While more often used for entertainment purposes, the tropes of science fiction possess powerful metaphorical and symbolic potential, and when used appropriately, can rise above what appear as mere “squids in space.” Walter Jon Williams’ 1988 novella Surfacing is one such example. The story of a deeply scarred and tormented researcher, his work with aliens transcends outward tension to become something personal.
Surfacing is the story of Anthony, a philologist of sorts, researching deep ocean creatures on an alien planet. Humanity years before having come to an understanding of whale language, a team of humpbacks act as Anthony’s spotters, notifying the lone scientist when the rumblings of Deep Dwellers, as they’re dubbed, can be heard. Only a simple grammatical structure apparent, at the outset of the story Anthony is still collecting samples as he tries to piece the Dwellers’ language together. Approached by a woman onshore one day, asking if she can share his humpbacks for her own work, the steady life of alcohol, research, and the sea he’d built over the years starts to unravel. Problem is, the woman has severe personal issues of her own.
A dark, troubled story with an emergent (as the title suggests) ending, Surfacing is a story that operates at two levels. While collecting data, enjoying sunsets at sea, and drowning the sorrows of his troubled youth, Anthony listens to the deeps, trying to make sense of the communications he hears coming from the Dwellers. His life a routine, it takes another researcher to shake him loose. And though their initial meetings are harsh and crude, the surreal nature of their meetings push Anthony toward something more, something deeper within himself. The woman, named Philana, likewise must answer black and white questions about herself, and the choices she’s made—questions that ultimately require the ocean and the mysteries of its deeps to answer.
In the end, Surfacing is a quality novella from one of the lesser known names in science fiction, but a name that is deserving of more attention. A gritty, tempestuous story featuring a dark, troubled main character, flashes of violence and self-abuse are interspersed with more light-hearted moments talking with the humpbacks. Williams keeping the focus on characters, and providing just enough setting and scene transition as is necessary, it’s a very personal story with a strong ending.