At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
03 October 2012
The metaphor, and its rococo sibling the allegory, have a difficult relationship with science fiction. Ursula Le Guin famously argued that all futures, in fiction, are metaphor; but the strict correlations necessary to the metaphorical technique have also come to be rather distrusted in more recent critical discourse. For instance, Patrick Parrinder has argued that "the 'metaphorical' phase of science-fictional discourse may be breaking down" (Science Fiction: Critical Frontiers (2000), p. 23), whilst in The Inter-Galactic Playground (2009), Farah Mendelsohn has gone further, suggesting that, "The use of science fiction to dress up allegory is a function of not understanding what science fiction is" (p. 137). In this way, metaphor and allegory pose serious problems for science fiction, a literature which seeks to represent a possible future as its own thing, to interrogate a cohesive, fully rendered other, rather than to doodle a mere signifier for something closer to home.
"One such problem," explains Adam Roberts in Science Fiction (2006), "is that the one-to-one mapping implied by metaphor at its most basic level (Suvin calls it micro-metaphor) tends towards the reductive" (p. 136). That is, science fiction is robbed of much of its sensawunda if its worlds are limited to a single, correlative reading. In Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep (2010), however, Seo-Young Chu has attempted a theory of representation in science fiction by focusing on "referents which are virtually unknowable and that all but defy language and comprehension" (p. 245). This is something of a get-out-of-jail-free card for the metaphor in science fiction, issued on the basis that what is being allegorized is unrepresentable in any other way; on the other hand, this might be a good description of what is going on in Kij Johnson's remarkable new collection of short stories, At the Mouth of the River of Bees.
Chu's governing concern is estrangement: science fiction metaphors, he argues, are uniquely placed to tackle our contemporary impossibilities, the way in which financial derivatives, for instance, are so much less grokkable than pennies. In Johnson's short stories, the ineffable is likewise repeatedly evoked without ever quite being literally present—that is, the stuff of estrangement is referred to rather than described. For instance, in "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," the story which begins the current collection and won the World Fantasy Award, the lead character, Aimee, is touring the continental United States with a monkey show she doesn’t understand: her troop of simians march into a bathtub, and then with a gesture the eldest of their number, Zeb, apparently causes them to disappear. They return to Aimee's tour bus some hours later, offering no clues as to where they have been in the interim. The vacuum the monkeys enter may or may not represent a hollowness in Aimee's own self: her inability to understand how the monkeys disappear, and where they go—her insistence on believing that the mere movement of Zeb's hands is responsible for so impossible a feat—is part of her broader need to find reason in a world she no longer understands.
Because there's always a reason for everything, isn't there? Because if there isn't a reason for even one thing, like how you can get sick, or your husband stop loving you, or people you love die—then there's no reason for anything. So there must be reasons. Zeb's as good a guess as any. (p. 7)
In truth, of course, Aimee has no idea what happens to the monkeys in the bathtub, and she tours the United States with them—picking up in the process a new boyfriend, Geof (who "has a degree in creative writing, which means that he was working in a bike-repair shop" (p. 6))—without ever coming close to understanding what it is she is presenting to the public. Ultimately, she comes to wonder if the monkeys' mystery is not where they go but how they came to be: "how they found other monkeys that ask questions and try things, and figured out a way to all be together to share" (p. 12). There is a weird lacuna in the daily life of both the monkeys and Aimee, a signifier with no referent, which can only be explained by asking a different question. The monkeys remain thoroughly unknowable, entirely other, and yet intimately involved with the lives of both Aimee and Geof.
Not only does this make for a moving and resonant short story; it also asks serious questions of the metaphorical technique. Indeed, every story in At the Mouth of the River of Bees is concerned in one sense or another with the difficulty of representation—from "Names for Water," the very title of which refers to the act of referring, and which in little more than four pages aims to depict the subconscious element of scientific discovery, to "Chenting in The Land of the Dead," which wonders what that eternally unrepresentable destination, the afterlife, might be like for each of us. Johnson has been particularly notable for adapting the myths of Japanese folklore, and her other stories seem to share some of the fairy-tale logic which allows for the unexplainable without necessarily providing explicative frameworks.
Take "Fox Magic," the 1993 precursor to Johnson's Crawford-winning novel, The Fox Woman (1999): its principle character is a vixen who bewitches a handsome prince to believe she and her family are human and their den a palace; the story fluctuates around her shifting self-presentation, never quite resting on either the fox-woman's vulpine or human identity. "I wasn’t sure what a poem was," she confesses at one point. "It is a human thing; I don't know how well a fox can ever understand it" (p. 15). At the same time, the fox is so embedded in the human world, so able and willing to slip in and out of it, that she can fall in love with a man and manipulate his perceptions to such an extent he believes their child is a baby rather than a cub (likewise, the fox family feels "as though it had been real and we had been human" (p. 25)). Almost all of the stories in this collection revolve in some way around this troubled relationship between the human and the animal: from the event which irrevocably alters the relationship of dog and human, slave and master in "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change," to the elegiac fantasy of "The Horse Raiders," in which an equine plague ravages the population of a medievalized world, leaving tribes who rely on their horses bereft. Johnson interrogates not just the barriers but the connections between human and animal, and how those relationships define and reveal the qualities of both parties.
There is some very subtle work going on here, focused on the estranged "Other." In her Animal (2002), the cultural historian Erica Fudge has followed linguists such as George Lakoff in seeing the metaphor as the central means of expressing our relationship with the natural world: "What is incomprehensible becomes knowable through its translation from thing 'out there' to metaphor 'in here'" (p. 11). Fudge's work emphasizes the old saw that we are both like and not like animals, and that our relationship with them is therefore inherently difficult; she attempts to set out new means of relating ourselves to animals, in an effort to move beyond simple cruelty or paradoxical stewardship. In stories such as "Fox Magic," it's hard not to see Johnson doing the same, picking her way through the ineffectiveness of the metaphors she has inherited in an attempt to arrive at a better representation of virtually unknowable referents.
This project is important because animals, over whom we presume such absolute dominion, are in some ways not so very different to us: observing the limited, mournful life of her prince's wife, Johnson's fox maiden notes that, "a woman's life is filled with sadness and waiting" (p. 13), emphasizing that it is not just the nobility's dogs which are held in bondage. In "The Bitey Cat," meanwhile, the daughter of a couple whose marriage is painfully and publicly on the rocks bonds so completely with her pet cat that the two become almost entirely inseparable:
Sarah knows that Penny is not really a cat. That's why she didn't say about the bite. She sees something mad and bad looking out of the bitey cat's yellow eyes and she understands because she's mad and bad sometimes, too. (pp. 41-2)
Sarah becomes a bitey human, her curious and disturbed relationship with "her" cat acting as a kind of refuge from the constant arguments which form the background noise of her domestic space. There is a slippage between human and animal here which might be parsed, because we are reading the work of a fantasy and science fiction writer, as magical—but might also be explained, because we are also reading stories of intense psychological insight, as a kind of truer representation of the emotional crises endemic in self-proclaimed "realist" fiction. In "The Empress Jingu Fishes," for example, Johnson constructs a cascading narrative which skips through time rather like a stone on the waters in which we first find our heroine fishing. Typical of her internal monologue is the casting of memory as ever-present recollection suspended in the moment: "That is half a year from now," she envisions, Cassandra-like. "Now, this instant, she looks at the trout suspended in water as clear and cold and pitiless as the future" (p. 102).
That relationship, between the human and the animal, again comes to characterize—to refigure—the ineffable heart of Johnson's story. For the Empress Jingu, married to the Emperor but now widowed, yet gifted with the power of foresight and therefore fully aware she will one day lead an army of revenge against her husband's killers, the present is a becalmed moment between past and future, much as the moment between swimming and hooking exists for the fish. Like Aimee with her monkeys, Jingu is acutely aware that "the gods are either ironical or cruel or simply do not care" (p. 107)—that is, that meaning is at best obscure, and at worst non-existent. The metaphor, in other words, is hollow—the falcon cannot hear the falconer. In the remarkable "Story Kit," in which a narrator very roughly analogous with Johnson mines the story of Dido and Aeneas for material, we read of "the gusting winds that are the gods" (p. 131), and this comes very close to expressing the entire collection's conception of fate—that it is ultimately arbitrary, rather than meaningful in the way of analogies.
Unsurprisingly, it is the title story which illustrates most clearly this recurring motif. In this story, we join Linna, a woman who has just been stung by a bee, as she decides, apropos of nothing, to take a road trip with her elderly dog, Sam. As they drive—again across the mysterious emptinesses of the continental United States—Linna is "not sure where she’s going or why" (p. 111); instead, they simply head in a single direction, like the dog following a scent Sam might have been, were his spine not fusing and his muscles atrophying. This is the kind of journey which is so easily allegorized, but in Johnson we simply arrive at the Bee River, a literal—and, to the locals, quite normal—flowing of apoidea which closes the nearby freeways. Still the story holds out the possibility of a grand unifying theme: a patrolman named Tabor, whose father was also once stung by a bee and resolved to go roaming, allows Linna to leave her car and follow the Bee River on foot. "[T]he river tells her where to go" (p. 119), and yet "she can see the bee but she cannot see the river, or she sees the current but not the bees" (p. 120). In Johnson, journey and meaning cannot be held together simultaneously—and at the end of the Bee River, all Linna finds is a woman (a queen bee?) who can offer a final kindness to her struggling, dying old dog. Afterwards, Linna's "dreams are visited by bees, but they bring her no messages" (p. 129).
The collection's title story, then, revolves around simple acts of kindness—Linna's, the patrolman's, the queen bee's—which stand for little but themselves, and yet take place in the context of quite bewilderingly estranging environments. The alternative to the simplicity of kindness is multifarious cruelty—as depicted in "Ponies," a grotesque in which children keep living My Little Ponies, and are encouraged by the unthinking hivemind of the preteen social group to deface and injure them in a brutal fashion—and this, Johnson can be seen to argue, proceeds from precisely the unwillingness or inability to engage with the other that her metaphor-play seeks to overcome. In the breathtaking "Spar," for example, a human and alien, castaways from an intergalactic traffic accident, "fuck endlessly, relentlessly" (p. 199) in the confined space of an escape pod, entirely unaware and oblivious of each other's personhood. The questions of rape and sexuality posed unblushingly by this story are one with the collection's broader engagement with issues of gender: it's not just the vixen who views women as objects held in bondage by men, and in the terrifying future of "Dia Chjerman's Tale," in which planets breaking the laws of a distant and unforgiving empire are visited generations after the infraction by Ships which ravage their surfaces and abduct their women, we hear a powerful voice rejecting an enforced othering: "To the men of the Ship, our planets were disobedient fiefs, then nonrenewable resources. Our grandmothers and mothers were objects to fight over, breeding stock. We have always been more than this" (p. 74).
"Dia Chjerman's Tale" is about nothing but Dia Chjerman's story—but there is also at its center something almost as old-fashioned as a moral. In "Wolf Trapping," a woman involving herself in the daily lives of a pack of wolves says to an avowedly detached naturalist, "You would let one die. They're, we're, not all just pieces in a puzzle, fit them in and they're just part of the picture. They're individuals" (p. 153). Characters in this wildly inventive, laudably diverse collection—their lives and worlds—don't stand for something else, but by virtue of that they represent the importance of respecting a person's totality, their significance beyond our own schema. That is, the metaphor might be a proprietary thing which seeks to explain events on its inventor's terms: better, in an estranged and estranging world, to adopt Aimee's approach, and see not the bathtub . . but the monkeys inside.