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At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories
Kij Johnson
Small Beer Press, 320 pages

At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories
Kij Johnson
Kij Johnson taught writing and science-fiction writing at Louisiana State University, and has lectured on creativity and writing at bookstores and businesses across the country. She has been awarded the William Crawford Award for Achievement in Fantasy. Since 1994, she has assisted at the Writer's Workshop for Science Fiction, hosted by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. In the past 10 years, she has worked as managing editor at Tor Books; collections and special editions editor for Dark Horse Comics; editor, continuity manager and creative director for Wizards of the Coast; and most recently as a program manager on the Microsoft Reader. She has also run chain and independent bookstores; worked as a radio announcer and engineer, edited cryptic crosswords, and waitressed in a strip bar. She lives in Seattle with her husband.

Kij Johnson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Fox Woman
SF Site Interview: Kij Johnson

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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Something happened in the last decade. Before that, Kij Johnson was a respected if far from exalted short story writer, who had won the Sturgeon Award for "Fox Magic," which would grow into her first novel, The Fox Woman, but otherwise hadn't really troubled the award ballots. Since then, it is almost impossible to imagine an award shortlist that hasn't featured at least one of her stories, often going on to win. This debut collection of 18 stories, for example, includes, along with "Fox Magic," "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," winner of the World Fantasy Award; "Spar," winner of the Nebula Award; "Ponies," another Nebula winner; and "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," winner of both the Nebula and Hugo awards, plus any number of other pieces that have, over the last few years, made it onto award ballots or into best of the year anthologies.

What changed? It's difficult to tell. There are certain continuities that run through practically all of the stories here. The vast majority of them are centrally concerned with animals of one sort or another. These range from the earlier stories, such as "Wolf Trapping," "Fox Magic" or "The Horse Raiders," up to much more recent pieces like "The Evolution of Trickster Stories among the Dogs of North Park after the Change," "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles," or "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss." In some of these stories, the animal is treated fairly conventionally. "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles" has a cat as its viewpoint character, but there is nothing exceptional about the cat. What we have is an episodic narrative about a stray cat who walks the length of Japan, and about the humans it encounters along the way. "The Horse Raiders" tells of a skilled medicine woman who is kidnapped by another tribe to look after their horses that are dying from an unknown disease. Both are nicely-told stories, but they don't really feel that different from hundreds of other conventional fantasies we might read.

Most of the stories, however, use the animal as a distorted mirror in which we glimpse ourselves. "Fox Magic," like "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles," draws on medieval Japanese life and legend. In this instance a fox falls in love with a human and, through fox magic, appears to the man as a beautiful woman. But as the man forgets his former life, so the fox starts to forget that she is not herself human. It is a well-told story, very skillfully evoking a sense of Japanese myth, though in the end the humanized animal makes it feel like a typical safe and unchallenging fantasy.

More recent stories are more behavioural and less conventional in their employment of animal fantasy. We observe the animals always from outside, we see their behavior never their thought processes. "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," the story that started her recent prominence in the genre awards, upsets the way we perceive animals as fantasy figures precisely by not humanizing them. In this instance, our viewpoint character, Aimee, has a carnival act which culminates in her team of 26 monkeys vanishing on stage. She doesn't know how it happens, she doesn't know where the monkeys go, all she knows is that sometime later that night they will return to her tour bus. The monkeys are never called upon to behave as anything other than monkeys, the mystery is never solved, the story reaches no particular resolution, all we know is that Aimee's part in the story reaches an end. But it is precisely because of this that the story works so well in holding a mirror to humanity.

Much the same can be said of a story that is every bit as good as this one: "The Evolution of Trickster Stories among the Dogs of North Park after the Change." In this instance the dogs are something other than the animals we know, because the unexplained 'Change' has rendered all domestic animals capable of speech. But being able to speak has not changed their nature, all it has really done is upset the familiar relationship between humans and their pets. Now that we know what our pets are thinking, most people have abandoned the animals to fend for themselves, and a pack of dogs now living in a park has started to tell themselves stories, similar to the Trickster tales of North American mythology. Once again, it is the fact that they have not been humanized that makes this such a telling story about the shallowness of humanity.

But it is not just the way that she uses animals naturalistically, because this doesn't always work. The title story, "At the Mouth of the River of Bees," for example, starts out as if it is going to be among the better stories in the collection. A woman driving away from a change in her life happens upon what is presented as a bizarre but natural phenomenon, a vast river of bees flooding northwards across the prairie. On an impulse, she decides to follow them to the mouth of the river, but when she gets there what seemed like a fresh and idiosyncratic story suddenly turns into something much more conventional, with a wise woman whose place the newcomer must take. There is nothing sentimental about Johnson's treatment of either the bees or the old, sick dog who is the woman's only companion, but the story nevertheless ends in sentiment.

However, although these are predominantly animal fantasies, they are not all such, and the behaviourist approach to the subject, though distinctive, is not the whole story. One of the other characteristics of her recent work is the way she plays with story structure. Again, this is not entirely a new thing, there are traces of it in early pieces like "Schrodinger's Cathouse" and "The Empress Jingu Fishes" in which the basic story has been deconstructed and put together in a new order. But this is something that becomes more confident and more controlled in later pieces, there's a certainty that what goes in to making up the story does not just consist of narrative. Thus "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" includes a list of the different types of monkeys that feature in the act, "The Evolution of Trickster Stories ..." includes examples of some of the stories the dogs tell.

To my mind, the finest example of this analytical awareness of story structure comes in "Story Kit." We are presented with a feminist take on the story of Dido and Aeneas, plus the story of a break-up in the contemporary world; but these are both fragmented, and the whole is refracted through the eyes of someone trying and failing to render part of this into fiction. The story, meanwhile, is punctuated by passages about writing, the nature of fiction, the job of the writer. It manages to be, therefore, a knowing story about story and a moving account of the emotional and psychological effects of the end of a love affair. What this illustrates is how much Johnson is in command, intellectually as well as practically, of the task of writing. And it is this command, this awareness, that forms the underpinning of her best stories.

Even in something that looks like a conventional narrative, such as "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," you get a strong sense of the structure that shapes the story. This is a fantasy that, I believe, does not really need the fantastic. The story works because of the metaphorical role taken by the bridge, because of the way the building of the bridge stands for the building of relationships. In all of the stories that really stand out in this collection there is a concern with the humanity of the figures caught up in the story. The fantastic has to relate to the real to give it relevance, otherwise it is just the use of conventional narrative techniques to separate the story from the world. Such relevance is always to be found in Johnson's stories, though for my money it is more obvious and more potent the more she breaks with narrative convention. Thus, while I recognize the quality of "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" and the acclaim it has received, I have to say that to my mind it is not as effective as, say, "Spar," in which a disjointed series of paragraphs relate a sexual encounter with the other, in which every aspect of being gradually becomes subsumed within the variations of 'in' and 'out' that echo throughout the story. Like "Story Kit," like "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," like some of the other stories here that I haven't dwelt upon yet which deserve our attention, such as "Names for Water" or "My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire - Exposition on the Flaws in my Spouse's Character - The Nature of the Bird - Her Final Disposition" (a wonderful title for a sly and funny tale), "Spar" is a story that demands much of the reader. We practically have to construct the story out of the disparate parts with which we are presented. And it is this engagement with the process of story construction, coupled with the sharpness of her observation, that makes Kij Johnson one of the most rewarding short story writers working today.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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