins, but in each generation there is one historian whose task is to bear that collective memory and share it at annual rituals called rememberings. As the current historian, Yetu, reminds them, “Without your history, you are empty.”
Yetu herself finds the weight of such memories so agonizing that she decides to flee toward the surface, where she ends up trapped in a tidal pool – somehow able to breathe air – and, for the first time, meets her distant two-legged cousins. One of these, a fiercely independent woman named Oora, brings fish to sustain Yetu, and the two gradually develop a bond that causes Yetu to rethink the ancestral relationship between the “two-legs” and the wajinru, realizing that not all two-legs were white slavers, and that Oori has suffered her own losses. Later it becomes apparent that the surface dwellers are beginning to threaten the very survival of the wajinru: “Below us, deep beneath the sand, there is a substance they crave. It is their life force. They feast on it like blood.” Marshalling their own resources in managing the ocean waters, they face the possibility of a kind of ecological war, in which the wajinru become not only defenders of their own society, but stewards of their environment. As bleak as the history of the wajinru may be, and as challenging as the new threats from above may seem, Solomon manages to end the novel on a surprisingly hopeful note, in the form of Yetu and Oori’s unlikely romance. When Yetu promises her that “we will make a new thing,” it doesn’t really do much to assuage the weight of nightmare histories, but it’s something.
-Gary K. Wolfe
This review and more like it in the December 2019 issue of Locus.
A couple of columns back I remarked that I had little time for adaptations, given all the shiny new works written every year. Yet here I am writing about Rivers Solomon’s new novella, The Deep, an adaptation of the song of the same name from the rap group clipping. (which first featured on episode 623 of This American Life and was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2018). In a lengthy afterword that concludes the novella, clipping.’s lead vocalist, Daveed Diggs, explains how The Deep – the song and the novella – came to be. He tells us that clipping. was heavily influenced by Detroit-based techno band Drexciya who, according to Wikipedia, revealed to its fans that “Drexciya was an underwater country populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women who were thrown off slave ships; the babies [adapting] to breathe underwater in their mothers’ wombs.” Rivers Solomon takes these antecedents ripe with imagery – Diggs’s lyrics, Drexciya’s Afrofuturist mythology – and, just like they did with their blistering debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts, tells the story of a society shaped by the violence of slavery and oppression.
The wajinru are an aquatic species who, as a consequence of their biology, exist entirely in the moment. While this means they can enjoy a life free of regret, there comes a point, late in the year, where the wajinru become hungry for a past “that made and defined them.” Enter Yetu. As the Historian, she is not only tasked to be the repository of six centuries of history, but every year she feeds those memories back to the wajinru, providing “order and meaning to the events so that the others could understand.” The Remembrance ritual sustains the wajinru for another year, but for Yetu it is a painful process. She is free of the past for a brief, shocking moment, only to have it come pouring back in a tsunami of intense emotions. Certain that this year’s Remembrance will destroy her, Yetu turns her back on her obligations and flees. “She swam, and she swam, and she swam, and she forgot, the rememberings becoming more distant with each upward meter gained.” Yetu’s journey to the surface world brings her contact with a young woman named Oori, but also a reckoning with her people’s past.
Rivers Solomon takes the imagery and themes from clipping.’s “The Deep” and creates both a fully realised under-water society and a future ravaged by climate change. As part of the worldbuilding, Solomon amplifies the central concern of the song, this urgent need to remember and to even relive the atrocities inflicted on a people. Solomon questions this practice, the ritualised remembrance of past brutality, something which, as a Jew, I’m more than familiar with. Their thoughts on the subject, wrapped up in Yetu’s layered relationship with Oori – thorny, but also tender – recognise that it’s important to never forget the turbulent, often violent history of marginalised people, but, by the same token, without love and a sense of togetherness, those memories become punitive and cruel. The Deep is a beautifully written, thoughtful novella, one, that as Diggs says in his afterword, is over far too quickly.
This review and more like it in the January 2020 issue of Locus.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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