At the Mouth of the River of Bees

Turns out I have loved Kij Johnson longer than I thought I had. I first remember reading something of hers and being blown away with “Spar,” in 2009. Except, though, it turns out she wrote “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” which I read and adored (possibly unreasonably) in 2008. And

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now I own these two and a whole bunch of other glorious work in this fabulous collection. Also, “Ponies.”

“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is told in 24 parts of varying length and purpose. It revolves around Aimee, who one day became the owner/manager/carer of a troupe of 26 monkeys (well, 25 monkeys and a primate), who travel the fairs and carnivals of America (127 in a year, with time off for Christmas) performing their routine… which ends with them disappearing from a bathtub. It’s a story of the unexpected things in life and how they are the things which can matter most; that the things we love don’t have to make sense, and it’s ok when they don’t. Life has loss and love and discovery. And, sometimes, monkeys. (And a primate.) I love, LOVE, this story.

“Fox Magic” is one example of Johnson’s penchant for Japan and Japanese culture and myth. Here, a fox falls in love with a man, and the magic is to make it reciprocal. This, of course, has Repercussions. One thing I admired about this story in particular is that the fox maiden is mostly very aware of the doubled world created by the magic. There is little pretence that the magic has made everything (some things, yes, but not everything) different. Also, it confronts some of the detrimental repercussions, beyond the fox and her beloved. This sort of honesty and, well, bluntness is a bit of a hallmark of Johnson’s.

“Names for Water” is utterly unlike the previous two stories – which, let’s face it, is also a hallmark of Johnson’s stories. You never quite know what you’re going to get. This one… well, it could be read as a reason for keeping up your studies; it could be read as a meditation on the long-term and unexpected consequences of small things, and on the inter-connectedness of the universe. Johnson takes the idea of static on a phone call and… goes places. It’s also lovely how many names for water she includes.

“The Bitey Cat” is a fairly unpleasant little story – that is, well written, but the narrative itself is not nice. A little girl and her bitey cat and the trouble they get into. It’s dark with the sort of darkness that you can only talk about with childhood.

“The Horse Raiders” is also dark, this time the sort of dark you get when a story’s about, well, horse raiders; a planet where things are not going that well, where communication between different groups has broken down, and different groups have very different sets of values. Katia’s family are nomads, travelling with their horse herd; she is the vet. Tragedy strikes and she must adapt, through pain and difficulty and anger, to a new life. One of the most intriguing parts of the whole story is the concept of n’dau. The world here turns so slowly that it is possible, being a nomad, to always be where a person and her shadow are matched in height; a right place. I love this idea of the psychic matching the landscape.

This is not a generally happy collection, is it? Brilliant, but by no means happy. “Dia Chjerman’s Tale” is in some ways the impersonal story of an entire planet – one that is theoretically part of an empire, and has contact with an alien race, and the repercussions of that. But it is also a heartbreaking personal story, as the opening indicates; Dia Chjerman is the 27-times grandmother of the woman relating the tale, who is now living those repercussions. Yeh. Personal and political, hello.

On a completely different note is “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire – Exposition on the Flaws in my Wife’s Character – The Nature of the Bird – The Possible Causes – Her Final Disposition.” For a start, oh that title. This is Johnson playing with what I think of as 19th-century prose that’s quite different from her normal style. And it is clever. Oh, so clever. Nice layers, nice inversions.

It took me a little while to fully understand the joke that Johnson was making with “Schrodinger’s Cathouse,” but I got there. It’s a one-shot trick, but she does play it out nicely.

After those slightly more lighthearted tales, it is back to the bleaker side with “Chenting, in the Land of the Dead.” Choices that we make, and how perception is everything, how even when the outcome appears exactly the same for two people it’s not – it’s really not. She’s good at gently and softly and smilingly breaking your heart, Johnson.

I seem to be coming across tales of prophecy a lot recently. “The Empress Jingu Fishes” deals with that ever-vexed question of if you know the future, can and should you change it? Does trying to change it lead to exactly the foreseen outcome? Ah predestination; it will never cease to be a human challenge.

“At the Mouth of the River of Bees” is, I think, my really Great Big Discovery of this collection. It’s glorious and bewildering and comforting and inexplicable. It’s another story of a woman who makes a choice even though she doesn’t understand what motivates it, or where it will lead – in fact even though she knows that it might be a bit crazy. Like following a river of bees. I did not want this story to end, although when it did it was absolutely perfect.

“Story Kit” is one of those stories with  multiple strands that don’t immediately seem to connect with one another at all until… and then… oh yes. The story of Dido and Aeneas; lists of reactions, of words, books; an author’s notes on her attempts to compose a story, the decisions she makes, the consequences around her. I suspect this is very much a writer’s story. I love this sort of playing with structure, through short stories.

“Wolf Trapping” is a story of obsession and the desire to belong, and ways in which that can go wrong. I don’t know where Lake Juhl is, or even if it’s real, but Johnson made me feel cold just reading about it – and glad to live in a country with no wolves. And also glad not to experience the sort of obsession that might drive someone to want to be a wolf. Interestingly, she doesn’t actually make that much attempt to explain that; it just demands to be accepted at face value, and if you can’t – well. Too bad.

“Ponies.” How I dislike “Ponies.” I appreciate that it is well written, but I just cannot like it. It’s just too, too unpleasant. Not least because on a symbolic level, it’s just too too real.

The last 130-some pages is made up of four stories; one quite short, the others novellas (I think). This is an interesting choice of structure; I would have thought you would want to spread the long ones out a bit more. Anyway, not my decision! I am conflicted by “The Cat Who walked a Thousand Miles.” It’s a rambly sort of story, and isn’t fantasy or sf – unless one counts the idea of self-aware cats as fantasy. Maybe that does fit. Anyway, it’s Japan, and has to leave its home. It has adventures… cat adventures, anyway, involving mice and lakes. It is captivating prose – it’s lovely – but… it’s kinda boring. The plot’s not that interesting, but neither are there particularly absorbing character developments or discoveries. Maybe this just isn’t the story for me.

… and then there’s “Spar.” Oh, “Spar.” A story that might have been written in order to answer the question, “can a story that revolves entirely around sex actually explore interesting issues?” with an “absolutely.” Because the story does just that – revolve around sex between a human and an alien – and explores questions of identity, and belonging, and communication, and ohmyhowcouldwehopetotalktoaliens? It’s squicky, that’s for sure, but it’s masterful too.

Penultimately comes “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and here I gave to admit that the first time I read this I skimmed it and did not appreciate it. It was while reading for the Hugos, and it seemed so long and a bit dull and… yeh. I skimmed. And, it turns out, I missed a lot. It is long; it’s a novella, it’s allowed to be. But things do happen; a bridge, for one, plus lots of complex and interesting and beautiful and difficult human interactions. To what extent are we what we do? Do we get to make our own decisions about things like that? While I appreciated the story of Kit and his bridge-building this time, I also really savoured Kit’s back-story, which I completely missed last time; it has some wonderfully poignant moments. I loved the affirmation of life and love and choice. I now fully endorse, long after it matters, its inclusion on the Hugo ballot. And I kinda wish it had concluded the collection, because

“The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” does not really compare. It too is poignant, and clever, and the rumination on what might happen if our pets suddenly developed the ability to speak is chilling and pointed and discomfiting. But it’s just not on the same level as “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” for me. Maybe I’m just not enough of a pet person.

Overall, this collection cements for me that Kij Johnson is one of the most talented and varied writers of speculative fiction going at the moment. She changes style and genre effortlessly, she pokes fun and makes serious comments on the human condition, and she writes glorious prose. MORE.

3 responses

  1. Shara @ Calico Reaction | Reply

    I’ve got this collection on my Wishlist. Here’s hoping I’ll get lucky!

    1. It’s really worth it!!

  2. It’s sitting on my kindle. I am really looking forward to reading.

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