First things first. To set the record straight, Inuit is a book and a story. But it's not a novel. It was published by Pulphouse Publishing in 1991 as part of their "Short Story Paperbacks" line of stories published individually as slim books. (Other stories in the series were written by authors such as Octavia E. Butler, Gardner R. Dozois, Tanith Lee, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe.) Printed in this format, Inuit is 45 pages long, with fairly large type. Later the Utah Arts Council awarded "Inuit" 1st Place in the Utah Original Writing Competition in the "young adult book" category. This story wasn't written as a young adult book, but it contains nothing inappropriate which would exclude it from such a category, and it does feature a young protagonist. Regardless of how you get it, "Inuit" is a quick read and well worth looking for. If you only read one book by M. Shayne Bell, read Nicoji, but if you read another, I recommend Inuit.
As should be evident from the story's title, "Inuit" is about the Native American tribal people indigenous to Alaska and Canada who have often been called "Eskimos." This is unusual subject matter, especially within the science fiction genre. Bell's detailed and sympathetic look at the Inuits' very foreign way of life and worldview make this an interesting story, regardless of the plot. The Inuit hunting and home life are accurately described, but takes place on an artificial satellite orbiting the Earth. The satellite has been constructed so that the ancient traditions of a proud people can be preserved.
Hundreds of other satellites, alluded to but not part of this story, have been constructed for various other ethnic/tribal/religious groups. One can imagine a an artificial Navajo "world,", a Maori "world," etc... These are all constructed in the remnants of massive, mined satellites and given artificial gravity on their inner surface through rotation. One need not merely imagine these worlds: they have been written about in other stories, such as Mike Resnik's Kirinyaga anthology (about the African Kikuyu tribe), and Virginia Baker's "Rachel's Wedding" (about Hasidic and kibbutzim Jews).
The strength of "Inuit" lies in its carefully and plausibly imagined setting and premise. The characters and events of the story flow very naturally from this premise, almost to the point of being unremarkable. Bell's "literary" and contemporary tendencies may be showing in this very non-epic science fiction story with a very non-s.f. feel about it. Although the plot is significant and though-provoking, the story focuses on setting so much that this could easily be classified as pastoral science fiction. Its coming-of-age emphasis about a young person aboard an artificially inhabited asteroid are reminiscent of Panshin's Rite of Passage. But despite being classifiable within one or two tiny s.f. sub-genres, "Inuit" is a unique story with an original perspective.
The simple enough foreground story has Sanak, a twelve-year-old Inuit boy, attending three months of boarding school near his traditional Inuit village. The reader comes to realize what is never explicitly stated: Earth-based political pressures have caused some changes in policy on the Inuit mini-world, and even the "primitives" who have never had contact with the outside world must now be taught about Earth, modern science, medicine, etc. Sanak, who had never even known that there were other worlds beyond his artificial, upside-down one, learns that he actually lives on a satellite, kept running by arrays of hidden machinery and staffs of modernized Inuit who live in the layer between the interior and space.
Sanak's class has two teachers: Joseph, a modernized Inuit, and Kwiguk, an old, traditional Inuit woman who clamps down when Joseph strays too far from prescribed lesson plans into teaching about modern life. Apparently the plan is for the students to learn a great deal about the modern world, because before too long, they know all about the true history of their world. They know that it is not really the result of two bowls spit from the craw of a raven.
The students are also taught that the whales their families have long hunted are now known to be sentient. They are even given an opportunity to converse with a whale, using new translation technology available.
Having actually conversed with a whale, Sanak is less than enthusiastic when invited on his older brother's first whale hunt. The older men and Sanak's brother haven't been expose to Sanak's new form of education, and they proceed with a whale hunt the way their people have done for hundreds of years.
"Inuit" presents some unusual and challenging problems, and doesn't necessarily answer them all. Indigenous tribal peoples (such as the Inuit) and cetaceans (such as the sperm whales they hunt) are both traditionally sympathetic groups within science fiction. Countless writers have presented premises with easy-to-choose sides: Nazis (bad) versus Jews (good); Communist Chinese (bad) versus Tibetan Buddhists (good); ruthless capitalists (bad) versus noble dolphins (good). Things are less clear cut in this story, as neither side is one which readers are conditioned to accept as The Enemy.
The entire story is told from the perspective of the Inuit people, and they obviously have an enviably simple and pristine existence. Whales are special to them, not something callously hunted for sport or greed. As far as they understand life, they need the whales to survive. Sanak, newly introduced to the concept of a sentient, thinking whale, can't help but think of the hunt as a form of murder. Yet he still participates in his brother's first hunt, hoping for the whale's safety.
The changes within Sanak are significant in this story, but any changes within the society he comes from are realistically gradual, off-stage, and imperceptible within the brief time period covered. Sanak is just a twelve-year-old boy, very believably portrayed. He is not a revolutionary, not a genius, not Joan of Arc, Anakin or Ender. Sanak is so ordinary that his story may be unusually powerful and thought-provoking. The reader may see herself in this boy's position -- caught between two worlds, each with elements inviting and uninviting. Sanak's predicament may remind readers of the choices faced by the teenager from Utah in Bell's "The Shining Dream Road Out." "Inuit" neither condemns nor lionizes Sanak's world. The Inuit have created a Utopia for themselves but have paid some high prices for it.
A particularly compelling figure to ponder from "Inuit" is "Joseph," the teacher who reveals the true nature of reality to Sanak and his classmates. Joseph also holds the keys to leave the inner Inuit world, explaining to his students that at the legal age of sixteen they can come to him if they want to leave. Joseph himself seems to stand with one foot in both worlds, aware of the Earth and the artificial nature of his satellite home, yet insisting that he is Inuit, just as his technologically primitive ancestors were.
Joseph may embody many layers of symbolism and meaning. One must wonder if he is named for Joseph of Egypt and/or Joseph Smith. If so, is he named fittingly or ironically? An elevator hidden in the schoolhouse carries its surprised students to the modernized outer layer of the Inuit planetoid. But which direction is Egypt and which is Nauvoo?