Tor.com, November 2018
“The Word of Flesh and Soul” by Ruthanna Emrys
Reviewed by Jeffrey Steven Abrams
This mesmerizing ten-thousand-word novelette explores the power of the spoken word. In this case, language itself takes on a form of consciousness. Those who study Lloala, the Originators tongue, physically change into whatever the language decides for them.
Polymede is a graduate student studying Lloala. Her body is just now showing the beginning stages of change, an extra set of tiny fingers growing out of her knuckles, fingers in her tongue. She accepts the gift/afflictions with an open mind and eager heart.
Unfortunately, she suffers from a bad case of low self-esteem, expertly hinted at by her reactions to Dr. Rallis, her bullying, arrogant graduate school advisor.
Polymede’s approach to her studies is unusually free-thinking. While academics believe that Lloala cannot be truly learned unless scholars discard every technological aid not available to the Originators, Polymede has no problem using whatever tools are available.
One night she breaks into Dr. Rallis’ office, intent on photographing some ancient text he has concealed from her. Emrys paints a perfect image in her description of Dr. Rallis’ office. The professor’s interests are plain to see by the ancient artifacts and paraphernalia he has haphazardly stacked around his space. Equally telling is the complete lack of anything even remotely personal or family related.
A high point of the story occurs after Dr. Rallis discovers Polymede’s break-in. Their ensuing dialog, while riveting and intense, is burdened with too much academic lecturing on the Lloala language. Later in their conversation, the author devotes two pages to their analysis of a single Lloala document. While information within these expository sections is interesting and helps build the setting, I would have liked them to be either a bit shorter, or a little more dispersed.
During the last third of the story, Polymede and her autistic friend/helper/lover defend their research before the literary board. In some powerful scenes, the two women display not only their work but also the physical alterations the Originators have gifted upon their bodies.
Layered into the ending is a subplot about Dr. Rallis’ long running dispute with thereview board Rallis and his colleagues are a good-old-boy network of professors who share a conservative, male-dominated view of Originator Life. The board wishes to publish Polymede’s progressive paper, partly based on its merit but also as a slap in Rallis’ face.
Upon finishing “The Word of Flesh and Soul,” I was left wondering about words as sentient beings, capable of physically altering the humans who study them. What an amazingly original idea! For this reason, and despite some overly long exposition, I recommend reading this remarkable story.