Novella: Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman

If you’re looking for a short, satisfying science fiction read, let me suggest Arkfall (2009) by Carolyn Ives Gilman. This Nebula-nominated novella combines good old-fashioned sense of wonder with strong themes and smooth story-telling. Phoenix Picks, who reprinted Gilman’s spectacular novel Halfway Human, has reprinted this novella as an attractive standalone.

The story takes place on the water world of Ben, which has been colonized by Earth settlers. Underneath the ice, the human colonists have developed an insular, communal society that’s comprised of two main groups: “barnacles,” who live packed into densely populated dome cities, and “floaters,” who drift with the underwater currents in self-sustaining arks — biology-based diving-bell-like vessels that live off the ocean’s resources. Osaji is a floater whose plight has been complicated, if not defined, by her elderly grandmother Mota, who demands constant care. Tied down both by Mota and a restrained, stultifying culture that champions selflessness and ritual, Osaji is a restless soul who longs to escape. Only when an unexpected catastrophe sets Osaji and Mota adrift in an ark — along with an obnoxious offworlder, Scrappin’ Jack Halliday — does Osaji get the adventure she seeks.

Arkfall feels a little like the wide-eyed, inventive SF that hooked me into the genre, filled with detailed and effective world-building, alien landscapes, engaging narrative and pure adventure. Osaji is a likable, well developed protagonist whose personal struggle is mirrored by the unique otherworldly society she inhabits. At 76 pages, it’s a briskly paced read, and if it’s not as ambitious or ultimately as impressive as Halfway Human, it’s thoroughly satisfying in its own right. It certainly did plenty to solidify my appreciation of the author’s abilities.

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