"Little Faces" by Vonda N. McIntyre: An Appreciation by Liz Henry
The women's biology, sex, and gender is complicated. Males of the species, the "companions," are not quite sentient, and are attached to the female's bellies somehow; they are a bit like children, mates, pets, or extra limbs. They're like remora dildos with the emotional personalities of fire lizards. They're also a bit like hard drives that contain part of the memory and experiences of the other women who created them. Out of modesty, on formal occasions they are kept covered, though a thoughtful woman would use a lacy veil so that her companions can see out.
I enjoyed the trashylicious feel to the pulp style of McIntyre's writing, the echoes of romance novels I found, the melodramatic stabbed-in-the-heart emotional tone, the descriptions of omg-changing-color-hair and fashions in extruded shipsilk. Those stylistic echoes will resonate for some people as they did for me; for others they might be off-putting. For me, they make the story extra delicious, fun, and witty.
In the story, Seyyan, Yalnis' lover, and her companions murder Yalnis's primary companion, Zorargul. Her motives seem to be dual: to replace Zorargul with her own offspring, so that it will be the one to provide the sperm to create the daughter that Yalnis is planning; and to mindfuck Yalnis in a horrible power trip. Yalnis reacts with grief and anger. The murder has complicated consequences for Yalnis' plans to reproduce.
"It's our memories Seyyan killed," Zorar said. "Would you send out a daughter with only one parent's experience?"
Zorar was kind; she refrained from saying that the one parent would be Yalnis, young and relatively inexperienced. Yalnis's tears welled up again. She struggled to control them, but she failed. She fought the knowledge that Zorar was right. Zorar was mature and established, with several long and distant adventures to her credit. Her memories were an irreplaceable gift, to be conveyed to a daughter through Zorargul. The sperm packet alone could not convey those memories. "Let time pass," Zorar said. "We might see each other again, in some other millennium."
The companions are evidence of wealth in that they must be nourished by their host's own blood. But they also represent a wealth of information. When daughters and their spaceships are born, other women gather to give gifts of information, "new foods, new information, new bacteria, stories, songs, and maps of places unimaginably distant". At the moment of the daughters' birth, they are given the memories of their two female parents plus some elements from the male companion who provided the sperm for conception.
Zorar, in talking with Yalnis, makes it clear that Yalnis has been blind in dealing with her companions. She treats them more like pets or non-sentient creatures than like the irreplaceable carriers of memory and wisdom Zorar implies they are. Yalnis is surprised by the idea of conversing with her companions.
Aside from the weird biology and gender, this story explores ethical and societal issues. The companions don't seem fully sentient, but they are sentient enough that the death of one is treated as murder. Zorar, too, turns out to have suffered an attack on one of her companions from Seyyan.
The story is also positioned in a way in the genre of abuse survivor narratives. Zorar suffers from what Seyyan does to her, but does not "tell" either the larger society of anarchic, independent spacefarers or her lover Yalnis, who asks about her scars. Because of this, Yalnis decides to "tell" despite her fears of being divisive, and her fears of Seyyan's social power as an old, wise, famous adventurer. I was intrigued at the ways McIntyre used elements of abuse survivor testimonial to form a point of connection for the reader's understanding of a society structured very differently from our own.
Crime is constructed not simply as physical violence or personal selfishness or grabs for social power. It is the disrespect of individual agency. Crime is the destruction of history and the destruction of information.
"Little Faces" is a fascinating look at murder, war, sex, sentience, and memory, set in a world where every woman has a spaceship of her own.
Link to story.