At the Mouth of the River of Bees


I was tempted to drag out some Raw Feeds on Philip K. Dick novels, but I’ll save that for some other time.

Instead, here’s a retro review from December 15, 2012. This one came from the publisher via LibraryThing.

Review: At the Mouth of the River of Bees, ed. Kij Johnson, 2012.At the Mouth of the River of Bees

Sometimes an author needs a collection to redeem them with readers, a second chance to change a bad first impression.

My first experiences with Johnson did not warm me to her. I had read two of the stories here before. One, the award winning “Ponies”, left me unmoved. The other, “At the Mouth of the River of Bees”, I had forgotten all together.

But a successful collection can give an author another chance to make their case, another chance to impress, another chance to make a future customer and reader. And Johnson managed to do that with me.

Johnson’s work, at least here, seems to feature two main themes: the relation of the human with the alien – usually presented in the special case of humans’ relations to animals – and people moving under the force of mysterious compulsions. There is also a minor third theme of the indignities suffered by women throughout history.

There are a lot of animals in these stories: monkeys, foxes, cats and cat-like monsters, horses, bees, wolves, ponies of peculiar composition, and dogs.

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” has one of those characters with a mysterious compulsion – to buy a strange primate act she sees at the Utah State Fair for one dollar. For the next four years, she watches the monkeys vanish during their act, go somewhere else in space and time. There is the mystery of how and why this is done – perhaps under the direction of the oldest, dying monkey. And there is the mystery of why her younger lover stays with her.

Fox Magic” uses a medieval Japanese setting similar to Johnson’s novels Fudoki and The Fox Woman. It’s a long fairy tale about a female fox who develops a love for a young samurai lord and takes steps to magically bring him into her world. Since I’m not a lover of fairy tales, it didn’t do much for me. However, “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles“, in a similar Japanese setting, charmed me with a story of a young kitten forced to roam the world after her home in Edo burns down after an earthquake.

Three year old Sarah has a cat too, sort of, in “The Bitey Cat“, also one of my favorite stories in the collection. She knows Penny the Bitey Cat is really a monster in disguise, and one not terribly nice to her or anybody else. It’s a nice riff on the theme of the protective imaginary friend or spirit that a young child turns to in traumatic times, here the divorce of Sarah’s parents.

I found “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” a lot more charming and moving the second time I read it – and it wasn’t just the parochial interest of having lived around some of its eastern Montana settings. Its narrator has a compulsion to take her sick dog on a spur of the moment drive east where she eventually encounters the wonderful, punning, literalized abstraction of the River of Bees and feels the need to follow it to its source. It’s a rumination on what we owe our pets.

To me, “Wolf Trapping“, another of my favorite works here, was sort of a look at the pathological side of humans’ love for animals. A wolf researcher doing field research in early winter in the Rockies encounters a disturbed young girl who wants to live like a wolf and is disgusted that she still needs a hatchet to substitute for their teeth.

If animals, especially our pets, are to be seen as sort of aliens that we share the earth with, two other stories can be seen as culminations of Johnson’s use of this theme. “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park” is after the Change which made mammals, including the ones we keep for pets, able to speak. And, while pet owners often claim they wish their pets could speak, the reality turns out to be much different. It was another one of my favorite stories. However, if pets are just domesticated aliens, “Spar” is Johnson’s most startling take on alien encounters in the collection. Forced to take refuge in an alien lifeboat after a starship accident, she finds herself locked in continual sexual contact, with an alien. Raped and raping, violated and satisfied, hers is an existence unredeemed and unbroken by anything like communication. I’m not sure the ending works. I suspect Johnson may be going for something like the “white captive” stories that fascinated 17th and 18th century Americans, tales of women kidnapped and forced to live among Indians and how the ordeal forever altered them.

If so, that wouldn’t be a theme alien to this collection. There is an undercurrent of put-upon women, a recasting of women’s dire fate in history into the future. “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire – Exposition on the Flows in My Spouse’s Character – The Nature of the Bird – the Possible Causes – Her Final Disposition“, with its witty, 18th Century English diction, tells of a man disapproving of his wife’s spending and sexual appetite. And he’s also clueless that his wife is having an affair with the local vicar. Eventually she escapes her marriage.

Escape is on the mind of the heroine of “The Horse Raiders” too. She has to contend with forces of an empire which kill her nomadic clan and kidnap her because of her knowledge of horses – an animal dying out on the rest of the planet. Her tale of resistance and compromise is reminiscent of conquered women through the ages. Being on the losing end of history and still surviving conquest and rape and the destruction of your civilization is women’s’ past and some women’s’ future in “Dia Chjerman’s Tale“, a story of endurance and not triumph. And “Ponies” seems a parable about the tendency of women to attack other, happy, women in their moment of happiness.

There are some odds and ends that don’t fit easily in any of the above categories. “Names for Water” has an engineering student taking strange cell phone calls. It’s an ok story helped along by poetic language, here Johnson’s typical present tense prose. “Schrodinger’s Cathouse“, rather like “Spar”, is a story I’m ultimately not sure worked in providing a satisfying ending or thematic conclusion, but the trip was interesting. Playing on the famous metaphor of quantum indeterminacy, its narrator can’t tell whether the object of his sexual desire is male or female even during their intimate moments. Lust, Johnson seems to say, can be narrowly focused on an individual and not a gender. “Chenting, in the Land of the Dead” is an Oriental fable of a Chinese scholar who decides to die early to be certain of a governorship in the afterlife. It has a twist ending but is nothing special. The titular character of “Empress Jingu Fishes” is a fascinating, semi-mythical figure in Japanese history and said to have conquered Korea. Johnson transforms the story into explicit fantasy by making her a shaman of the gods, one who has the power to clearly see the details of her future life. “The Man Who Bridged the Mists” was another story I found pleasant enough but nothing special except in the relationship between a bridge builder and the ferrywoman he is going to render obsolete. Finally, “Story Kit” was perhaps my very favorite story, a modernistic collage eventually linking writing maxims and techniques, the protagonist’s divorce, and the mythic story of Dido and Aeneas. (And Johnson seems to follow one of the given writing rules in her stories: no adverbs.) It’s a look at the alchemy that can transform a writer’s personal life into a satisfying story.

So, while my conviction that the genre awards science fiction and fantasy readers and writers love have nothing to do with real significance or lasting quality, I do have a better appreciation of Johnson, and she will be a name I remember and look forward to in the future. She’s an accomplished stylist of the fantasy story.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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