Wakulla Springs

by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October, 2013
ASIN: B00EWZDPH4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 99

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This is another nominee for the 2014 Hugo Awards (for works published in 2013), this time in the novella category. In this case, though, I read the free ebook version from Tor (Macmillan) rather than the version from the voter packet, since I usually grab all the free ebooks of Tor.com stories. (Even if I'm quite behind in reading them, since I don't read much short fiction.) As an independently-published novella, it gets its own review in the book category.

Wakulla Springs is the story of three generations (and four protagonists) who lived near or visited Wakulla Springs in the Florida panhandle. This is a real place: a huge freshwater springs and underwater cave system, now protected as a national park. Two of the four episodes in this story revolve around the filming of movies: a Tarzan movie and Creature from the Black Lagoon. This actually happened as well, although of course the story takes liberties with the details.

This is also the story of race relations in the American deep south: the tense and uncertain interactions between black locals and rich white people, both locals and people from the film industry who came for a brief time and then left again. It's also a story about water, swimming, and the sense of being part of the water and knowing it well. This story doesn't develop any particular point; rather, it's more of a collection of character sketches, grabbing moments in time, glimpsing what it's like to cross racial barriers and to feel at home with one's choices. It's also, in a nicely subtle way, about encountering mythical creatures that are not part of one's world. To the locals, the film stars who visit Wakulla Springs are as wild and strange as the imagined creatures of the swamp, and in their way even more foreign.

What this is not, though, is science fiction, or even fantasy. One of the complaints I'd heard about Wakulla Springs in the context of the Hugos was that it didn't qualify as a genre story. I'm usually inclined to dismiss these sorts of complaints, since they're often put forth by people with a far narrower definition of genre than mine. But, having read this story, I have to concur. It's very well-written and engaging, but it's not genre in any sense that I'd define it. There are some rare mentions of mythical creatures, but only in ways that are part of the setting, and which are no more fantastic than I'd expect from many mainstream stories. I'm a bit baffled why an SFF publisher would have bought it for an explicitly SFF forum; I have to assume that it's just because it's well-written and the authors have both written SFF.

That said, even though this is not the sort of story I'd normally seek out, I'm still glad I read it. I thought the best part of the story was the first, which follows a black woman who takes a job at the Wakulla Springs resort during the filming of a Tarzan movie. The color lines are simply taken for granted by everyone, but Johnny Weissmuller comes off very well in his fictional representation and adds an enthusiastic energy that plays off well against the thoughtful care of the protagonist.

The second part echoes this with a boy as the protagonist, but shifts a generation later. This means the color line is fought instead of simply assumed, although with limited success. I thought this part of the story had the best descriptions of the joy of swimming, and once again the movie folks bring a disruptive and positive change to the tightly-drawn lines of local roles and politics. The third and fourth parts I found slighter, elaborating on the story by showing the reader glimpses of the later life of the first two protagonists, but not, I thought, adding anything fundamental to the story.

I'm not sure this would be satisfying if you were looking for a science fiction or fantasy story, but it's a solid mainstream story about race, class, and the joy of knowing and feeling a place. It captures an angle of Hollywood that I've rarely seen in movies: a disruptive and almost subversive playfulness and energy that doesn't fix problems but that does provide moments of escape from the realities of the world, even outside of the film. Worth reading, particularly since it's free.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-12-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-23