Friday, November 2, 2012

Microreview [book]: At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

The Meat

Acclaimed science fiction and fantasy author Kij Johnson's recent short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, is an emotional whirlwind. The short story collection includes a number of her Hugo, Nebula, and other award-winning stories written over the past two decades. It covers the gamut of real and imagined animal life, from humans and monkeys to foxes, horses, bees, cats, wolves, tentacled aliens, and winged unicorn-like ponies. Ranging from love stories to jarring tentacle porn and strange retellings of history, the stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees reach from East Asia to Montana, from the ancient past to the distant future, and from the world of the dead to alien planets. Kij Johnson has given us an impressive collection of some of her best stories, and in doing so breathes a great deal of life into short story science fiction and fantasy.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees is at its most interesting when blurring the boundary between human and animal worlds. While anthropomorphizing some animals (in "Fox Magic," for instance), other stories highlight the opposite trend of humans emulating animals. "The Bitey Cat," for instance, shows how a young girl, Sarah, deals with the divorce of her parents through her relationship with her wild, bitey cat. Instead of taking her parents as role models, Sarah deals with the divorce by becoming as wild as her cat, turning into a bitey human. And the weird but oddly compelling tale "Wolf Trapping" centers around a woman who is so intent to become a member of a pack of wolves that she does something unthinkable.      

"Ponies," perhaps the most grisly and jarring of the stories, takes up the theme of cruelty, both the cruelty of childhood and that borne from the desire to fit in. A young girl's desire to fit in and befriend the in-crowd leads to a gruesome and cruel story of friendship betrayed. So influenced are Barbara and her winged unicorn-like pony in joining the in-group (OneOfUs) that they betray their own friendship and involve themselves in a ghastly crime. Children, Johnson rightly implies, can be cruel and uncaring. 

It is in the stories of love and loss that Johnson writes her finest work. "At the Mouth of the River of Bees," after which the collection is named, is far and away the most brilliant and magical story in the collection. A bee sting starts a chain of events that lead Linna to take her ailing dog on a road trip through the Northwest. On the way, they encounter a literal river of bees, and Linna decides to take her dog on a long trip up to the mouth, ultimately, to meet the queen of the bees. This magical tale deals with broader issues of aging, dying, loneliness, devotion, and loss, and represents the best of Kij Johnson's talents. Hugo award-winning story "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," too, tells a story of a man who builds a bridge over a dangerous river of mist. (This story, incidentally, features the best world building in the whole collection). However, the bridge he builds (his life's work), he soon finds out, threatens to destroy the woman he loves. And "Chenting, in the Land of the Dead" offers an interesting look at love, loss, and death. Death, Johnson rightly points out, is sometimes only in the eye of the beholder. Where death is warm and beautiful for the suffering scholar, it is cold and lonely for his lovely concubine, Ah Lien. Their paths of love meet in life, but diverge in death.

The last to emerge from this collection is the the bitter sweet theme of hope. "The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles," for instance, tells the story of a cat lost on the famous Tokaido road in Edo-period Japan. The cat, named Small Cat, travels far from its home, walking a thousand miles in search of adventure only to find itself. And Johnson's opening story, "26 Monkeys, and the Abyss," tells the tale of a woman who buys a disappearing monkey act. This playful story revolves around a central mystery that the woman tries to unravel: where do the monkeys go after they disappear? Johnson ends on a hopeful note, hinting that even after parting, nothing is ever lost.

As with all short story collections, there is a good deal of hit and miss. Some stories that delve into the experimental or the playful fail to do the collection justice. The Nebula Award-winning story "Spar," Johnson's foray into tentacle porn, is one such story. A woman and a tentacled alien, both trapped in space in a lifeboat, spend the whole story fucking each other. They fuck because it is their only means of communication, a flawed means indeed. And they fuck because they have nothing else to do and it helps them escape the reality of their meaningless existence. While jarring, this reviewer wonders why it was worthy of winning the prestigious Nebula award. Moreover, while "Story Kit" and "Schrodinger's Cathouse" are both conceptually interesting, they lack the power or depth of Johnson's better tales.  

Nonetheless, the good stories far outweigh the bad. At the Mouth of the River of Bees is an excellent short story collection, one that is well worth your time and attention. 

The Math

Objective Quality: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a blurring the boundaries between human and animal, and for engaging in fantastic world building.

Penalties: -1 for Johnson's tendency to exoticize Japan, especially in "Fox Magic." 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10  "Well worth your time and attention"

[See an explanation of our non-inflated scores here]