At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Kij Johnson is an author new to me; I heard of her from two different directions at once this fall. The first person to mention her to me was the mother of one of Eleanor’s college friends who is a science fiction editor (and a good one; she won this year’s Hugo award for “best editing, short form”) and the second was Ana at Things Mean A Lot. Eleanor is going to get to meet Kij Johnson at a convention this spring, so when we found a couple of her books, I read the short stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees first and loved them, and she read a novel entitled Fudoki, which she picked as her book of the year (for our Christmas newsletter).
The first story in At the Mouth of the River of Bees is entitled 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss. It’s about a magic act done with monkeys and it is wonderful and quirky and sad and has the most beautiful ending imaginable: “They hear the refrigerator close and come out to the kitchen to find Pango pouring orange juice from a carton. They send her home with a pinochle deck.” Doesn’t that wring your heart? Oh, it does mine…but I’ve read the rest of the story. Part of what is wonderful about this story, in particular, is the way that it gives away its secrets.
The Bitey Cat is another sad and wonderful story, told from the point of view of a three-year-old who survives a fiercely loyal pet. The Horse Raiders takes such sadness further, into a wild and alien landscape where a girl’s best friend is still her dog. My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire is a bit of comic relief in the collection, with the joke on its naïve narrator. And the title story, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, is the best in the volume, with just the right mix of journey, mystery, and sentiment. Even Wolf Trap, which could have been the most predictable story in the collection, manages its moments of mystery, as it’s never clear in any of these stories how a human will react to an animal or how alien one human or animal can seem to another.
There are disturbing stories here, like Ponies and Spar. What is disturbing in them is spelled out for readers, highlighting the wonder of the stories in which the metaphors simply come alive.
The penultimate and longest story, The Man Who Bridged the Mist, has the fewest animals in it; they are reduced to shadowy fearsome shapes, obstacles to human endeavor and probably unchanging in a world where humans are changing things around them.
The last word in this collection is the story The Evolution of Trickster Stories, about what happens to pets after animals have learned to speak. What happens, in the end, is that “people believe stories and then they make them real.”
All of these stories will appeal to sentient beings who will try to see creatures they can’t always understand or control “not as slaves but as friends, freeing themselves as well.” Shifting perspectives, piercings through of unexpected intelligence, and fear of the unknown are stirred around in this collection until a new flavor of science fiction emerges. I developed a taste for it.
There’s a metaphor we could make real in the comments–have you ever taught yourself to like something? I tried hot and sour soup for about a year, at least once a month, until I grew to like it.