Humans have always been fascinated by the oceans. They take up the majority of space on this planet, leaving us islands of impermanent rock to cling to amid their vastness. At any moment they could raise up storms that could batter down our shelters or submerge us beneath waters. We are allowed to survive on their sufferance; one only need look to New Orleans to be reminded of that.
Our pitiful attempts at keeping the waters at bay, or to manipulate them into doing our will, have continually proven doomed to failure. Isn't it about time we recognised the inevitable and learned to try and live with the oceans instead of continually trying to conquer or using them as garbage dumps? They are no more immune to our poisons then we are, yet we cling to the illusion that a body in constant motion is self cleaning.
At one time we feared the seas and respected them, but that was also when, spurred by our misunderstanding and ignorance, we gave it magical attributes to explain its powers. Oceans were populated by mysterious creatures that would lure us into a deathly embrace. Sirens would sing to sailors so that they would wreck their ships on rocks and die in the depths, or mermaids would steal men's hearts and lure them one by one to their deaths under the waves. A number of years ago the British illustrator Brian Froud created a series of 50 drawings and passed them out to four authors. They were each asked to pick the one illustration that inspired them the most and create a story based upon it. The four novels were then published as a series and each one's cover was graced with the illustration that inspired it.
Unfortunately they've been long out of print and it was almost impossible to come by the stories any more. Thankfully ibooks recently re-released my favourite in the series, Patricia McKillip's Something Rich And Strange, but not with the original cover that provided the initial inspiration. Which is a pity because as you can see from the graphic on the left it was beautiful – but thankfully it hasn't affected the quality of the story. (By the way, the ibooks site is currently under construction so you'll not be able to visit them and see what else they might have to offer.)
Jonah and Megan live in one of those coastal towns along the west coast of the United States, and manage to eke out a living from the tourists who come to look at the water and dream primordial dreams they don't understand. Jonah owns a shop that sells trinkets and 'things of the sea' to the tourists, and Megan draws pictures of tidal pools with pen and ink that the tourists buy as mementos of their visit to the water.
Their first indication of something untoward occurring is the appearance of a creature (a sea hare) in one of Megan's drawings that she can't remember putting there. They are both inclined to dismiss it as her being forgetful or caught up in a moment of inspiration, until the mysterious Adam Fin shows up selling the most extraordinary jewelry. All his pieces are carved stone and silver, designed to look like creatures of the sea.
Adam awakens Megan's desire to see deeper into the sea, to discover what lies beneath the surface and beyond the tidal pools that she is able to reproduce with her pen and paper. But it is Adam's mysterious sister who attracts Jonah, when he hears her singing with a bar band one night. Ulysses is the only man to have not succumbed to the lure of the sea's voice as articulated by the Sirens; of course he also had his sailors tie him to mast to prevent him from jumping overboard.
At this point in the story Patricia McKillip has us believing it is a tale about the coldness of the sea and its perilous beauty. How a person can be blinded to their peril by that beauty and lose all that is precious to them? Jonah is more than willing to trade Megan for Nereis, Adam's sister who is queen of the sea, because he has been enchanted by her Siren song.
But has anyone ever asked the Siren what she wants from this exchange? Why did she want to lure Jonah down to her, and as it turns out, Megan as well? Is it from a desire to avenge herself on the world of men for slowly killing her, or is it just because that's her nature and she can't be other than she is?
When Jonah gets down to the bottom of the sea he must travel to where Nereis lives. He follows her song through a labyrinth until he comes to a small door after the final turn in the maze. Through the open door he can see a beautiful tower of pearls and shells from where the song emanates so he knows she lives there, but to reach the tower he must cross through an area of ocean that's filled with the detritus of humanity and the damage it's caused.
Jonah assumes that this is his final test before he's allowed to be rewarded with Nereis' acceptance. So he struggles blindly towards his goal, shielding himself with the shell of a turtle that was strangled by a plastic bag. What he doesn't know is that Megan is making the same journey, guided by Adam, in an attempt to rescue him, or at least see if he wants to be rescued. But instead of hiding herself, and not seeing the destruction, she does her best to give assistance to the creatures she sees suffering.
In the end that's exactly what Nereis wants. She wants humans to see past the romantic image that we have created in our head of the mysterious depths and vast expanses of ocean life and remember that the seas are filled with living creatures. Our lives are irrevocably linked to her health; if the oceans die our chances of survival are next to nothing, and she will surely die if we continue to only see her in terms of something rich and strange instead of a living breathing organism.
Patricia McKillip has created the perfect red herring with Something Rich And Strange. Her characters and scenarios make for an updated and entirely plausible story of the Siren's song, as it touches upon the oceanic outcome for those who would hear and heed. The author plays upon our willingness to believe in the cruelty of the deep sea and Sirens until at the last second she stands it upon its head and shows us that we are as blind as Jonah when it comes to what lies beneath the waves.
Patricia McKillip has a command of the English language that is as beautiful as any writer I have read. She can summon sights and sounds to magically appear in the mind's eye, like few others. If I ever were able to go to the deep places of the ocean I have no doubt — having read Something Rich And Strange — that I will already have a good idea what they will look like.
This is not a "message book" in the sense that you are beaten over the head with anything. It's a wonderful story that just happens to remind us of our obligations to those we share our world with. Fantasy and myth are wonderful, but sometimes reality is even more spectacular.