Tor, 2013, 99 pages. Available online at tor.com.
Wakulla Springs. A strange and unknown world, this secret treasure lies hidden in the jungle of northern Florida. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. Twenty-five thousand years after they disappeared from the face of the Earth, the bones of prehistoric mastodons, giant armadillos, and other primeval monsters have been found beneath the seemingly placid surface of the lagoon. The visitor to this magical place enters a timeless world of mystery.
I have read a lot of reviews complaining that this 2014 Hugo nominee isn't really a work of science fiction or fantasy.
Depending on how literally you read it, it's true that until the very end, there is nothing that strictly speaking falls into the category of "speculative fiction," and even the ending could be read as a literary flourish (or, more cynically, a tacked on addition to make it a work of speculative fiction).
That said, I thought it was a very effective and wonderfully written piece that captures the feel of the fantastic amidst the mundane. I suppose one could invoke that ambiguous and misunderstood label, "magical realism," to describe this story, but I think it's a more of a love letter to genre period films, viewed through the lens of race relations in a small Florida resort.
Mayola Williams lay her head on Tarzan's chest, his arms strong around her. He pressed his lips lightly to her forehead, and she didn't move, but closed her eyes and sighed deep into herself, listening to his heartbeat and the calm lapping of the water, the tranquil stillness broken only once by the wailing cry of a limpkin.
The first part of this novella introduces Mayola Williams, a young black girl whose mother works at the hotel in Wakulla Springs when a Hollywood film crew comes to shoot the river scenes for a Tarzan movie. Star-struck Mayola meets Johnny Weissmuller, and in part two, we are introduced to Mayola's son, Levi.
Levi, like his mother, loves two things: swimming, and Hollywood movies. And like his mother, he becomes star-struck when another film crew comes to Wakulla Springs, this time filming Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Levi lurks on the fringes of the set, and likewise lurks on the fringes of his mother's relationship with Jimmy Lee Demps, who comes home from Korea with an expanded racial consciousness and a willingness to stir the shit.
Levi's story contains parallel themes: a young boy eager to swim with a Hollywood film crew, and a young black boy watching society change in 1950s Florida. It's also his coming of age story, as he overhears what his mother's coming of age was like.
The story comes full circle with Levi's daughter coming to Wakulla Springs. The connections between generations, through their very different experiences and Hollywood connections, as well as the fantastic prose evoking a sense of timelessness in the backwoods of Florida, even as time is obviously moving on, made this possibly the most skillfully crafted novella on the Hugo ballot.
But is it really spec fic?
But the two frogmen on either side of the twin camera were focused on the latex monster and did not maneuver in his direction. Unnoticed and unbound, Levi Williams just treaded water, out of the range of capture, and after a moment’s hesitation, regretfully lowered his hand, freeing the Beastie to swim on toward the girl, toward the light.
I don't object to Wakulla Springs' presence on the ballot. Yes, the SFnal content is scant, but there is more to SF&F than the literal presence of monsters. It was written like a work of American fantasy, and if the reader is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop - "Okay, fine, but when does the real monster show up?" - then that suggests that the story is setting up proper expectations, even if one might quibble over the delivery.
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