An unshakeable friendship between a young girl and a sea monster. That’s right you heard me, what are you waiting for?! Read below to hear the author S.M. Wheeler talk about friendship with monsters!
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Friendship with monsters is one of those concepts I can’t keep away from, and it is a major aspect of Sea Change. It’ll take a tangent to explain why. One of the legs my interest in speculative fiction stands on is the writer’s offer of weirdness to the reader—something that the real world doesn’t (can’t) contain. I’d argue, even, that it is one of the most important aspects of the genre. The intent behind the offer varies magnificently: think of H. P. Lovecraft’s incitation of terror in the unknown versus J. K. Rowling’s invitation to belong within it. Those are useful poles—horror versus belonging—with which to consider how it gets used. Is the weird safe? if no, how? and how much? Answer those questions and you can get deep into the workings of a the story’s universe. The writer peeks out from behind the green curtain.
Monsters* are by default weird, though they have their different ways and portrayals. For myself, I’m a romantic pessimist with an ideology, and it shows. Cthulhu is the power, not Voldemort, but he would pause to untangle the racism of the fictive, fear-painted ‘Orient’ from what is otherwise a pretty cool mythos. Possibly his patience would hold long enough for a chat about male gendering of hellish entities. Only after this special tête-à-tête would he proceed to eat the soul of his conversational partner. In a post-apocalyptic landscape racism and sexism may be passé topics, but they’d be addressed. Meanwhile Cthulhu would undulate his tentacles in an emotion that is not quite pity, but comes close enough.
I’m not only being silly. ‘Not quite’ and ‘close enough’ are the territory of some fantastic monsters**, most of them with physical manifestations of their weirdness. For this we look to the term’s old meaning as an “omen”—those events which indicated future ills and wonders. You know, like a lamb with a congenital birth defect presaging the fall of kings. Too, we come up against such things as humanoid aliens whose monstrous pointy ears and dramatic eyebrows indicate deeper psychological differences. As the latter shows, ‘monster’ has gotten uncoupled from its negative connotations. Such instability has been included in the monster-equals-evil equation all the way back in Frankenstein, and sympathetic monsters is still a popular trope (if not more so now than then—our Draculas tend to have his lush lips but not his temperament).
And now I’ve distracted myself from my original topic. To bring us back to where we want to be: here’s the writer, who offers their reader a weird character who is sapient, communicative, but looks, thinks, and lives in ways that is profoundly different from the human experience. This monster can be an antagonist, but I find the easiest path to letting the reader touch the monstrous is for the story’s narrator-protagonist to befriend it (or, where ‘friendship’ isn’t possible, at least to forge an affection connection). Intimate conversations pull differences to the surface. Besides, if we identify with our protagonist, we get to piggyback an experience of knowing something cool as hell.
Speaking of, you know what’s cool as hell? Krakens. A mollusk stars in Sea Change, and not as a consequence of the recent boom in cephalopod love (though I appreciate the amount of octopus swag I’ve been able to buy because of it). He is an eminently polite monster, whose loyalty and affection are meant to make the reader want him as a friend, but what is monstrous about him goes deeper than what is human. Anything that lives in the water immediately gains mystique, perhaps a bit of unease—particularly when it makes its home in the Ocean, which is a great symbol of otherness***, an environment in which humans suffer more than not.
If speculative fiction has as one of its purposes allowing readers to experience what the real world can’t offer, then I hope I have been successful in meeting that goal with my kraken. His human friend, Lilly, is herself meant to borrow his weirdness—and there we venture into the territory of identification with deviation from norms and why an individual would want to be cozy with what’s beyond the pale. I don’t think regulars of the genre need me to pontificate on that topic, though—we’re all here, aren’t we?
* For the record, I mean to exclude throughout the meanings of ‘monster’ and ‘monstrous’ as labels for people and acts we don’t want to believe humans capable of. The monster here is literally inhuman.
** ‘Not at all’ is a whole ’nother ballgame and one I haven’t played yet. Let’s call it a future topic of discussion.
*** In the interest of derailing myself, I’m not equating speculative fiction ‘otherness’ with the Other as used in literary jargon. If I wanted to venture into that battle, I’d use human characters (the equation of the nonhuman with women, queer folk, and people of color is seriously problematic, right?).
The unhappy child of two powerful parents who despise each other, young Lilly turns to the ocean to find solace, which she finds in the form of the eloquent and intelligent sea monster Octavius, a kraken. In Octavius’s many arms, Lilly learns of friendship, loyalty, and family. When Octavius, forbidden by Lilly to harm humans, is captured by seafaring traders and sold to a circus, Lilly becomes his only hope for salvation. Desperate to find him, she strikes a bargain with a witch that carries a shocking price.
Her journey to win Octavius’s freedom is difficult. The circus master wants a Coat of Illusions; the Coat tailor wants her undead husband back from a witch; the witch wants her skin back from two bandits; the bandits just want some company, but they might kill her first. Lilly’s quest tests her resolve, tries her patience, and leaves her transformed in every way.