“Each to Each” by Seanan McGuire was published by Lightspeed, issue 49, (June 2014). You can read it for free here.
They didn’t mention the pain. Maybe they thought we’d all see the writing on the wall, the endless gene treatments, the surgeries to cut away inconvenient bits of bone—both original issue and grown during the process of preparing our bodies for the depths—the trauma of learning to breath in when submerged, suppressing the millennia of instinct that shrieked no, no, you will drown, you will die, no.
And maybe we did drown; maybe we did die. Every submersion felt a bit less like a betrayal of my species and a bit more like coming home.
There is so much to love in this story, which is a chilling, challenging and ultimately rebellious piece of feminist military science fiction. When over-population finally pushes us below the waves, the women of the navy are pushed below first. They undergo slow, painful, cumulative sets of genetic modification, becoming more and more fishlike, increasingly mermaidish, in order to explore and claim the seabed for the United States. The story unfolds from the perspective of a sailor in transition–an amphibious woman who can still walk on dry land but who has gills and whose work takes her hundreds of feet into the dark, cold waters.
What grabbed me most about the story was the realism of it, the frankness of it. That, yes, there would be a reluctance to make the naval mermaids fat and blubbery and seal-like even though that’s perfectly logical because: PR nightmare. Those mermaids still have to be fuckable! That of course trans men would be accepted into the program but trans women wouldn’t be. The complexity of why this is happening–the weight of the worlbuilding all hinted at here–goes beyond control of women’s bodies, though that’s surely part of it.
By the conclusion of the story we’re presented with a narrative that is at once unique and familiar. The Little Mermaid but utterly inverted. A silent rebellion. A story about choices and loss and gains. A story about unforseen consequences and the reckoning they cause. Everything about it works.