“We Who Live in the Heart,” by Kelly Robson

“We Who Live in the Heart,” by Kelly Robson.
Novelette. Published in Clarkesworld, May 2017.

Humans have taken to living in giant floating whales. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious…. particularly when reviews seem to be pegging this as a story with plenty of meat to it.

Rocket Stack Rank does not recommend:

Pro: The account of what it’s like to belong to (and join) a tight-knit group of “whalers” is entertaining.
Narration and dialogue are spot on, and the plot is pretty much about how Doc learned to love someone again.

Con: I found it hard to sustain suspension of disbelief, and that spoiled the story for me. (…) The ending didn’t work for me either.

On the other hand, Charles Payseur is enthusiastic:

We as humans are all different and the story does a lovely job of showing what that can mean, how people can still find value in each other and in their relative seclusion, forming loose bonds that perhaps don’t offer as much cohesion but don’t bind, either. That exist to be supportive and caring without suffocating. And I like how the story establishes that with the crew of Mama, how the main character comes to stand for this voice of freedom even as they do yearn for relationships and company. And I just love how the piece builds up the bond between the main character and Ricci, how it reveals the potential that people have to build each other up, even as it never loses sight of how people can also tear each other down and apart. It’s a story with a great sense of wonder and fun, and it’s an amazing read!

What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

8 thoughts on ““We Who Live in the Heart,” by Kelly Robson”

  1. Kelly Robson’s fiction really works for me. I loved the weirdness of the whale-habitats and the depiction of a group of misfits and outsiders who don’t always get along but fit better together than anywhere else. The developing romance was sweet. She has a really nice touch for dropping you into a story so that the characters feel like they live in it, and making any necessary exposition interesting and feel natural.

    1. (Also, that Jane was considered pretty and worthy of a collective crush while also being in a wheelchair and it was never a big deal. That was great.)

    2. I had very much the same reaction! It’s a really engaging story; concrete and weird at the same time.

      I also think she did a fantastic job with the worldbuilding — the contrast between the overpacked “moles” and the dangerous, survivalist whale habitats was vivid and well-done. Vivid enough to justify Doc’s overwhelming orneriness – it’s downright pathological at times (“la la la, what happens to other habs on other whales can’t affect meeeee”), but it makes sense that this particular type of pioneer would be that type of person.

      The romance is the only part I wasn’t crazy about. Doc’s miraculous reformation is so sudden and complete — it isn’t that it’s hard to believe, it’s just hard to believe it’ll last. And Doc, ummmm, doesn’t strike me as type of person you’d want as an ex…

  2. There’s an interesting undercurrent here; while the story hinges a lot on the excitement of pioneering, it also kind of makes clear that that excitement can’t last. There’s the omnipresent danger, of course — but more interesting to me is Doc’s assertion that all the other habitats are starting to form the same systems of centralization, efficiency-tracking, and bureaucracy.

    If the desire for freedom and independence is being valorized here, it’s also being presented as something of a short-lived pipe dream.

    1. This rather reminds me of The Dispossessed and the message that even idealist movement have a tendency to degrade, especially in the face of scarcity and survival, but that such degradation _isn’t_ inevitable. I think that Doc has found a way to be essentially independent, but it does walk a razor’s edge because they can’t slip and let what happened to the other whales happen with them.

  3. So, what about the whales?

    The story makes a few quick references to the possibility of them being sentient, or to the habitats pushing them to sentience by their actions.

    But it doesn’t really dwell on whether the habitats are harming the whales, or causing them to suffer. And they’re so invasive, I’m kind of assuming the answer is “yes.”

    I’m kind of wondering whether Robson is planning additional stories in this setting. There are so many open threads, the premise is immediate and striking, and she’s built some intriguing characters; I feel like follow-ups would work really well — and working in the sentience of the whales would be an obvious future step.

    1. This was something I’d love to see more exploration of. Because obviously Doc cares for the whale as a vehicle, as a home, but not really as a being. And the extent to which this colonization of the whales is a huge wrong being done is something that no one likes to think about. Humans die in the story, yes, but also quite a few whales. So yeah, definitely something I think could be expanded.

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