It’s not fair to limit a look at Kij Johnson’s work to three years. Since she sold her first short story in 1987, Johnson has appeared in all of the top publications and probably needed to buy a second home just hold all the awards she’s won. Her essay for the This I Believe series ran on NPR’s Weekend Edition. She’s written scripts for Dark Horse Comics. And she’s worked on several Magic: the Gathering related web games. But if there’s anything Johnson understands, judging by what happens to her characters, it’s that life isn’t fair.
As the first installment of Isotropic Fiction’s continuing look at the 2011 Nebula Award nominees, IF will take a brief look at Johnson’s last two Nebula winners as well as well as the novella that put her name on the list this year.
No matter what one thinks about Kij Johnson’s 2009 Nebula Award winning short story, Spar, one thinks about it. So visceral and discomforting it’s impossible not to. Those that want to dismiss it as mere tentacle porn find themselves thinking about weeks after reading it. The gritty, uncomplicated syntax creates vivid, stomach churning scenes. Readers who love the story do so with eyes slightly averted even as their mind recreates the horror of the situation described.
Rape and writing about rape are nothing new in the world of speculative fiction. Second to Johnson, nobody’s done it more horrifically than in James Cameron’s script for Strange Days. But Spar‘s saw publication in the same year Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (to pick just one other thing) was made into an extremely successful movie. Between Spar‘s Nebula and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s dozen awards, readers and publishers alike need to examine the role of violence in their work. As of this moment, it’s impossible to deny that violence against women in the literary marketplace has shifted from cause to commodity.
Despite the violence of Spar, the continual penetration acted upon the nameless narrator by the unknowable alien, Johnson’s removal of agency and motive prevent create a completely amoral story. A challenge few writers have managed to take on, and fewer have done well.
And then there’s the horror of Johnson’s 2010 Nebula Award winning short, Ponies. Like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Beginning Place, Johnson zeros in on a universal moment of childhood development. Unlike Le Guin, she gives her protagonist, Barbara, no escape into fantastic metaphor. Barbara’s metaphor is also Barbara’s reality. And reality, unlike metaphor, comes with unavoidable consequences.
Unlike Spar, the morality of this tale is as obvious as one Aesop’s fables. But Johnson much too keen of an observer of reality to take the easy road of punishing the bad and rewarding the good. Rather, the haves continue having and those who waiver lose everything.
The Man Who Bridged the Mists
Nominated for a 2011 Nebula Award, Johnson’s novella feels different, tamer than Spar or Ponies. Part of it is format. Neither Spar nor Ponies would have survived if their conceits had been forced into any form anything longer than a short story.
And part of it is voice. When Spar‘s opening line, “In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly” appeared in Clarkesworld in October 2009, readers couldn’t look away. Even readers who didn’t like it, found themselves “compelled to continue,” as one commenter summed it up. It’s hard to believe both Spar and The Man Who Bridged the Mists were written by the same person after reading the novella’s opening line: Kit came to Nearside with two trunks and an oiled-cloth folio full of plans for the bridge across the mist.
What Johnson loses in terms of dynamic writing however, she gains in nuance. By weaving a fine back story through her narrative, the reader is given a protagonist of complex motives, human impulses, professional checks, and deliberate actions.
With this year’s nomination being so alien from the last two, should Johnson win it’ll be fascinating to read her commentary on the story when anthologized.