Submerged

Submerged Cover: Miku carries TakuDeveloper: Uppercut Games
First Release: 4th August, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Xbox One | Steam

Miku’s brother Taku is badly hurt. When their boat drifts into an abandoned city, she hopes to find supplies to help him recover.

The setting is a flooded city in a post-apocalyptic world where the sea levels have risen. Despite the main aim of finding supplies for Taku, there are no time limits and the player can take as long as they want to explore. Miku travels around the city in her fishing boat, and can climb the buildings sticking out of the water.

I liked the general feel of the game. Rather than showing the decay of the city as destruction, it’s something that’s brought new life. Sea creatures swim through the streets and jungles grow on the buildings. There’s a day and night cycle, as well as the occasional storm.

The past is told through picture sequences. Finding supply crates unlocks the story of Miku’s family. Finding books unlocks the story of the city. The present story is told through brief cutscenes. This all worked well enough, but the present story is very short. It ends abruptly just as it’s getting going.

Image Caption: Miku driving her small fishing boat through the city. Miku is a tween/young teen wearing clothes made from old cloth (baggy shorts below the knee, a strip of cloth over her chest, and a long scarf). She has light skin and brown hair. She stands in the boat with her back to the camera, and a hand on the tiller. The city has overgrown buildings, with trees on top, sticking out of the water. There are game icons at the bottom of the screen and a compass at the top.

Gameplay is repetitive. The main activities consist of finding the crates and secrets by climbing buildings, and exploring the city by boat. As the story is on the slim side, and the buildings are generally similar to each other, there’s not much that’s very surprising around the corner. I’d have liked more unique areas on the buildings, new animals appearing as the story progresses, or something else like that to reward exploring.

The game has subtitles for Miku’s language, though little that’s said is really needed. It’s mainly to reinforce what needs doing as shown in the cutscenes. The storms produce a few flashes on the screen, but it’s not compulsory to play during the storms if they’re an issue. It’s third person, cutting out most motion sickness issues, which is perhaps ironic given the length of time spent in a boat.

I did enjoy wandering around the city. Driving my boat over the rolling waves, with dolphins following me, was a relaxing experience. My favourite animal was the giant whale shark that appears in some of the deeper channels. It’s not a bad game for players looking for short non-combat experiences. But I felt there was a lot of potential it didn’t quite reach, particularly in terms of story and things to find while exploring.

Love, Lattes and Angel – Sandra Cox

Love, Lattes and Angel CoverSeries: Mutants, #3
First Published: 12th April, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Piper is a dolphin-human hybrid, called a dolph. She and her friends are on the run from the scientist who created the dolphs. Her friends include her human boyfriend Tyler, her baby daughter Angel, dolph siblings Joel and Amy, and her human grandfather. Angel was recently created in a lab, from Piper and Joel’s DNA, and seems to have many new abilities. They’ll have to deal with strange storms, voodoo, and love triangles. Note that though it’s generally a light book, there are some scenes of medical torture.

I like stories centred around oceans and mermaids, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Dolphin-human hybrids sounded as though they could be interesting, even with a mention of a love triangle (which isn’t my thing) and voodoo (often handled very badly) in the description. Sometimes I regret my choices.

It’s told from the alternating perspectives of Piper and Joel. The book is not well-written right from the start. It has confusing and awkward lines, dialogue that doesn’t sound real, and paper-thin characters. The opening makes little sense, as it has Joel waking up from having his tracking chip removed. But no one considered that taking off the suppressor he was wearing would lead the bad guys right to them. There’s no obvious reason why the suppressor couldn’t be kept near the chip at all times during surgery, except that the plot couldn’t happen if they were sensible.

So Piper, Joel and Angel need to get back to the others immediately, as the bad guys might be on the way. That means time to stop for a swim, which mainly seems to happen so Joel can admire Piper’s long legs, flat belly and perky breasts. That’s obviously more important than getting to safety.

Piper doesn’t get to make her own decisions about the love triangle (with Tyler and Joel). It’s all about what the men decide to do, not about what she decides. They decide if it’d be wrong for her to have a relationship with them. They decide when it’s over. Piper is often likened in the narrative to her daughter. They do the same things, get the same gifts from Joel, and he thinks of them together as his girls… but Piper is an adult and Angel is a child. Everyone seems to forget that Piper is not a child, and should be able to make her own decisions.

At one point, Piper does complain that a decision was made for her. But the narrative is quick to confirm she’s just being silly, as Joel knows best and is doing what’s right. Later, Piper thinks of herself as being female and irrational. Thank goodness she has some rational men around to guide her and save her from danger.

Angel is the perfect child. She doesn’t smell like vomit, never needs her nappies changed, and is always cooperative. She is the best dolph of them all, as she can speak as a baby, swim faster, is telepathic, and knows the languages of all living creatures. I was waiting for some crack, but she remains perfect in every way. I suppose she had to be, because it’s not like her parents were about to come up with a plan before rushing into certain death.

This is science fiction that doesn’t realise it’s not hard science, so keeps trying to explain things in ways that break the suspension of disbelief. More handwaving the details would have gone a long way, because the science is magic.

For example, having DNA from a certain species wouldn’t magically give someone the abilities of that species. Only having the traits the DNA codes for would do that. But in this book, dolphin DNA means they can swim faster, without any fins, flippers, webbed hands/feet or anything of that nature. When Angel can swim even faster, they think she must have some fish DNA that causes that. But still no outward physical swimming adaptations.

What dolphin DNA does give them is a blowhole and the ability to hold their breath for a long time. It also gives them eyes the colour of the ocean, hot model bodies, wonderful body scent, and beautiful voices. Because dolphins are known for all those things.

There’s also the discussion about dolphin telepathy. Saying that dolphins are telepathic, and therefore that’s why Angel is telepathic, is the sort of handwaving that goes on in science fiction. However, it actually says, “Dolphins can encode information with their echolocation and whistles. Some folks consider that telepathic.” I encode information in sounds from my vocal chords all the time, which I like to call having a language.

On to the part I was concerned about from the initial description: the voodoo. Molita is a vodou high priestess, who does various rituals for them. Angel, of course, is wiser than anyone who practises vodou and teaches Moilta better ways to do things. Later, there’s a conversation between the characters to explain to the reader about vodou. The whole thing is awkward, and full of the white characters thinking of it as dangerous dark magic and the like. There is at least some pushback that it’s a religion, but I wouldn’t call this a good example of vodou. It’s about on a level with the rest of the book.

Amy is barely there as a character, until she needs rescuing. One of the bad guys is described as albino, which reinforces the trope of albinistic people being inherently evil. Everyone falls in instalove. There are just so many points where I regretted thinking dolphin-human hybrids sounded fun.

Bad writing, worldbuilding and characterisation mean there’s not a lot going for this. I can see people reading it to boggle at the badness, but there’s not a lot else to recommend it. I did like the pet chicken.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

Diving Belles Cover - Mermaid and ocean illustration

First Published: 19th January, 2012
Genre: Fantasy / Short Stories
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble

Lucy Wood’s debut collection is a series of stories set in Cornwall. The central problems are average ones, such as dealing with moving away from a childhood home, losing a husband, or growing up, with some added folkloric complications. For example, a woman helps out her ex-boyfriend, who needs a lift to see a new house he might be buying, but she’s on a deadline as she’s turning into stone. A boy with a giant father isn’t growing, and frets about it while hanging out with a friend in a giant’s boneyard.

The feel of the stories is generally melancholy or wistful. They build slowly and fade out, rather than ending with a firm conclusion. Recommended for fans of literary fantasy and magical realism.

H2O: Just Add Water (Season Three)

H2O: Just Add Water (Australian Season 3 DVD Cover, with Bella in foreground)

H2O: Just Add Water is a mermaid series for teens and tweens, which ran for three seasons between 2006 and 2010. Part 1 (over here) considers the series in the context of other mermaid media and reviews season one. Part 2 (over here) reviews season two. Part 3 (this section) deals with season three, wider themes/issues and the upcoming spinoff series, Secret of Mako Island.

(Due to covering three seasons, there are some inevitable spoilers and a few stand-alone episodes are discussed in more detail. However, I’ve avoided discussing the season finales and there will still be a lot of surprises.)

Review: Season Three

Plot Overview

Emma is off travelling with her family, so Cleo and Rikki are left alone. The Juicenet Cafe has closed, and Zane buys it, so that he can run it with Rikki. On the night of the opening, a water tentacle attacks the girls. New girl in town, Bella (Indiana Evans), jumps in the water to help, revealing she’s a mermaid.

The girls travel to the Moon Pool, where they find freediver Will (Luke Mitchell). He’d swum in through the sea entrance and was knocked unconscious by the tentacle as it appeared. They tell him it was all a hallucination, but Will is uncertain.

Now the girls have the mystery of the tentacle to solve, along with trying to get through their last year at school.

Antagonists

The main antagonist is Sophie, Will’s sister. She’s ruthless in the pursuit of profit, so it’s not that she has a personal issue with the girls. Unlike previous antagonists, she has no interest in mermaids. It’s simply that she has no qualms about what happens to anyone who gets in the way of making money.

Despite this, there are signs she does genuinely care about Will. It’s just that she loses sight of it sometimes when money is at stake.

Allies

Lewis is still around at the start of the season, but heads off part way through. Taking up the slack is Will, a talented freediver who’s being pushed to go professional by his sister.

Mermaid stories usually de-emphasise human aquatic abilities. Mermaid allies may well be poor swimmers. If they’re comfortable in the water, it’ll be related to a surface water sport. Having an ally who can hold his breath and swim to reasonable depths is unusual. It also works well, because it gives Will an understanding of the mermaids that other allies have lacked (and it’s not as though freedivers will ever be mermaid replacements… even a talented human can’t swim as fast, or hold their breath for as long, as the mermaids).

It does mean he has an initial mermaid squee reaction to finding out mermaids are real, but he settles down soon enough, and comes to see the girls as friends he can share his love of the ocean with.

Overall Views

My criticism of the second season is it took a long time for the plot to get going. This wasn’t the case in season three, where the plot of the water tentacle is introduced in the first episode and builds towards much higher stakes finale than the previous seasons.

Emma was absent as the actress had another job. Lewis was also gone for part of the series for the same reason. Which meant the new characters of Bella and Will were introduced. This did have some advantages, as both Bella and Will have lived very sheltered lives, with a lot of travelling and little time to socialise. The result is they’re still navigating things others might deal with as younger teens, giving space for Cleo and Rikki to face older challenges.

More specifically, Rikki is dealing with running a business with Zane. Cleo is dealing with disruptions at home (her dad meets someone new and her sister is now a teenager), and a new job as a dolphin trainer (which presumably could be her future career).

The pacing of the season was pretty good, with a mix of the main plot and the sub-plots. I liked that the girls were facing more adult concerns. The eventual stakes in the finale got an eyebrow raise from me, but they do make sense in terms of the worldbuilding done for the mermaids in the series. This was a better conclusion than the previous season, and not a bad place to end the story.

Series Overview

Mermaid Design

Turning into mermaids on contact with water and mermaid powers are fairly standard in modern mermaid stories (though I haven’t seen Bella’s water-to-jelly power before). Shapeshifting with all worn items is a little more unusual. Most mermaids transform naked and have to find clothes. But given the short episodes, it’s a lot easier for filming to have them shapeshift complete with clothes (and they do use the idea in fun ways, such as Emma dying her hair red as a mermaid, but it staying her original colour as a human).

The most unusual thing with the mermaid design was the reactions to the full moon. Seeing the moon or its reflection can cause them to act like they’re intoxicated and possibly give them temporary abilities. As the girls spend more time as mermaids, this lessens, but the moon cycles remain significant.

The girls themselves joke about it being werewolf time, but it does make more sense for mermaids than werewolves. The moon has a big impact on the oceans, so the idea that mermaids would be sensitive to it isn’t that far-fetched. As the series progresses, it becomes clear it’s more complicated than that. The position of the planets and other heavenly bodies also has an impact. And there’s a suggestion about why this might have come about in the first place.

Continuity

There are issues with continuity in the story. Some are likely budget concerns, as actors aren’t rehired after their part of the story is done. It would’ve been interesting to see what Charlotte was up to in season three or to see Miriam from season one develop as a character. Perhaps to have the girls go to Miss Chatham or Max for advice sometime. These people wouldn’t have all vanished mysteriously in real life.

Others are clearly mistakes. Ronnie turns from a wild rescue dolphin to a captive bred one. Rikki forgets that Cleo has painful singing.

Generally though, the continuity isn’t too bad. There are some fun things that carry over, such as Lewis using his spiral lure anytime he fishes.

Racial Diversity

When I first saw the cover photo, I did wonder about Phoebe Tonkin’s (Cleo’s) race* (and judging from my internet searches, other people have too). However, she seems to identify as white and she’s portrayed as white in the series**. And she’s as dark and non-Northern European as any main characters get.

There are some side characters of other races, so if anyone’s about to argue that everyone in Australia is white… no, they’re not, and clearly they had no issues finding non-white actors for background parts.

Given that the series ran for three seasons, with eight different mermaids plus assorted love interests, they could have widened the net for their main character casting choices. As well as general issues of diversity, it reinforces the trope of non-white people never getting to be the cool non-humans (and thus never the centre of supernatural stories).

Romantic Relationships

All of the relationships are between a boy and a girl. This may not be something the writers can control, as the networks often insist on that for child and young teen shows. But it’s still something that needs mentioning, because somewhere along the line, someone’s deciding that only heterosexual children and teens get to see themselves and their issues.

On a positive note for the show, it doesn’t glorify abusive stalker relationships. When the boys act in ways that are controlling, this is shown as a bad thing. The girls also aren’t vilified for handling relationships their own way. They can break up with boyfriends, have different boyfriends or not date (they’re not all actively dating when the series ends). However, it did bother me that all the boys had controlling moments. Even though the narrative tended to slap the boys when they tried, it would have been nice if at least one of them didn’t feel the need to try.

Cleo and Lewis’s relationship was good to see after a few too many books. Young adult novels are a little prone to partners who are fated to be together, like it or not. This predestined bond gets used as an excuse for all sorts of abuse. So seeing a one-true-love setup where there’s no predestination, only two people who’ve grown up together and are close friends, is nice.

Women in Science

The handling of women in science wasn’t ideal in the first season. Though Doctor Denman is portrayed as being a talented scientist, she’s also the target of appearance-based criticisms (that she can’t be a real scientist due to being pretty). The girls generally avoid science, leaving it to Lewis.

The second season has Cleo fail biology and need to retake it, because she can’t cope with science. Though her student mentor is Charlotte, and Cleo does pass after her extra study, there’s still a vibe of science not being for girls.

This turns around in the third season. Cleo and Lewis work together on analysing the tentacle and Moon Pool. When Lewis leaves, Cleo continues the study, and is also shown working hard at science at school. A new science teacher character is a woman, who’s shown as competent, without any of the overtones aimed at Doctor Denman. (Though an eye-roll is directed at the fact Cleo starts wearing glasses in this season.)

Taken as a whole, this creates a character arc where Cleo starts out avoiding science because she doesn’t think it’s for girls, slowly realises she can do it if she studies, and starts to become enthusiastic about it by the end. I don’t believe this was the plan from the start (season three wasn’t in the original plan), but it was a reasonable way to redirect problematic elements of season one.

Final Summary

There are issues with the series. Season two flounders, and the way side characters vanish is a sign of budget considerations. There’s also a big lack of diversity among the main cast. This is an issue in mermaid shows and films in general, but H2O didn’t exactly decide to break the trend.

However, I enjoyed it overall. The mermaid lore went to some interesting places, and I liked that the personal issues the girls face age with them. The visuals are nice, the characters are relatable for the intended audience, and it’s generally strong on its depiction of women and girls (and where it’s not, it’s a talking point***). If you’re looking for something generally fluffy and fun, plus mermaids, H2O is one to watch.

The Secret of Mako Island

It is good to show that boys can be merpeople too (or fairies or riders of sparklie pink unicorns), but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t backslide to the old male-centric focus, where girls and women were just the accessories in the stories of the men.

This test is coming up for the makers of H2O with their next series, The Secret of Mako Island. In this, Zac falls into the Moon Pool and gains merpowers (early sources disagreed on whether he gets a fish tail or finned feet… but the promotional photos show a tail). This causes problems for three mermaids guarding the pool, who grow legs and head onto land to find him.

Potentially, this could go very wrong, becoming a story where Zac’s needs are the core of the story at all times. However, if they create a friendship group much like the mermaids and Lewis in the previous series, it could work. A boy as part of the group is different from a boy dominating the group.

The series does address one of the H2O issues. Zac’s actor – Chai Roumune – is mixed raced Thai/White Australian, which is a first for the merpeople (or any of the main characters) in the franchise. How well they handle this will be one of the areas I’ll be looking for when the series is available.

On a story level, they need to find new places to go. It does look set to continue developing the mermaid lore, with sea-dwelling mermaid pods (something hinted as possible in season three, but not actually shown). There have been promotional shots of an older mermaid instructing the three girls, so there’s potential for showing pod politics and family.

For now, I’ll remain cautiously optimistic.

* Based on the cover image for this post, you might wonder what I mean about Phoebe Tonkin. She looked more obviously different in the season one cover photo, and appears to have been lightening on the covers as the seasons have gone on.

** The distinction between character and actor is important. It’s not unusual for lighter non-white actors to be paled down and given Northern European family members, in order to portray them as white characters. It’s also not unusual for mixed race characters to be played by white people.

*** I grew up chatting about the things I watched with my parents. And later with my friends. I learnt a lot about social issues that way. So I look for the potential for being a conversation opener in series for younger viewers. You’re never too young to start analysing what you watch.

H2O: Just Add Water (Season Two)

H2O: Just Add Water (Australian DVD Cover)

H2O: Just Add Water is a mermaid series for teens and tweens, which ran for three seasons between 2006 and 2010. Part 1 (over here) considers the series in the context of other mermaid media and reviews season one. Part 2 (this section) reviews season two. Part 3 (over there) deals with season three, wider themes/issues and the upcoming spinoff series, Secret of Mako Island.

(Due to covering three seasons, there are some inevitable spoilers and a few stand-alone episodes are discussed in more detail. However, I’ve avoided discussing the season finales and there will still be a lot of surprises.)

Review: Season Two

Plot Overview

The girls (Cleo, Rikki and Emma) have settled into their lives as mermaids. This is thrown off when they gain additional powers (over weather elements – wind for Cleo, lightning for Rikki and snow for Emma), but they soon learn to handle them.

Their personal lives are another matter. Cleo is dealing with her parent’s divorce and confused about her relationship with Lewis. Things get complicated for Rikki when her ex-boyfriend reappears. Emma has continuing issues hiding things from her family, and there’s friction when she meets riding instructor Ash.

Whilst this is going on, a new girl at school – Charlotte – takes a shine to Lewis. Cleo takes an instant dislike to Charlotte as she still has feelings for Lewis, and thus a love triangle is born.

The season is slow to get going, but after a lot of floundering, we find out some more about the 1950s mermaids and the final conflict becomes apparent.

Antagonists

Charlotte is not instantly obvious as an antagonist. She’s intelligent, artistic and is initially friendly. But there are early hints that she’s self-centred and manipulative. When the focus starts to slip away from her, a smile and the right comment switches things around so she gets her way. When she organises a party for Lewis, it’s clearly what she wants… his preferences don’t factor into it.

That said, being a bit manipulative doesn’t make a person instantly hateable. Charlotte’s motives for her interest in Mako Island are sympathetic. It’s understandable that the girls don’t want Charlotte finding anything out, as she might expose them, but it’s also understandable why Charlotte wants to know.

One plus side is that criticisms of Charlotte are based on her behaviour and motives. Cleo drew away from the appearance slams used in the first season, and no one else jumps on that wagon either. Charlotte’s heavier than the other girls, yet there’s a lack of classic fat stereotypes – she doesn’t overeat, she’s not unfit and she doesn’t hate herself. Her issues with the girls are not connected to her looks*.

There weren’t as many minor antagonists this time around. Nate, Zane’s best friend, was the main one. He took a similar role to Miriam, as the shallow antagonist who causes minor issues here and there. There’s never anything deeper there.

Allies

Lewis continues to be the biggest ally for the girls, though this is tested due to the love triangle (Charlotte doesn’t like Lewis hanging out with the girls). In the first season, Lewis had his moments of being a little over-protective and clingy. He goes all out in the early part of the second season… and get slapped for it. This behaviour initially causes Cleo to dump him. Later, when he tries to overrule a decision the girls have made, they go for it anyway and prove him wrong. Afterwards, he admits they were right.

After endless stories where overprotectiveness is shown as desirable, and girls who go against the wishes of men/boys always have it blow up in their face (should’ve listened to the menfolk!), it’s nice to see the reverse. Lewis does a whole bunch of maturing towards realising people in relationships need to be equals and don’t need to be in each other’s space 24/7.

A new edition is Max, an elderly man who was friends with the ’50s mermaids (in a similar role to Lewis).

Class Issues

Rikki’s home is shown for the first time. It wasn’t a surprise that she lived in the trailer park, as there’d been hints, but this time it was on-screen.

It’s common for poor people to be shown as universally bad, outside of the poor young protagonist who is trying to rise above it. Their parents will be abusive, greedy and a waste of space. H2O didn’t go down that route, which was heartening to see. Rikki’s dad obviously cares about his daughter and they have a close relationship. He’s not poor because he’s lazy and evil. He’s poor because his job doesn’t pay well and there’s nothing he can do about it (which is the reality for most poor people).

Rikki is hesitant to bring her friends home, due to what they might think. Some of Rikki’s differences in attitude to money were clear in this season too. She doesn’t like people giving her money and gifts, seeing it as charity**. This is in comparison to rich boy Zane, who throws money and gifts around, because it’s never been something he had to worry about.

Irresistible – Episode Comments

One episode introduces a scent which mesmerises the girls. They’ll do anything the wearer says, and don’t remember any of it once out of the scent’s range. Though presented in a tween-friendly mermaid magic way, it’s a clear analogue to using alcohol or drugs to control girls. Though some of the scenarios are played for comedy, the boys take the threat seriously and the girls are clearly upset afterwards. They don’t blame themselves, which sounds like a small thing, but too often themes like this end up with the girls thinking it was their fault.

I had mixed feelings on this one. It’s a little twee for the serious nature of the subject, but it’s also not a bad first introduction to it either. The blame is placed where it’s due and the overall conclusion is it isn’t acceptable.

Overall Views

This season was weaker than the first. There were some fun stand-alone stories (sea fungus!), it was good to see Rikki’s home life and I liked Max. But the main storyline took too long to get going. It floundered around in love triangle land and some episodes hardly had any mermaiding. Once the season finale got going, it was a lot stronger, but it was a bit of a slog getting there at times.

Originally, two seasons were planned, so this would have been the end. The two main storylines are ended in a satisfying way. The girls are left at a point where things are stable. The gaps in the ’50s story are filled in by Max. Of course, it didn’t end there, as a third season was produced, but the writers had to polish things off as though there wasn’t going to be another season.

* On the other hand, fan comments can be a scary, scary place. There are a lot of criticisms of Charlotte’s weight, saying she’s fat and ugly, and they can’t imagine why anyone would want to date her. This ties in to my comments on season one, about using appearance criticisms against female antagonists. It happens so often, people internalise it as normal behaviour. The people who criticise a fictional character based on appearance rather than behaviour are going to be treating real people in exactly the same way.

One series can’t change the tide, but it doesn’t mean they have to add to it.

** I’ve had problems trying to explain this in the science fiction and fantasy writing world. It’s a lot harder to apply for a grant for conventions and courses when you’ve been raised with less money. Money is a big deal. Not being able to support yourself is a big deal. So accepting money, especially for something that isn’t life-or-death, is a lot harder than it might be for someone where money has never been an issue (and therefore isn’t viewed as being as important). This tends to get dismissed as ‘silly’, when it’s an issue that does need to be considered, because the people who most need grants can be the least likely to apply. Telling them they’re stupid and failing to understand why doesn’t help.