Versatility, that virtue that keeps on giving, is a vital survival trait in animals and, by extension, writers. The animal must be ready to react to sudden change and adapt to gradual change; so too must the writer prepare themselves for short-term inspiration and long-term growth. Not all writers share this concern: some of today's most popular novelists remain popular by delivering the same story, over and over, without fail or variation. But even diehards like P.D. James and Philip Roth make room for something other than mystery or misogyny: they try something different, they flex, they stretch in a new direction. To do so is healthy for a writer. With that in mind, allow me to introduce a yoga master of writing flexibility: Kij Johnson, who in August of this year released her debut collection of short stories, At the Mouth of the River of Bees.
Websites and newspapers will classify this book as a collection of Fantasy, and, to be fair, we shelve it in Sci-Fi/Fantasy over at the bookstore. But over the course of eighteen stories, Johnson displays fantasy, science-fiction, horror, surrealism, experimental fiction, and mythology. This leaping about between genres works out to her advantage, partly because of the emotional openness in her writing, but mostly because her concepts are so innovative that they promptly reel in the reader's interest each time. For some stories, the allure is there from the start. As examples, I provide these openings sentences:
- Aimee's big trick is that she makes 26 monkeys vanish onstage. (from "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss")
- In the end, the only job that presented itself was the governorship of a remote province in the land of the dead. (from "Chenting, in the Land of the Dead")
- Kit came to Nearside with two trunks and an oiled-cloth folio full of plans for the bridge across the mist. (from "The Man Who Bridged the Mist")
Johnson treats us to these, and many more: we get rich mythology in "Fox Magic" and "The Empress Jingu Fishes," playful surrealism with "Schrödinger's Cathouse" and the title story, chilling sci-fi through "Spar" and "Dia Chjerman's Tale," and disturbing cautionary tales like "The Bitey Cat" and "Ponies."
The collection is not without its weaker moments. "Wolf Trapping" felt a smidge too long, "The Horse Raiders" felt far, far too long, and "My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire" just never managed to impress me. But taken as a creative whole, At the Mouth of the River of Bees shows a mature writer willing to take risks. Johnson goes exploring again and again, and whether she returns bearing a small oddity like "Names for Water," an unusual beast like "Story Kit,: or an adventurous whopper like "The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles," we know we've been given real treasures.
Actually, the best way to gauge and value her writing is to read the collection's last story, "The Evolution of Trickster Stories." It is as inventive, unconventional, and emotionally provocative as anything else in the book. You can read it on her website – as your local bookseller, I strongly advise that you do.
If you liked that story, don't stop there! Read more – read them all! You're bound to find a couple stories that tickle your fancy. Or, if your experience is like mine, you may like a lot. After all, the good people behind the Hugo Awards did; ditto for Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy. So … just putting that out there.