‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ was originally published in Philippine Genre Stories
We first see Siren and Inyanna as lovers. Siren explores Inyanna’s body – different to ours – before the scene tastefully dissolves to orgasm. We next see them as doctor and patient. Siren is the body cartographer of the title and the genetic engineering that took place whilst Inyanna was in the womb was not entirely successful. Specifically she cannot bond to her pillor’ak, a flying Pern-beast. Both women are citizens of the Matriarchy which is currently in negotiations with the Patriarchy so this failure of flight takes on a political dimension.
So ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is telling three stories – a romance, a drama and a political thriller – but Loenen-Ruiz does not have room to tell one.
When Siren and Inyanna first meet their relationship is medical, when we first meet them it is erotic, when we leave them it is true love. None of the steps in-between are depicted, leaving the relationship weightless. To fix the genetic mess that Siren uncovers, Inyanna has to be stripped back so far that her personality will be altered and their love lost. The story ends with Siren whispering “goodbye, my Only” but it is impossible for this to have any emotional force.
Instead, most of the story is devoted to sketching out bits of this ribofunk world (I was reminded of Paolo Tadini Bacigalupi’s much richer and successful ‘The Fluted Girl’). An origin story of their culture is repeated second hand through a series of canvases Siren’s, an interesting device but not one I found very illuminating. Nothing much is made of the importance of the pillor’ak despite the radical transformation required to ride them. Similarly, Siren and Inyanna are of different classes but similar status so it is pretty much irrelevant. I suspect Loenen-Ruiz has a deeper culture in her head than she has placed on the page.
This is most noticeable in the political dimension. Very little is said of their relationship with the Patriarchy and for the majority of the story I assumed it was just a background note that – like the romance – was there to give a flimsy story a bit more heft. At the end, however, it suddenly becomes clear that Inyanna has become the victim of espionage and that she is not the only one. The scope of the story is blown open and it becomes instead a first chapter. Niall Alexander agrees with this assessment and points out that it really is an extract from a novel in progress. Siren assures us she will get on the case off the page: “She would study the grids in the quiet, and hopefully she would find some clue that would point her towards whoever was behind these crimes.” Well, one day the reader will actually get that story.
Finally, I think I need to mention the title. Siren is the body cartographer so Loenen-Ruiz is explicitly evoking the song of the siren but to what possible intend? The only possible reading I can make of this is that Siren is the saboteur but that seems utterly unsupported by the text. Is it just there, as with the relationship itself, to add a bit of gold leaf in an attempt to make the story look more valuable than it is?