Review: “Miss Carstairs and the Merman” by Delia Sherman

2 of 5 stars.

This tale revives the voice and terrible grasp on science of Jules Verne’s mid-Victorian Era fiction. The narrator, Miss Edith Carstairs, lives in coastal Massachusetts and fancies herself an amateur naturalist of the mid-Victorian caliber, which is appropriate for the setting of the story. However, unlike Verne’s novels which was speculative fiction at the time that it was written, this is not. It is based on terrible science as if nothing has been learned in the past 150 years.

Miss Carstairs is a 50 y.o. spinster that traipses out into a nor’easter to retrieve a stranded sea mammal that has been washed ashore. She takes, what she finds to be a merman, to her conservatory outfitted with a salt-water pool and she proceeds to study him for the next year–Year?!–to ascertain mer society, behaviors, knowledge, customs and sexual practices. Luckily, he communicates telepathically. It takes her a year to figure out that he wants his freedom, from her.

The one topic herein that stands as thoroughly contemporary is that of gender role and sexuality. The merman challenges her notions of gender roles by showing female mer as sexual aggressors, and male mer as equally likely to mate with either gender. In one example, the female abandoned the male after mating. The male then partnered with another male as he, like a sea horse, “gave birth” and raised the offspring of the heterosexual relationship. For 1989, that’s a rather bold stance and not unappreciated as a social statement.

This story appears in the latest anthology edited by Paula Guran, Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, published by Prime Books. “Miss Carstairs and the Merman” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1989.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

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