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The Lutraic Principle
by Kris Schnee
©2005 Kris Schnee -- all rights reserved

Once in a while I have the pleasure of reviewing a novel that makes me question what it means to be otter. Sunsplash's debut, The Grassland World, is among the best first books I've read.

Sunsplash writes under the fanciful name of Tasha Smith, using a first-person voice that invites us to imagine another Earth. On Tasha's world evolution took a different tributary, not following the obvious progression from rock-swinging ocean wanderers to modern lutrine civilization. Instead the world gets 'humans', monkeylike creatures with flat faces and a combination of speech and raw muscle power. As Tasha puts it:

On that California beach I used to sit for hours, letting my gaze slip up from my homework to the weightlifters. The sun drilled down on us to the beat of workout music, and muscles slid and rippled under skin like bronze. Some of the men had no jobs but to 'bulk up' and advertise protein powders. My doctor parents, when they weren't warning me to keep out of the sun, told me that they all did drugs and that the light or the needles would kill them. But the lifters looked invincible to me, and all I could think of at the sight of those sweat-drenched arms was, solar power.

When we meet Tasha's friends Baker and Mason and their drab store-clerk jobs, we start to see why Tasha feels her world of humans is "a spinning, shining top, kept from falling only by its frantic motion." Tasha has every advantage of family wealth and driven parents, but she envies her friends for being able to drop what they're doing and wander off to other jobs or disaster-relief work while Tasha studies-studies-studies -- and they resent her even as they smile. Even their names show the joylessness that seems to mire so many humans; names are assigned on government documents at birth, and there's nary a Piehammer or Thongsnap among them.

Over and over Tasha sees her life as "a reflection of something more real, more alive." As a female of this weirdly sexually dimorphic species she envies the hulking girder-lifting males. Her land of California is part of the world's most powerful nation, yet she feels a sense of doom from an ongoing war and from the machinations of countries she expects never to see. Tasha piles "layer after layer of nimbus-clouds on my soul," and can't connect her fear for society with her own lack of playfulness. Tellingly, despite her culture's similarity to ours, no human dares to call her era a Light Age.

Within a few gloomy chapters Tasha's world starts to change. She enters a school for doctors, "a guild of the walking dead, sleepless, thankless, and after the slightest mistake, penniless." When the harsh training gets to her she starts retreating to the beach at night, where she literally falls in with Poole, a man who sells crude diving equipment.

He hauled me to the surface and the riptide that had caught me let go all at once. Then I saw him clearly. The slick, sharp-nailed hand on my arm was a webbed paw, connected to a shaggy brown hide, and his face was an animal's, grinning stupidly at me.

Poole describes himself as a human who accepted radical surgery to become a living advertisement for both his own dive company and a shadowy biotechnology firm. Tasha feels horrified at first, then fascinated as Poole tells his story of "bizarre coincidences, international intrigue, and emphatic arm gestures." Poole once felt the same uncertainty as Tasha, but tells her that otters are the answer.

"I am what I am, you know? I don't fret about stuff. I just run the business, teach people to fish the fun way, and let the rest take care of itself. What if everybody did that? You can't look a face like mine in the mirror without starting to get it, that that's how to live."

Tasha starts splitting her time between her studies and Poole, resenting each minute in the classroom. "My thoughts were dragged out to sea." She experiences the thrill of a kelp forest, "an undersea cathedral" to her. For humans the ocean is a strange and deadly place, and her need to use clunky tanks and hoses there makes her feel yet more isolated from reality. More and more she falls into Poole's dream of finding happiness by renouncing humanity.

Soon Tasha gets an offer she doesn't want to refuse: put school on hiatus and become a test subject for the same company that made Poole what he is.

He was with me all the way. The biogenics facility loomed around me, white and sterile like a set of teeth. He had a paw on my shaking knee as we chatted our way through signing forms. We ended up on a big foamed-concrete platform floating a few miles offshore. My home for the next few weeks. This place was fake too, a sham island, cut off from nature and maybe the law.

By this point the pattern, the rhythm of the humans' world is clear -- a mad oscillation between individual helplessness under technology and collective helplessness without it. Tasha comes off as spoiled and ignorant at times, but we can see our own problems in her. Do we work too hard, or not hard enough?

The sequence at the island lab is slow but complex, leavened with several steamy Poole scenes (with fanciful human anatomy). Tasha undergoes a series of injections with "tailored viruses" and "nanites", and finds herself recuperating in the lab's secluded Ocean Room.

The water shined at night when the lights were low. I floated on my back with bubbles tickling my skin, trapped in the warm fur that was growing so quickly. My face felt like a submarine conning tower muzzling out above the ripples, a little more each hour. On the pool benches the treatments left me feverish; in the water I was more and more at home.

So it goes as Tasha gradually explores the facility and interacts with the staff. And then one day:

The files said they were injecting just one drug: saline solution. Salt water.

Tasha has by this point had a noseful of conspiracy theories and suspicious behavior. From what we know of humans we might expect her to flee, and she does, but first she goes back to the Ocean Room. Some instincts are universal.

I could feel it. Where my right hand touched the water the finger-webs inched along toward my knuckles, and the nails turned darker, sharper. And I felt like diving in.

Without a boat she can steal, Tasha heads for shore miles away -- a bad impulse even for us! She is alone, lost, afraid, confused, and overjoyed.

I'd never tested myself before. Always it had been committees picking me for acceptance to some school or program. I had proved myself with papers. Now this was me on trial, me and the stub of a tail against a whole ocean, and I was cutting through with the salt-spray on my tongue and the waves streaming past my ears.

Tasha slogs her way up the beach, staggering, and sees of all people her friends Baker and Mason. The handful of beach-goers are puzzled to see a half-otter woman, but her friends are bewildered, because Tasha doesn't seem to speak their language.

When they answered it was in a jabber of hard sounds, and I couldn't make them talk sense. No one did. There was a gathering crowd of humans, of people, and I didn't belong. They didn't know me. I wasn't one of them. What was it I'd wanted when I ran from my life?

Several times Sunsplash has mentioned the 'anthropic principle', humans' idea that the world exists to produce humans. We've also gotten Tasha's admiration for Poole as "someone who could give Death himself a goofy grin," but she's ambivalent about whether that attitude comes from his otterish side or his human background. We're left with a bigger question as Tasha collapses on the beach: what is it that sets us apart from humans? Sunsplash paints them so well we can see them as like us, yet different. Are we happier than them, and is it because we're wiser?

Sunsplash obviously draws on modern research into parallel-worlds theory, and hints that the researchers transforming Tasha do so by somehow gradually moving her to another universe. But if the humans are trying to reach a world of otters, what is it about it that attracts them? Is there some aspect of our lives that they lack, something we should be proud of?

From the novel I get a 'lutraic principle', the impression that there's something recognizably otter even in alien forms of life, and that maybe the nature of reality promotes some essential spark of otterity in all places. But what that spark is, I still can't say.

Since Sunsplash ends her novel with Tasha waking up in the real world, she's imagined the situation without a final resolution with the humans. Of course she could do a sequel, with the character being part of the real world now and facing her old friends as aliens. Sunsplash has been tight-whiskered about her plans, saying only that revisiting the setting would be 'tough' for personal reasons.

Still, with this strong debut, Sunsplash has shown that her imagination crosses bounds of worlds and species. I think she has that essential spark that drives us all to explore -- and maybe that's what's really universal.

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