I’d like to tell you that I came across At the Mouth of the River of Bees in some darkly-lit second hand shop, owned by a leathery old man with an eye patch who spoke only in grunts. I’d like to tell you I found it high on a back shelf, blew off a thick layer of dust and purchased it with fifteen Korean won and a nail, and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail, only to turn around once leaving the shop to find it boarded up and the old man’s faint cackles floating away on the breeze. That sure would be a great opener . . . but I discovered this book in probably the most modern and boring way possible: I stumbled upon Bees on Amazon.com, the public interface of that all-consuming megalith of a corporation. I was intrigued by the title, skimmed over some positive reader reviews and downloaded it to my Kindle, eager to see what this river of bees and its other fifteen short stories had to offer (you have my money, Amazon, but you’ll never have my soul).
How spectacularly mundane of me.
Well, that was where the mundane ended, because Kij Johnson’s sci-fi/fantastical fiction is anything but. Between the covers of Bees (at least I assume there are versions with covers floating around out there . . . darn e-books) are stories ranging from captivity on alien spacecraft, to the secret lives of cats and foxes in old Japan, to tales I’m not even sure how to classify. A little girl pressured to mutilate her real-life My Little Pony–esque pony of its magical properties by removing its wings, horn and voice box with a knife? It’s here, and it has a dark connection to draw between conformity to cliques and the loss of childhood innocence, all stained with fresh cotton-candy blood.
I’ve always been a lover of short stories. They can contain sprawling worlds, truly memorable characters and momentous events melted down into bite-sized nuggets. As Stephen King once wrote, they’re “like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” I guess if you’re at a really bad party, like with a bunch of chain smokers or something, those quick kisses in the dark are going to leave you longing to get out of the place pretty fast. Same goes for a collection of short stories. If you’re three or four in and you haven’t hit anything good yet , you probably won’t have much motivation for plowing on further.
To me, reading a collection of short stories is a bit like walking down a house-lined street at twilight. Let’s say it’s your average looking suburbs. Once in a while you head off the street and up the walkway to a random house. The doors are always open and you’re expected to let yourself in. Often enough, once you step through the entrance way you find that the size of the interior defies the dusky outline of the structure you saw from the street. Here’s a summer day in a nameless village, where all the residents are clustering around a black-painted box in the square (Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”); here’s a view of the water from atop Owl Creek Bridge, a noose looped around your neck as you pass through the front door (Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). I don’t even know if I want to re-enter the “A Good Man is Hard to Find” house yet–Flannery O’Conner might be in the back room stroking the barrel of her shotgun.
Sure, you’re going to go down a street from time to time where the inside of every house is painfully similar, but not in Kij Johnson’s work.
If I was now traveling this figurative street laid down by Johnson–let’s call it the Street of the River of Bees–every door would let in on an exceptionally different world, regardless that the houses were furnished by the same hand. Some common themes do run throughout the collection: obsession is one that turns up often, and many of the stories center around or heavily feature animals. I wasn’t a fan of all the stories, for me there were certainly a few duds, but by and large I was drawn right in.
One of the longer tales here, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, is about one architect’s obsession with his craft and the trial of completing his greatest work: a bridge over a vast and monster-filled river of mysterious mist. Living for years among the people in the very towns destined to be connected by the project, the architect forms relationships with the locals and encounters both the human toll and development that comes with the massive project. I have a friend whose great passion happens to be architecture, and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” brought to mind many of the things he’s spoken and written about in the past on the subject. As soon as I finished it I sent him the first part of the story (alas, not all of it), which can be linked to for free from Johnson’s website. If you’re interested, a selection of stories from this book are available there in their entirety.
One of the great things about short stories, actually, is just how easy they are to share. Recommending a novel is one thing, handing someone a collection and telling to check out a certain ten-page story in it is another. Kids, and kids-at-heart, can crack open a book of scary tales around a campfire, a practice second only to telling them off by heart, and happily ruin any chance of their friends having an easy sleep that night. And now, in this day and age, granted its been made available, we can sometimes share a story using just a link on the internet. They can be read in the space of a lunch hour and then you’ve shared far more than just a body of text–you’ve shared ideas, images, characters and a world. You’ve both been to the same house on that twilit street. You may have seen it very differently, regardless that everything is always laid out the same inside, but still you were both there for a while, and you can discuss what you saw and experienced anytime you want.
So yes, the story of how I acquired this collection is anything but exciting, but Bees certainly took me for a ride, filled with destroyed civilizations, a sojourning cat, an infatuated fox, wolf packs, a girl who will one day have an ocean on another planet named after her, enigmatic performing monkeys, invasive gelatinous alien sex (it’s as weird as it sounds . . . actually much weirder), the land of the dead, the obligatory river of bees, and other things I don’t encounter in my day-to-day, which I can’t say about Amazon and the creeping corporate tendrils it has twined into my reading life.
Hey, I’ve got an idea for a terrifying sci-fi: a device you can’t help but love, that can hold a thousand purchased books you don’t actually own, and keeps running out of battery.
Pages: 300 FoA pages: 18,070