Feed Them Silence – by Lee Mandelo

Lee Mandelo’s new book had the right premises to get my attention: speculative technology, morally grey queer characters, and possibly an exploration of consciousness from some very unique perspective. All this packed in little more than a hundered pages? I had to go and see.

Title: Feed Them Silence

Author: Lee Mandelo

Publication Date: 14 March 2023

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 112

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Sapphic main character – Sapphic South Asian love interest – Nonbinary secondary character

Content Warning: Animal Death – Animal Cruelty – Medical Content – Climate Change – Toxic Relationship – Sexual Content

Synopsis

Lee Mandelo dives into the minds of wolves in Feed Them Silence, a novella of the near future.

What does it mean to “be-in-kind” with a nonhuman animal? Or in Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon’s case, to be in-kind with one of the last remaining wild wolves? Using a neurological interface to translate her animal subject’s perception through her own mind, Sean intends to chase both her scientific curiosity and her secret, lifelong desire to experience the intimacy and freedom of wolfishness. To see the world through animal eyes; smell the forest, thick with olfactory messages; even taste the blood and viscera of a fresh kill. And, above all, to feel the belonging of the pack.

Sean’s tireless research gives her a chance to fulfill that dream, but pursuing it has a terrible cost. Her obsession with work endangers her fraying relationship with her wife. Her research methods threaten her mind and body. And the attention of her VC funders could destroy her subject, the beautiful wild wolf whose mental world she’s invading

Analysis

Form & Style: Feed Them Silence is a short, thoughtfully crafted novella, whose stylistic choices are essential to the message it delivers. The story is told in third-person point of view and, as befits the subject matter, the narrator keeps close to Sean’s perspective. One could even say that, as she’s projected into the mind of her wolf, we get immersed in her own.

The prose is rich but effortless, dotted with vivid descriptios and poignant remarks. Sean’s peculiar subjectivity is also reflected by the intermixture of academic language and raw, visceral impressions; if the latter are of course more prominent in her lupine projection, they are also quick to bleed out in her general experience. I had, at first, some small reservation on the slightly info-dumpy dialogues between Sean and her wife – until I realised that, hey, these are scholars trying to outdo each other, it’s perfectly sensible that they’d argue like that.

While the storytelling is mostly straightforward, it does include a few flashbacks that, like a trompe-l-oeil, add some much needed depth to Sean’s development and growing obsession.

Setting: The story is set in Minnesota, year 2031, in a world that comes across as disturbingly familiar. News of ecological disasters loom at the horizon, however the main character’s direct experience stays relatively cosy, as she moves between her domestic environment – shaken by her marital crisis, but not lacking in material comfort – and the fascinating wilderness where she conducts her research.

The main technological innovation featured in the book is the neurological interface that represent the very premise of our story; the author, it must be noted, isn’t especially concerned with its technical features, and while the device does come across as believable enough, it mainly serves to set all other pieces in motion.

Characters: Sean, our protagonist, is the focal point of the entire novella; not just because she’s the point-of-view character, but because her psychological journey is the true main subject of the book. Alternating lucid analysis and multi-layered self-deception, Sean is an excellent study case of what the existentialists would have called “bad faith”; at her core, she’s driven by her unbrindled ambition, compounded with a craving for emotional closeness she cannot satiate as a human, and with a child-like fascination for the objects of her research.

As she faces the world as a respectable scientists, however, she packages her goals as something noble and useful, averting her eyes from all the harm she’s actually causing to the very creatures she claims to love. In her personal life, she’s more concerned with her image of her marriage – such an enviable union between successful women, such an inspirational role model for her community! – than with the actual needs and emotions of her neglected wife. As she seeks unconditional love and belonging in her animal experience, she truly alienates the people she claims to love in real life.

Other characters are more superficially sketched – understandably so since they only matter to the story for their role in Sean’s life – which, once again, could be a keen representation of her own narcissistic attitude. The character we’re getting to know more intimately is, indeed, Kate, the beautiful female wolf Sean is interfacing with. However, I couldn’t help but wonder: how much of what we see of Kate’s experience is really true to her? How much is it distorted by Sean’s human perspective, bound to shape her perception even as she has access to the sensorial inputs of an animal?

Plot: The story is, at its core, quite a simple one: a psychologically dysfunctional scientist grows more and more obsesses with her own research, with a number of disruptive results I don’t really need to spoil here. As the subject matter is quite tight and focused, the development comes across as believable and satisfying (I mean, for all its bleakness), and the story is not hindered by its limited breathing space.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: Feed Them Silence is, first and foremost, the story of Sean and of her all-consuming obsession; it is not, however, merely an intimistic report, and while mercilessly exposing one individual’s experiences, the novella touches upon a number of substantial topics, from climate change to the ethics of scientific research.

The book sheds a critical light on our concept of knowledge for knowledge’s sake: far from condemning human curiosity and passion, it hightlights however how such a pretence of purity can be easily warped by personal pride, as well as by financial interests. It also gives more than a passing glance to the influence of gender roles in same-sex relationships, that are just as exposed as any other to the risks of power games, hypocrisy, and miscommunication.

A part of me would have hoped to read a more extensive exploration of consciousness and perception as declined through the experience of different species, however this is less a criticism of the book, and more a passing note on my interests and expectations. If anything, it’s brilliant how the novella, with no pretence of offering a conclusive answer to all the question it raises, may offer so much food for thought, so many inklings of additional reflections.

All in all, Feed Them Silence is a very insightful book, and beautifully written. It’s also a harshly honest story, that offers some small glimpse of hope, but no reassurance whatsoever. Despite being advertised as a blend of science fiction and horror, it is not ‘horrific’ in a traditional sense; it is, however, deeply disturbing, as any clever inquiry is bound to be.

Comments

One response to “Feed Them Silence – by Lee Mandelo”

  1. Sia avatar

    Love how you’ve structured your review with different sections, Form & Style and Setting, etc. For some reason that’s very appealing. And a small point that hit me hard: I never thought about whether Sean’s perspective was colouring our understanding of Kate’s perceptions, but of COURSE it was, that was almost exactly what her wife was saying when she critiqued the project! Good thought.

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