“At The Mouth of the River of Bees”

My review of Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees is up at Strange Horizons today, and here’s a flavour:

In Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep (2010), however, Seo-Young Chu has attempted a theory of representation in science fiction by focusing on “referents which are virtually unknowable and that all but defy language and comprehension” (p. 245). This is something of a get-out-of-jail-free card for the metaphor in science fiction, issued on the basis that what is being allegorized is unrepresentable in any other way; on the other hand, this might be a good description of what is going on in Kij Johnson’s remarkable new collection of short stories, At the Mouth of the River of Bees.

Chu’s governing concern is estrangement: science fiction metaphors, he argues, are uniquely placed to tackle our contemporary impossibilities, the way in which financial derivatives, for instance, are so much less grokkable than pennies. In Johnson’s short stories, the ineffable is likewise repeatedly evoked without ever quite being literally present—that is, the stuff of estrangement is referred to rather than described.

I quote at length to give some context to a response I should probably make to a few reviews of the book published since I finished mine. In particular, Erin Horáková in the LARB is significantly less impressed by the collection than I, for reasons I might ordinarily expect to share. “I didn’t like this collection as well as I feel I should have,” she says. “These stories resist reductive, simplistic themes, but they also seem to resist all forms of pin-downable purpose. It’s difficult to guess what about a particular story made Johnson feel she needed to write it. The stories are well-written at the line and scene level, but you can’t sink your teeth into them, can’t love and hate and discuss them.” To my surprise, however, I find myself arguing that this quality of absence is one of the things to admire about the collection.

At Far Beyond Reality, Stefan Reits writes of Bees that, “Regardless of length, many of these stories employ an economy of wording that, at times, seems to be at odds with their content”, and I think that gets at what I also found in Johnson’s stories: a certain withholding, a distancing of the stories’ fantastica which might at first appear, as in the great empty space at the heart of ’26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’, to render the stories hollow. In fact, I’m with Sessily Watt at Bookslut: “This is Johnson’s fiction: the familiar combined with the inexplicable.” What Johnson does is enact, rather than depict, estrangement.

On the other hand, Horáková is right to worry at the sexual politics of the collection: even as my own review lengthened beyond reasonable limits, I was conscious of referring to this key question only glancingly (the ‘Other’ I focus upon in the review is the rather rarer one of the animal), and I agree with her that the absence of queer voices is striking in a collection essentially about heterodoxy. On the other hand, and as I conclude in the review, “Characters in this wildly inventive, laudably diverse collection—their lives and worlds—don’t stand for something else”; Horáková asks what is new about Johnson’s stories, arguing that “straight couples: how do they work?” is a dull old refrain, and in response I might provisionally suggest that it is refreshing, particularly in a work of genre, to see characters allowed to be themselves, rather than definitive figurations. Johnson may be a patchy writer who needs to expand the types of story and character she tells successfully (laudable diversity in content doesn’t always equate, of course, to laudable consistency), but she is attempting something a little smarter than going through the motions.

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