Daveed Diggs in the afterword to this novella describes The Deep as a game of telephone: a story that keeps changing form and detail as it passes between creators. The band Clipping (Diggs, Hutson & Snipes) own version of the story was the track The Deep which was itself a Hugo finalists:
But that track was inspired by the Detroit techno band Drexciya whose aquatic afro-futurist metafiction used the same idea common to these iterations of a story.
During the transatlantic slave trade, pregnant women thrown overboard by slavers gave birth to aquatic merpeople who would go on to establish their own undersea civilisation. It’s a wonderful conceit and a classic demonstration of science fiction in action: take an impossibility (time travel, faster than light travel, alternate history) and run with it but not only that inspire other stories that feature the same core concept. Frankenstein or War of the Worlds are stones dropped in a still pond that propagate ripples spread out and then reflect back.
I listened to the audio book version* which added another layer of criss-crossing ripples to the Drexciyan mythology by being narrated by Daveed Diggs and with incidental music by Clipping.
Rivers Solomon take on the story takes as it’s them the repeated “Ya’ll remember” from Clipping’s track and gives context and personality to it. Yetu is a historian of the Wajinru – the collective name of the merpeople that in the shared mythology are referred to as Drexciyans. The Wajinru do not habitually remember, they lack a general episodic memory and do not individually preserve their shared history communally. Instead, they appoint a historian who psychically takes on the collective memories of the whole people. Only during a ritual called the Remembering do they share those memories with the Wajinru as a whole – and Clipping’s track can now be reconsidered as being in that context, as if the words were being spoken by a Wajinru Historian.
Yetu is far from happy in this role. The weight of the memories, born in deep trauma and violence are robbing her of her own identity and the process of the Remembering is causing her deep physical pain. The Wajinru live peaceful, quasi-pastoral lives troubled by their past only during the ritual. The role of the historian is to take on the full tragedy and crimes of their culture in a way that is both an honoured role but also has an aspect of a sin-eater or scapegoat.
Yetu’s role also allows Solomon to give us flashbacks to multiple parts of the Wajinru’s history: the very first of the children to be born fully adapted as aquatic people through an unknown process (magic, if that makes the idea simpler) and their quest to find who they are; their encounter with a ship wrecked “two legs” who they rescue (mirroring later events). Later we discover how deep this history is when we learn of an eventual war between the sea-dwellers and the two-legged land dwellers who eventually find their domain via submarines and the violence that war brings to the world. Yetu is actually in a far future world, although by nature tied to the past.
Yetu flees her people during a Remembering, leaving her memories of the history still churning through the Wajinru and in a fugue state finds herself close to death and eventually trapped in a rocky tidal pool adjacent to a beach. Here she meets two legged people and also Oori, a fisher who has lost her own people and homeland due to disease.
This is a long short story. A short story in the sense that the arc has the kind of structure of a short but of greater length to accommodate the breadth of Wajinru history. It doesn’t always cohere quite as well as it might but like the other iterations of the story it is asking the reader to do the work of pulling the pieces together. Like a genuine history, the past requires effort to be placed into a narrative and each of these accounts requires the same.
The sea as longing and remembering and wistfulness to both travel and return is an old theme and Solomon plays with those themes and personifies them in Yetu. Their relationship with Oori becomes a discussion about culture and history, in particular history as painful memories that we might shy away from.
*[I’m looking up spellings of the proper names from other reviews. eg https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3056511237?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1 Apologies if I get them wrong]