Like Alasdair Stuart, Water & Glass is my first review for the Shadow Clarke. Timelines being what they are, I was lucky enough to read his review before I began drafting my own and this gave me some leeway in terms of leaving certain things unexplored since he’s already covered them, and exploring aspects that I felt I wanted to see discussed. That said, our readings of the same novel feel wildly different. He feels the novel does extremely well; I found it more than a bit hollow at the end of the day.
When I originally added Water & Glass to my short list, I suspected that the plot’s concern with a group of (largely European-coded) survivors onboard a submarine, the Baleen, would herald “an already present anxiety about intimacy, trauma, and reproductive concerns.” Given its thematic concerns from the blurb, I guessed that as a Noah’s Ark tale, the plot would likely revolve around questions of “precariousness and interdependent survival, resettling, and the possibility or repopulation or extinction,” though within the frameworks of the novel itself they were unable to gather more than a few animals, rather than any idea of two of a wide variety. Since reproduction felt central to Water & Glass’ concerns, the blurb itself led me to worry about the likelihood of queerphobia or eugenics in play, and unfortunately this assumption is almost entirely borne out. While queerness is entirely and frustratingly absented from this narrative (its own form of queerphobia), a concern with eugenics and human evolution through human-animal gene splicing is one of the grand revelations of the piece.
So in many ways the book was roughly what I expected based on its blurb—a dystopian exploration of life in close quarters as humanity struggles to deal with the effects of climate change. The book has short chapters and shifting third-person points of view, shared largely between Nerissa Crane—an unaccredited and partially trained vet, who is pregnant herself and caring for the animals onboard the submarine, the Baleen—and the described consciousness of a Woolly Rat called Molloy from New Guinea.[i] Between them, the reader is provided with commentary about life onboard the Baleen’s various decks and its increasingly oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere, as well as access to Nerissa’s memories of her parents, Caleb and Lenora, and her (potentially) deceased husband, Greg Silver. The narrative moves back and forth through Nerissa’s memories and present, with interspersed chapters of Molloy’s exploration of the ship, until their eventual reunion and the plot’s denouement.
It feels like there’s quite a bit of intertextual allusion to Water & Glass. The first and most obvious reference is that of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), a quote from which opens the book. This is additionally reinforced by the inclusion of a character named Herman; its (shockingly cursory) discussion of class, culture, and status of the various people onboard; and in its larger narrative structure of Nerissa bearing witness to the (eventually discovered) obsessive quest of Esther Mortimer and the Mithras Institute onboard the Baleen. There are references to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1870) in the crew’s position on a submarine that is deliberately steering away from the current constraints and issues of land-locked civilizations and cultures; the brief encounter with a giant squid (though this would likely have been an octopus in Verne’s version); and in the eventual escape or disembarking of a small group (Nerissa, Captain Hughes, and Leopold and Rudolf Doubek) who choose to return to land, leaving the eventual fate of the Baleen and its people unknown. Alongside the obvious Noah’s Ark references, the plot uses flashbacks to talk about the diminishing distinctions between human and animal life in this shipboard world and a seemingly shared struggle for survival. However, this is increasingly where my trouble with the book begins (as discussed later). There’s also a reference to Mithras that felt like it could be both leading and misleading. From its repeated discussion of bull imagery, I understood this was to be the Roman incarnation (and not the Iranian), and so I was convinced—given my limited knowledge of Roman ritual gleaned almost entirely from shady historical fantasy novels—that this would be something to do with the military, experimentation, and animal sacrifice. And while experimentation and animal sacrifice do seem to be a factor, the military are actually completely absented from the confines of the story. As a result, the ending was something I was halfway to expecting and nothing like what I was expecting at all.
Perhaps the most interesting thing Water & Glass does is provide an unusual take on surveillance cultures. Molloy has a camera surgically affixed to in his head (seemingly part of a procedure to document his movements from before the floods), and there’s repeated mention of how comforting Nerissa finds the idea of someone out there recording their lives and survival. This is placed in contrast to the human surveillance of the (all female[ii]) stewards onboard which Nerissa finds increasingly oppressive. This sets up an idea not only of contact with land (and therefore with survivors who document these things) but it draws on an idea of documentation of wildlife in which interference with events or the subject’s choices is not the norm. The interplay between Molloy’s run of the ship, and its eventual mirroring in Nerissa’s journey to the different decks, feels like it intends itself to be a discussion of documentation, surveillance, freedom, and agency. Notably, neither Nerissa nor the narrative ever seem to connect this surveillance and non-consensual transgression of the body’s structure with Molloy to the manner in which her body and self—as one of the Mithras Institute’s early works in survivalist gene-splicing—is overseen, engineered, and turned to a documented purpose. And much like Molloy escapes whatever landscape he was in originally and the pens he is in onboard, Nerissa eventually escapes her supposed purpose, as decided by the Mithras Institute.
That said, given this choice of narrative parallel, I found it a bit odd that the idea of Molloy’s unknown surveillance was never made discomforting in light of Nerissa’s eventual knowledge that the Mithras Institute had been watching her and attempting to manipulate her choices for much of her life. I was never quite sure what I was supposed to do with the parallel, or the way this was tied to Captain Hughes and the penultimate narrative of surveilling water to locate land masses, only to find this knowledge buried by the head of the Mithras Institute, Esther Mortimer, in the hopes of keeping people under command longer and ensuring the breeding of a second generation of the “new species” of human-animal gene-spliced survivors. It suggests the possibility of deeper commentary on the idea of intelligence gathering and its purposes, but I’m not sure that Water & Glass genuinely intended this or knew what to do with it once it had established the mythical idea of “someone” out there watching. It feels like a loose thread in the novel’s pattern of ideas.[iii]
Water & Glass struggles with any question of diversity beyond the most superficial. Some may consider this an odd thing to say since the book explicitly includes numerous characters of clearly differing ethnicities from the various European cities it mentions. However, there’s a particular tone to these descriptions, where these characters are described variously as “dusky” skinned, “teak-brown” skinned, “peat brown” skinned, “ebony” skinned, “mahogany” skinned, while what I assume are white-coded characters are either described as “pale” or no description of their skin is provided at all. This may seem like a small gripe to have with a general descriptive style, but I’d argue it actually points towards a larger idea of what the author considers the norm and therefore unnecessary to describe (because it is felt to be self-evident) and what is felt to be unusual or outside of the norm.[iv] Whether intended or not, it reveals the ethnicity of its writer, even as the main character, Nerissa, with her “dusky” skin, remains ambiguously mixed race. Notably, for all these near constant descriptions of various brown people, race is conspicuously absent in any effects in the worldbuilding of this narrative; as though life trapped in dystopian close quarters with a large group of people is somehow the way to end racism rather than a recipe for disaster.
Culture is oddly absented too, whether in clothing, or songs, or language, or food preparation. I understand that this may have been the book’s extended attempt to create a sense of monotony in the scarcity of food and clothing, but given that we’re told the journey so far has only been a few months long, this feels more like an unwillingness to actually engage with distinct cultures beyond noting various European accents (and only European accents as far as I remember) as a means of denoting “otherness.”[v] Notably, British or English accents are never noted (one lone Irish accent is) and any characters whose accent isn’t immediately noted likely fell into this category from context. When discussing the consumption of snails, Nerissa notes that few if any of the passengers have become accustomed to its “slimy, chewy texture,” leaving out any global food cultures where snails might been normalized for consumption. There’s so much about this positioning that points not particularly vaguely to who is supposed to be seen as “default” in the worldbuilding of this dystopian setting and, to my perception, Water & Glass never feels self-aware or conscious of the problems of this at all.
In yet another example of this deeply awkward framing, a set of scenes in Istanbul only features interactions that occur between white people and Nerissa, all of whom appear to be coded as non-Turkish. Turkish people, when mentioned at all, only ever seem to form an exoticized backdrop in which their lives are summarized as providing tea, rowing boats, and distantly singing the azaan (which is described as “mournful” in its first iteration). We’re told through Nerissa’s point of view that the now-submerged city (linked thematically to Venice) has gondolas instead of its previously “blaring traffic” and this lent it “great charm;” a bland statement masking the deaths of a multiplicity of people who would have contributed to that traffic (whether in cars or now gondolas). In a book that repeatedly referenced death and the trauma of death, particularly the death of entire ways of life, over and over and in a multiplicity of ways, this particular section made me want to shake Nerissa until her teeth rattled. Further in, the book did have older characters and briefly talks about illness, neither this nor any real-world seafarer issues (like depression, anxiety, isolation, suicidal ideation, etc, as the result of life at sea) were dealt with in any sustained manner,[vi] outside of one brief conversation where Nerissa wonders to herself whether the person is sick or an addict. This and other factors made it rapidly evident to me that this book wasn’t going to consider the actual questions of culture, nationality, race, or any kind of realistic otherness with any depth, and from that point on I stopped giving its pretence of inclusion any real credit.
One of the reasons I bring this idea up is because of the larger framing of reproduction, eugenics, hybridization, agency, and race that enter any discussion of man-made evolution. The book’s first hint of human-animal hybrids is noted in a female steward with “teak-brown skin” whose movements were “languid and panther-like,” and within the Water & Glass’ understanding of this framing, this is merely foreshadowing. (Nerissa actually specifically flashes back to this memory once she becomes aware that everyone onboard, with the exception of her assistant Herman and anyone too old for it, has likely been genetically changed.) But comparisons of women of colour to animals have real world repercussions of them being seen as “less” human. Intentional or not, this choice of description left my eyebrows hovering at my hairline at first, and the eventual revelation did nothing to appease this concern because of how this hybridization (whether voluntary or involuntary) was never positioned as good or natural (therefore underscoring this link). Additionally, the only descriptively non-white (his skin is described as “nut-brown”) and non-European (potentially Indonesian, since he works at Sabangau National Park) man in the entirety of the novel, Chairil, is not only retrospectively discussed as a genetically modified human with animal characteristics, but any agency he may have had is retrospectively unwritten; i.e., Chairil and Nerissa slept together one night and we’re later informed by Esther that this was a plan to have them pair and breed. I have no words for how upsetting this section of the novel was—that we’re meant to see this as evidence of Esther’s monstrosity is evident; that the novel never considers what it means to have Chairil, a character who barely speaks (Nerissa constantly can’t hear or understand him in her recollections), appear solely to act as part of a white woman’s plan for eugenics is enraging.
If here someone intends to point out how everyone—white and various shades of brown wood (yes, I will never stop being bitter)—has been hybridized, I’m going to point to a history of racist associations between people of colour and animals not being applied to white people and roll my eyes until they fall right out of my head. Nerissa’s own role as a woman of colour, with “dusky” skin, who has been mutated in this dystopian setting does little to address this because she never makes this link; the book can’t deal with this without accepting that any such premise is always going to be so much more complicated than it appears on the surface. To set up an entire plot around refugees fleeing a disintegrating world cannot be interpreted without all the weight of race and bodies and culture in our world. Precarity is lived, not simply theorized. It’s as simple (and as messy) as that for me.
At the end of things, Water & Glass is a poignant tale of a series of traumatic events, both global and personal, but it feels like it never quite manages to get to any sort of depth with them, leaving ideas half formed and hovering inches below the surface.
[i] Though the narrative later confuses this by mentioning the Woolly Rat as “From the rainforest, Bolivia,” although Bolivia and Papua New Guinea are vastly different and this changed assertion has no intended narrative weight whatsoever, to my recollection.
[ii] This is noted by one of the stewards, Darshana Hardy, that the all-female group of stewards is because “We felt that female authority figures would prove less threatening, given history. It is sexist, of course. But it seems to work.” I have yet to stop boggling at this construction of “sexism.”
[iii] Another loose thread that I have yet to make sense of is how genetically modified teenagers dunking their head into a bowl of water and rat-blood is relevant to anything, or how it helps them with the process of puberty as Rudolf suggests at one point. This felt like it was meant to be a disconcerting ritual, but if that was all it was then I’m still flummoxed by Rudolf’s assertion that it “helps” with hybrid puberty without any further explanation.
[iv]I long for the day where every white character is described as “skimmed milk” or “whole milk” skinned to even this out. Give me an extended description of what shade of “pale” wood to apply: whether someone’s skin is the shade of “pine” or “balsam or “aspen” or “spruce.” It’s important that I know what mental wood chip to use here.
[v] A potentially Belgian accent is described as “deep and sticky.” I literally have no idea what this means. It’s worth pointing out that the character, Gus Duras, runs a crepe cart, though what that has to do with his accent or its stickiness is yet to be determined.
[vi] While Nerissa is depressed and isolated, this seems linked more to the personal trauma of losing Greg and less to the particular problems of long-term life onboard a ship.
An academic and freelance journalist by day, Samira Nadkarni spends far too much of her time having feelings and yelling on the internet. Although she sometimes writes reviews for the SFF magazine, Strange Horizons, the majority of her free time is spent reading, binge-watching terrible TV, and being stared down by cats.