I think this is the first DWJ adult fiction that I’ve read – not counting Deep Secrets, since I read the expurgated version. “Mela Worms” is a funny (both in the “strange” and “haha” sense) story that is somehow still VERY DWJ-esque despite the sex. And there’s a lot of sex, since this story first appears in Arrows of Eros, an anthology specifically created to address sex in science fiction. I don’t think it was ever reprinted elsewhere.
Fingi is an officer on planet-leave as the ship she works on, Bon Quin, docks on the planet Reiss. Fingi hates Reiss because it’s human-made and she openly admits to being prejudiced against humans. I’m not sure about the true source of her prejudice, but I do understand why she would hate Reiss.
“They say the humans who built Reiss were pirates. I believe it. Their harbour dues made Yanni turn pale and they had already slapped on extra charges in all directions. Before I went upstairs to the interior, I had to pay a fee for the air I was going to breathe. There was a grille across the exit, and there I found I had to buy a permit to drink water and another, costing twice as much, to drink alcohol. Naturally I asked for an information cube then, thinking there must be some sights they didn’t charge you to see. Not a bit of it. The cube, costing as much as the other permits put together, informed me that I hadn’t yet paid my entry fee, and when I had, it kept flashing up: Penalty for littering 1,000 CR. Additional penalty for littering gutters up to ten years hard labour. After which it listed amusements in order of price.“
Reminds me of a certain tiny island. Ha. Anyway, with not much money left, Fingi goes to the zoo, which only costs 1.5CR and is basically the cheapest entertainment available to her. There, she wonders about why humans were so proud of their ancenstry as she looks at the caged apes, and is approached by four men of varying species. Assuming that they’re looking for free sex she rejects them, but they go after her, causing her to run in order to avoid a fight (which would get her fined). She ends up not just causing array, but also littering, by throwing one of the men into a gutter, and quickly heads back to her ship… to find out that her human captain Yanni has accepted over a hundred paying passengers (including the four men that had approached her!), and a cargo of mela worms that needed to be kept at a particular temperature at all times.
Fingi doesn’t know the exact temperature, since she’s only told that the room is too hot or too cold, nor does she know what mela worms were, until they escape from storage and wreak havoc on the libidos of everyone on board. (Yup, the worms create a scent that seem to make everyone want sex all the time, although it also seems to affect some species more than others.) So while the passengers and crew were engaged in orgies, Fingi is now desperate to collect and store the worms safely before the captain gives up on piloting altogether.
In the end, she gets help from the four men she had met at the zoo, which I think is very Diana Wynne Jonesian, both in the misunderstanding and needing to correct Fingi’s first impressions, and in the subversive take of the “chosen one” subplot. Perhaps it isn’t as great as her YA and children’s fiction, but it’s still funny and a good read, and so far my favourite in the Arrows of Eros anthology (I’ve only read 1/3 of the stories, though.)
Note: Following my original re-read list, “Mela Worms” would’ve been #35, but I just realised that I had listed “The Green Stone” as a 1996 story, when it was first published in 1988, meaning that I’ve accidentally skipped it. I’ve renumbered my original list, and will be doing “The Green Stone” next before moving on to “The Master”.
DWJ RE-READ no.36 | “Mela Worms” (1989)
next story: “The Master”
previous story: Wild Robert