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The Word of Flesh and Soul is an English language speculative fiction short story published as a "Tor.com Original" in December 2018 by American Locus Award nominated Lovecraftian horror writer Ruthanna Emrys.

The author's own blurb about the story states:

The language of the originators defines reality, every word warping the world to fit its meaning. Its study transforms the mind and body, and is closely guarded by stodgy, paranoid academics. These hidebound men don’t trust many students with their secrets, especially not women, and more especially not “madwomen.” Polymede and her lover Erishti believe they’ve made a discovery that could blow open the field’s unexamined assumptions, and they’re ready to face expulsion to make their mark. Of course, if they’re wrong, the language will make its mark on them instead.

Polymede and Erishti are linguists, classicists, lesbians, and neurodivergent: Erishti is autistic, and Polymede experiences "logogenic" mental health problems and body modifications (such as extra fingers), because Lloala, the eldritch language they are studying together, causes physiological and psychological change to those who speak it. This extreme exaggeration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity is also able to be found in a number of other speculative fiction works by other authors, such as Fine Prey by Scott Westerfeld (in which the protagonist physically becomes a member of an alien species by the end of the novel), and Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang (adapted into the 2016 film Arrival, in which the protagonist gains the ability to see the future, after learning a language from precognitive aliens). Polymede and Erishti perform academic espionage and take considerable risks, in order to trick the heads of their linguistics department into allowing them to present their research findings - something which historically has not been permitted for women or neurodivergent people, and which Polymede's male academic advisor is attempting to poach credit for, in her place.

The women have insights into an ancient Lloala myth, which are glaringly obvious to the two of them, but which the male-only linguistics department have ignored or failed to observe from their ivory tower. Whether or not Emrys was intending to make a gestural reference to, and commentary on, Emily Wilson's feminist translation of the Odyssey, stands as an exercise for the reader of both, but I think the choice to name the protagonist "Polymede" - the name of the mother of the Argonaut Jason, in the ancient Greek myth of the Golden Fleece - is no accident. Polymede (in Greek, Πολυμήδη) means "many tricks" or "much cunning," and the Odyssey begins, "ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον," which is commonly translated, "Tell me, oh Muse, of a man of many twists and turns," a man polytropon. Emily Wilson famously translates this, "Tell me about a complicated man." The name Erishti likewise comes from classical sources, an ancient Persian word for the planet Saturn, associated with a Babylonian primordial deity called "lord of the decision."

The full text can be read at this address. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the works of Robert W. Chambers, H. P. Lovecraft, Charlie Jane Anders (especially the latter's short story If You Take My Meaning), or Ursula K. Le Guin. Emrys is best known for her works set in the Lovecraftian town of Innsmouth, such as The Litany of Earth and Winter Tide.

Iron Noder 2020, 28/30

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