Review by Joel Kreissman
TinyPrancingHorse’s (TPH) web serial “They Are Smol” started on the Reddit forum r/HFY (Humanity, F--- Yeah!), but unlike most stories on that board humans aren’t depicted as some sort of interstellar badasses. Rather, in this setting, humanity has made contact with three alien species that many humans find both physically and technologically terrifying; the serpentine jornissians, bear-wolf-like dorarizin, and saurian karnakians. Fortunately they find humans absolutely adorable and it’s become somewhat fashionable to have a human crewmember on board their ships. The first arc of the “Smolverse” serial follows two such humans. Caroline, who feels alone on a ship full of jornissians who are secretly tapping her computer while she watches Netflix; and Bill, serving with a pack of touchy-feely dorarizin who see him as something like a pup.
Hilarity, with political fallout, ensues. How could two puny little humans so upset the galactic community you ask? Memes, dank memes, that’s how. Edited images of their alien allies, alien films with goofy subtitles, cute animal gifs... you get the picture. If I hadn’t read “hard” sci-fi stories that treated weaponized memes as dead serious (closer to Richard Dawkins’ original definition, mind you) I’d call it absurd.
They Are Smol is very much a comedy of errors, not usually my thing, but this serial takes it to near-absurdist levels. TPH’s sarcastic descriptions of their post-scarcity multi-species setting’s oddities are interspersed with character interactions and/or monologues; it works pretty well. It’s not the most info-dumpy sci-fi comedy I’ve read; if anything I actually wanted more detail on occasion. But the light conversational tone the exposition takes helps integrate it into the story. I did think the “lizard brain” reactions some of the human characters had when confronted by aliens seemed exaggerated, especially for people willing to work with scary xenos, but given all that I’ve seen recently about real people acting less rationally than we expect fictional ones, I’ll give it a pass.
If you want comedic sci-fi with aliens that are more alien than typically seen on Star Trek or Doctor Who, and you find people acting like scared rabbits hilarious, check out the They Are Smol series. Since it’s web-based you can simply read it on your phone’s browser, useful for long car rides, if you have net access. As well as a pretty quick read, I managed to finish the first arc in an evening.