[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell


If you want to read an incredibly skilled story that is engaging and moving and gritty and touching, written by a writer with a sure hand, give The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell a try.

(It was originally published in Science Fiction Age but I found it in Clarkesworld Magazine)

Just look at this opening:

Li Hao-Chang, standing in front of a colorful array of fresh-caught fish, bargains with a Cantonese peasant over the price of yellow-tailed snapper. Where the Wharf tapers out, and the harbor is too shallow for the larger trawlers, the fish market thrives over a patch of old concrete and dirt.

The peasant finally offers enough yuan to satisfy Li.

“Xie xie,” Li thanks the peasant, wrapping the fish up in old newspaper. The edge of the newspaper catches Li’s eye.

“Signals From Outer Space,” it reads.

Li doesn’t much care. All men can be awed by discovery, for Li there is selling fish. He has to make enough to pay rent, to eat, and to save. If he doesn’t sell enough fish for rent, the local thugs come over to beat him up. If he doesn’t make enough to eat, his wife goes hungry, and if he can’t save, he’ll never be able to leave Macau and the smell of fish that seems to taint his life.

In a few paragraphs we know SO much:

  • “Li Hao-Chang” – we’re probably in an Asian culture
  • “fresh-caught fish” – we’re not in an age of scarcity
  • “bargains” – Li is poor? Maybe he just knows the value of a bargain. He’s likely not carelessly wealthy – or at least hasn’t been throughout his life
  • “Cantonese” – Li is likely of a different ethnicity, otherwise why mention it?
  • “peasant” – economic difference, agrarian strata exists. Li is probably city-based since he doesn’t count himself as a ‘peasant’
  • “yellow-tailed snapper” – nice detail, makes it seem more real. They are haggling over a particular fish. They know their fish. This is not a casual interaction.
  • “Where the wharf…dirt” – this doesn’t TELL me where the story is set. It paints a vivid picture of the setting in my mind, after we’ve met the main character
  • “yuan” – OK, we’re definitely in a China close enough to modern times that they still use the same money we do (in a Science Fiction magazine, this kind of signpost is important)
  • “satisfy Li” – A hint that the character has wants/needs/desires. He needs money/wants respect
  • “Signals from Outer Space” – Aha! So this is why this story is in a Sci Fi mag!
  • “Li doesn’t care much” – getting into character development. Five short paragraphs in, and we already know a lot about him.
  • “All men…for Li…” – hints about what makes Li unique (worthy of reading a story about him)
  • “He has to make enough…” – what he MUST do
  • “and save”  – what he WANTS to do
  • “If he doesn’t sell … taint his life.” – Brilliant! He SEEMS immune to the wonder of the signals from outer space because he apparently only cares about fish. Now we discover he hates the fish and what he does. Also we learn exactly where he lives.

And the rest of the story delivers on these promises and much more.

I highly recommend doing a close-analysis reading of this story. It’s a master work. Don’t let the ‘sci-fi’ genre tag put you off, even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘sci-fi’ reader. This story has more than enough character, heart and skill to satisfy anyone.

Read it here

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