September 2012

Sessily Watt

fiction

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

The title story of Kij Johnson's debut short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, begins with a bee sting and a road trip. The sting and the trip are tied together through proximity, separated by three short paragraphs describing the flowers that held the bee, the bee's death, and the wound it leaves behind. The strangeness of a road trip started by a bee sting is compounded by the main character Linna's inexplicable decision to drive farther and farther from her Seattle home with her dog, Sam. The fantastic appears a page or so later when a river of bees, a literal river of buzzing insects, migrating north and west, halts Linna and Sam's movement across the United States. By the end, the bee sting and the road trip will be linked, one because of the other, and both because of what Linna finds. And yet one of the primary characteristics of Johnson's fantasy is in that first encounter with the fantastic. Shortly after reaching the river, Linna expresses astonishment, as one might expect, but her astonishment prompts laughter from the woman beside her and marks her as a stranger to that section of Montana. As impossible as a river of bees is to Linna and to the reader, it isn't to that woman or to the patrolmen who have stopped traffic on the highway. In Johnson's worlds, the fantastic is often familiar to someone.

At times, it feels familiar to the reader, too, with talking animals, long journeys of discovery, transformations, glimpses of massive beasts, generations living aboard a massive spaceship, and aliens with whom we can't communicate. These are common tropes of contemporary fantasy and science fiction, as well as of age-old myths and fairy tales. We have seen them before and will see them again. But this familiarity deepens the fantasy, rather than undermining it. Johnson achieves this through a keen sense of knowing when not to explain. For example, by its end, Linna and Sam's trip develops a retroactive purpose, with the implication that the initial bee sting was deliberate. Yet questions remain. How did the bee know to sting her? And why Linna, of all the people possible? Neither Linna nor the reader knows. As the story "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" tells us: "The world is full of strange things, things that make no sense, and maybe this is one of them." For all the distances traveled and the mysteries solved, those strange, inexplicable things remain. This is Johnson's fiction: the familiar combined with the inexplicable. The usual fantastic. The unknowable that undergirds the everyday.

Take "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," in which Kip comes to the town of Nearside to build a bridge over a thick and uncanny mist full of threatening beasts. The plot is less focused on the fantastical mist than on the daily negotiations of such a massive project and on the changes wrought by development. And yet, the mist is the center of the story, for whether the characters manage it with ferries or with a bridge, what they are ultimately managing is the risk and arrival of death. The strangeness of the mist reveals the strangeness of death. Similarly, in "Ponies," the fantastic hazing ritual of girls and their magical ponies brings close the frightening violence of growing up, while in "The Bitey Cat," the uncanny both comforts and puts at risk the young Sarah as she struggles with her parents' divorce. The fantastic strips away the everyday disguises of death and change, placing us face to face with the unknowable.

With the exception of "Spar," in which a woman and an alien are locked in an embrace both sexual and painful, and the eruptions of violence in "Ponies" and a few other stories, Johnson's writing whispers of the fantastic, sneaking up to surprise the reader with emotional connections in worlds sometimes dark and lonely. This is the other hallmark of these stories: the desire for connection. In "Wolf Trapping," a woman insists that she can live with the wolves, over the objections of the scientist observing them. In "Fox Magic," a fox yearns for the man who saves her from being killed. Often stories are how connections are imprinted and emphasized, as in "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles," in which family is made of those who will listen to your story. Or they are how a lack of connection is revealed, as in "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change," in which the dogs' stories circle around their former owners' betrayals.

There are weak stories in the collection -- "Dia Chjerman's Tale" and "Schrodinger's Cathouse" don't have the depth of connection or the sophisticated development of the fantastic found elsewhere -- but even the weakest stories are enjoyable, as one would expect in the debut collection of an author whose fiction has received the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts' Crawford Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Many of those award-winners are included here, such as "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," "Ponies," "Spar," "Fox Magic," and others. Look, these stories say. Look at the fantastic inside the familiar. Look at the monster who "is huge and fierce and could kill you any time she wanted except something happened and now she's a cat with spots and stripes and white toes."

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
Small Beer Press
ISBN: 978-1931520805
300 pages