Alec Nevala-Lee's name on the cover. To understate my appreciation for Nevala-Lee's fiction, I enjoy his fiction's focus on environmental problems.
I first ran into Nevala-Lee's fiction in the September 2009 issue of Analog, and I loved his Monkey-Wrench Gang inspired story, "The Last Resort" (read my review). I highly recommend following the career of this rising science fiction rock star. His novel, The Icon Thief, will be out in February 2012.
Caution! Spoilers! I suggest reading Nevala-Lee's story instead of my review. "Kawataro" is a mystery, and I can hardly write about the story without letting the cat out of the bag. Okay, you've been warned.
"Kawataro" is a mystery firmly grounded in an environmental problem, a problem that would not exist except for limitations in our (human) ability to equitably provide food security. Food security is an environmental concept that describes a persons access to nutritious calories. When a person or a population suffers from food insecurity, that person or population usually is struggling to obtain sufficient calories, iron, or iodine. In the United States to battle iodine deficiency, iodine was artificially added to salt. When the body suffers from an iodine deficiency, the thyroid gland increases in size, hair can fall out, skin can yellow and develop scales, and in some rare cases cause madness.
Nevala-Lee's mystery of the river dwelling Kawataro hinges on iodine deficiency symptoms. I applaud the research that went into the story, but not the research that went into the effects of iodine deficiency but also into the linguistic anthropology needed to round out the deaf fishing village in Japan. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The monster, the Kawataro is myth told to children of frog-like creatures - water spirits - that live in the village's rivers. It is said that the Kawataro kill disrespectful children and drink the children's blood. The myth is so prevalent in the village, a picture hangs in the local bar and stone statues litter the walkways. Thus, I ask the question: which came first, the Kawataro myth or locals suffering from iodine deficiency? Either way, what a great story.
Nevala-Lee's "Kawataro" mystery reminds me a little of H.P. Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth," which also featured frog-like or fish-like humanoids. Also, in Nevala-Lee's "Kawataro," the reader is shepherded by an outsider, Hakaru, a documentary camera operator. In H.P. Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth," the outsider is later revealed as a returning native. Meanwhile, in Nevala-Lee's "Kawataro," Hakaru works with Dr. Nakaya, a linguistic anthropologist, who is later outed as a villager. Dr. Nakaya is in the village studying and documenting a new and evolving indigenousness form of sign language, and Hakaru is there to film interactions between the children who practice the new language.
The documentation of the indigenousness form of sign language is a misdirect in the mystery. The children are creepy and silent (a.k.a Children of the Corn, except Japanese). The children are always around the next corner and always watching and communicating in a form of sign only they understand. The main conflict that starts the story rolling is that the village school must integrate with the closest city so that the government can save money. Dr. Nakaya is fighting the integration because it would mean and end to the indigenousness form of sign language and her research. Because Dr. Nakaya is seen as an outsider and interested in the children, she is quickly blamed for the murder of the school's biggest integration advocate, Miyamoto.
As the investigation into Miyamoto's murder progresses, Hakaru talks to locals who are willing to reveal that Miyamoto's murder is only one of several. It doesn't talk long for the murder to catch up with Hakaru and his snooping. Moreover, Hakaru, possessing more environmental and health knowledge than I gave him credit, is able to link the recessive gene for deafness, the myth of the Kawataro, and iodine deficiency symptoms to catch the killer before it (...um) he strikes again.
Make sure to get your copy of the June 2011 issue of Analog before they're gone, so you can read this gem of a story. While you're at it, you can follow Nevala-Lee's blog, Alec Nevala-Lee and Twitter, @nevalalee.
Nevala-Lee, Alec. "Kawataro." Analog. Dell Magazines, June 2011, Vol. CXXXI, No. 6. Print