Books, science fiction

“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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Books, science fiction

Reviewing Pains

My review of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist begins at Strange Horizons today. The second and concluding part, in which I pick my preferred winner, will go online on Wednesday.

Even more difficult than that decision, was the one – made in today’s installment – to exclude Adam Roberts’s Yellow Blue Tibia from the running. I enjoyed it greatly and think highly of it and its author – and start his new novel this week with more excitement than I have for the next work of any of the other shortlisted authors. But I have a kink for unity – not, naturally, the same thing as completeness – and, well … go read the review.

And on Wednesday, Part Two will make things ever clearer. He says.

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Books, science fiction

The Ant King and Other Genres

The Ant King and Other Stories

The Ant King and Other Stories

My review of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King and Other Stories is up today at Strange Horizons. I am in rather more stident form in a four-way discussion with Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum and Martin Lewis, over at Torque Control.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about – or at least have had sat grumpily at the back of my head – is (whisper it now) genre reception. What surprised me in my reaction to Rosenbaum’s collection is that I preferred the more obviously generic of the stories. This isn’t normally the case with me – great SF is as great as any other fine literature, but by and large I find staple genre pieces of all kinds unable to make that leap. Clearly this generalisation doesn’t hold in a collection in which the staple genre stuff is just better written than the mixed stuff, and this might suggest that the quality of the writing has no bearing on whether something can be said to belong wholly to a given genre.

And yet.

It was recently reading Blindness which kicked off this quibbling. Jose Saramago’s haunting parable of society and order is surely science fictional in concept: a mysterious, unexplainable virus cuts a swathe through civilisation. As in PD James’s The Children of Men, this virus remains more or less an unexplored McGuffin, and this is what separates such works from the hard SF whose instinct it would be to delve into the facts and figures of the condition. This lack of interest in science doesn’t render the work divorced entirely from the genre, of course, since all sorts of soft SF, fantasy, and slipstream works make a similar choice. Yet the book – andmany others like it – is not widely or materially associated with the genre (the flipside of this is that some of Rosenbaum’s considerably less SFnal stories are). The standard answer to this condundrum is to blame the publishing industry: we follow the tag on the book’s shelf in the store, which exists only to market it, not as a tool for its criticism. And yet it’s hard not to identify an unconscious assumption that, if a book is luminously written, it cannot really belong to something as potentially limiting as a genre.

This may be true – great writers are also great synthesisers, fusing together many genres and modes. The very act of writing well may also be one of transcending protocols of genre. But what of those great writers – a Bester or a Miéville – who choose not to eschew genre? Do we limit our appreciation of their works with this vague (and easily disproven) rule of thumb, or do they limit their writing by placing it in a single (and easily limiting) box?

Nothing new to the debate here, genre veterans. Move along, move along …

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