Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi, Speculative Fiction
Representation: Sapphic MC, brown sapphic fat love interest, secondary nonbinary character
PoV: Third-person, past-tense
Published on: 14th March 2023
Feed Them Silence begs the question: what does it mean to “be-in-kind” with nonhuman animals? Dr. Sean Kell-Luden uses a neurological interface to translate a subject-wolf’s perception for human consumption, but as her relationship with the subject becomes complicated, she puts her research and her marriage at risk.
When Dr. Sean Kell-Ludon’s grant is accepted, she begins her research of cooperative behaviors in one of Minnesota’s last remaining wolf packs, but she is wholly unprepared for the emotional turmoil that comes with inhabiting and translating a wolf’s consciousness. The longer she observes the subject-wolf and her pack, the more Sean drifts away from her wife. As the harsh winter months threaten the pack’s survival and Sean’s marriage spirals down the drain, Sean will have to face the consequences of her negligence or let the world of wolves and the world she’s known both slip through her fingers.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~complete failure to Spouse (that’s a verb now)
~time to mind-link with a wolf
~have you considered, Not Doing That
~an unexpected bear
~NO ONE CARES WHAT THE NEIGHBOURS THINK, SEAN
Just in case you missed or misunderstood the description, Feed Them Silence is not another Summer Sons. Fans of the one are not at all guaranteed to be fans of the other; they are two very different books!
Although in my opinion, Feed Them Silence is just as excellent as Mandelo’s debut. Just very, very different!
Here’s the situation: glory-hound scientist Sean is about to embark on a pretty groundbreaking project; a one-way empathic bond with Kate, one of the last living wolves, facilitated by neural implants and a machine that connects one to the other in real-time. But her marriage has grown strained under the pressure of Sean’s hunt for funding, and her neglect of her wife becomes even worse once the project gets underway. It all comes to a breaking point, and honestly, it looks like Sean herself is the one who’s going to break.
This is a fascinating, addictive novella that I kind of adored, even though it’s nothing like my usual reads. Sean is an unambiguously terrible person – not in the ‘lock her up and throw away the key’ sense, but if her (amazing) wife wrote an AITA post, everyone would definitely be telling her to file for divorce, because Sean definitely doesn’t deserve her. And although Sean insists the point of her research is conservation, Rita does an excellent job tearing that argument to shreds – leaving only Sean’s hunger for fame and personal interest (not-quite-obsession) with wolves as her real motivation.
“If the fact that we’re destroying every habitat on this godforsaken planet hasn’t stuck with the corporations whose money you’re begging for by now, then you doing some brain-in-a-jar bullshit to say how a wolf feels about dying won’t matter either. This wolf can’t consent to being studied by you, which involves a nonconsensual surgical procedure. The presumption you’re making in claiming to report on its real feelings, so you can make a name for yourself, violates its sovereign dignity. It can’t correct you when you put words in its mouth. So, yes, as an ethnographer I fucking disagree with this entire premise.”
Which is probably the motivation of quite a lot of real-life scientists too, but that doesn’t make it feel any less slimy.
Maybe that – finding it slimy – is kind of unfair – what’s wrong with wanting to be famous, really, and would we judge so harshly if Sean were a man? I’m not sure. I do think that Sean’s general indifference to other people would be equally awful in a man – and in fact, as Rita points out, Sean’s overall problem is that she’s behaving like a very particular kind of White Dude. Is that a side-effect of trying to make a name for herself in a field dominated by men? Did she become like this because she was trying to be like them? I don’t know, and I don’t know if it ultimately matters- especially when it’s extremely clear that she has no real interest in putting the work in to be (and do) better.
Wasn’t it enough at their stage of life to be decently matched in their careers and able to function within one another’s orbits?
No, Sean. Wtf? Of course it isn’t. What is wrong with you?
Feed Them Silence would be terribly dull if this were just literary fiction about a failing marriage, but it’s not, and Sean’s relationship with Rita is far less interesting than her relationship with Kate. Not, though, because Kate is more interesting than Rita – it’s not about comparing wife to wolf (even if that’s definitely what Sean does), but about comparing Sean’s ability to connect with wife vs ability to connect with wolf. And let’s be super clear about this: it takes experimental surgery and full on science-fiction levels of technology to make Sean capable of empathising with Kate! This is not a case of someone who has an easier time with non-human animals than with humans; this is a case of someone who needs semi-magical mind-fuckery to care about anyone.
And once she does, she absolutely cannot handle it. Easily the most interesting part of Feed Them Silence is the way in which Sean loses herself in Kate; something which starts slowly, but almost immediately becomes an addiction for her. And having spent time in Sean’s head, it’s not hard to see why; Sean is so dead inside that experiencing the full, unfiltered emotion of Kate’s life – even in the tiny sips mandated by the machinery instead of the devouring gulps Sean would much prefer to be taking – is like moving from black-and-white silent movies to orchestral technicolour. Mandelo depicts this beautifully, not just via the story but in the actual writing itself; bit by bit, Sean goes from referring to Kate as ‘the wolf’, to ‘her wolf’, to ‘them’ (meaning Kate + Sean), to ‘herself’ (meaning Sean). It’s a neatly subtle, but powerful, way of underscoring Sean’s freefall into Kate.
The first bite of chicken-flesh and grease filled her mouth while she saw herself, or her wolf, on video: brindled coat, shaved scalp now furry again, huge ears and paws. An unexpected dislocation, far worse that hearing her own voice speaking back to her on her phone’s answering message, smacked her across the face.
(Is it good or bad that Sean comes to care more for Kate and her pack than other humans? Is it terrible that she requires such drastic measures to be able to empathise at all? Should we be horrified? Is this a horror story? WHY IS SEAN LIKE THIS?)
Ultimately, this is a weird but brilliant book that manages to be about (semi-)psychic bonds with wolves, toxic academia (is there any other kind?), gender roles in same-sex marriages, and a critique of ‘feel-good’ scientific research. There’s more than a touch of climate fiction in there too, and all of it wrapped up in prose that is sharp and deft, where each word feels powerful because each word is exactly what it should be. Another author would need 300-odd pages to tell this story; Mandelo fits it into a novella because their use of language is so precise it makes every sentence throat-grabbingly potent. Feed Them Silence is distilled down to its purest form, pure concentrate, and it’s enough to make you deliriously dizzy.
I loved it, but I do hesitate to recommend it – it’s fairly bleak, and although the ending is clearly meant to be hopeful, I wouldn’t call it happy.
This is not a book meant to comfort, but it is most certainly a book to make you think, and if you’d like a quick, gut-punch of a story that dissects a very messed-up woman’s addiction to wolf-thoughts, then this is definitely for you.