In which the Hugo shortlist is more controversial as ever, but in the mean time we’ve been reading & watching some great things. You can get us at iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
MANY APOLOGIES for sound issues on this episode – we didn’t catch an accidental microphone shift which means some background noise which should have been muted were not.
What’s New on the Internet?
Effect of slate nominations on Hugo Shortlist at File 770.com
The Rebirth of Rapunzel winners: Margaret Eve & Kate Laidley, we hope you enjoy your book prizes!
Alisa: Every Heart a Doorway; Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; Orphan Black
Tansy: Deirdre Hall is the Devil, presented by Jodi McAlister; Teen Wolf, Downton Abbey, Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog, Buffy Season 1
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This book was sent to me by the publisher, at no cost.
A middle aged woman goes on an epic quest. You’ll want to be reading this in August when it’s released by Tor.com.
…no seriously, what more do you need to know?
Vellitt is a mathematics professor at the only women’s college in her city. Although it’s not really “her” city – it’s just where her youthful ramblings ended up taking her. Anyway one night she discovers that one of the students has left – run away with a boy – and not just any boy, but one from the waking world. Because Vellitt’s world is a dreaming world, and things are not the same there as they in the waking world of Earth. Thus begins Vellitt’s quest.
I was fascinated by the world building here. It’s not entirely original – there are other stories where people know that they live in a secondary world or an imagined world or a story – but this dreaming world with its heavy sky and ninety seven stars and changeable distances and multitude of cranky, vicious gods is beautifully realised. I could imagine many stories set here but actually, I rather hope that Johnson just leaves this as a stand-alone jewel.
Johnson says that this was an attempt to re-imagine a Lovecraft story she loved as a child but whose racism and lack of women was clearly problematic. The story is completely and thoroughly Vellitt’s. She reminisces about her experiences travelling the wide world as a young woman, about the people she met and skills she learned; but she’s not pining for her youth. She’s entirely comfortable with her black and silver hair and with the experience age has brought. Vellitt deals with all the problems cast her way – sometimes well, sometimes with help, and sometimes she’s left shaking with fear and revulsion. She’s determined and pragmatic and I really like her.
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
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.
In which Alisa recovers from the brainsplosion that is World Fantasy Convention, Alex finally reads THAT Margo Lanagan story, and Tansy travels in three kinds of time. You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
The WFC Report
Fake Geek Girls Unite:
Mary Sue Coverage 1 2 3
The New Statesman
Peter M Ball Pledges His Allegiance to the Fake Geek Army
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Dexter S6 and S7; Episodes 2; In Treatment S1; The Shield S1; Remember Why You Fear Me, Robert Shearman; Hair Side, Flesh Side, Helen Marshall
Alex: Singing my Sister Down, Margo Lanagan; some Kij Johnson, from At the Mouth of the River of Bees; One Little Room, KJ Parker; Holmes Sherlock, Eleanor Arnason
Tansy: The Diviners, Libba Bray; All New X-Men #1; Chicks Unravel Time edited by Deborah Stanish & LM Myles.
Don’t forget to send us nominations for the GS Award: for activism and/or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction in 2012.
Check out our sibling podcast, Galactic Chat – in the latest episode, Sean interviews Joe Abercrombie.
We are running away for summer! Back at the start of February!
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