Whatever you might think of the Nebula-winning “Spar“, you have to admit that Kij Johnson did what she set out to do. In an interview, says she feared her writing was getting too “glossy” and she wanted to get away from that. This story is far from “glossy” all right. It’s so raw, it doesn’t just get into your face, it gets inside your face.
A woman and an alien paramecium are trapped together in a tiny spaced lifeboat. It’s debatable whether what they are doing can be called intercourse in any sense of any equivalent word. The obvious crudities are apt only in the sense of messing with you in an unpleasant manner. They press against each other, mating the Ins and the Outs of boredom, frustration, and rage. At least that’s what she’s doing. The alien? It is presumed intelligent, but utterly unreachable.
The story does a great job of depicting how awful it is to have nothing but such horror to cling to like a broken spar with the captain’s body tied to it from a shipwreck. That doesn’t mean I like it. I find it so repellent, it’s hard to understand how so many of the comments on the story are so positive. Maybe the people who hated it were too grossed out to be coherent. I have found some comments that explain how some people can distance themselves from the slime and snot to see it as a metaphor for being stuck in an abusive relationship or mired in grief. I suppose. For me, sometimes a gross-out is just a gross-out.
If you want a metaphor, reading this story is like opening a door that sticks in its frame then judders over the chewing gum stuck on the rotten shag carpet. It’s dark in there and it smells funny. You don’t even want to put your foot past the sill, but someone behind you slaps your back hard enough that you stumble in as they boom, “Don’t be such a prude. When you get to the other side, you’ll see how brilliant it is.” Then the door shuts, and you have no choice but to slide forward despite the screams and groans, and some thing grabs your crotch but when you try to hit back your hand sinks into an endlessly yielding goo and you can’t get away from it and you can’t get away from how disgusting it is and by the time you realize there is no other side you think a hundred year bath won’t be enough to get you clean again and finally a hatch opens and you jump for it, and as you haul yourself quivering into the light you shout:
You people are sick!
2 thoughts on “Re: Spar”
“Meh.” I’m mostly with you on this, Pam. There’s a lot of potential in it, but it’s not effected. There are a number of quite interesting ideas, but the delivery doesn’t work.
When I read a story like this, I can’t help but think several things (some at the same time). One is that the author was just trying to shock (herself of the audience, it isn’t entirely clear in this case). Another is that it was done on a bet, or a dare, or simply as an exercise. It even reads like a first draft in places. Another, in this case, was that the author didn’t actually care: I say that because of several small but irritating typos. If you’re going to throw an angry, inflammatory piece at a potential publisher, you at least ought to read it through a few times carefully to get all the simple stuff out.
I didn’t have the same obvious revulsion you did, but it didn’t move me. If, in some alternate reality, I was editing a magazine and this crossed my desk I wouldn’t just throw it out. But I’d only use it if I had nothing else to fill four or five pages, and I’d definitely ask for a few changes. Commit, dear author: you can’t seem to make up your mind about where to take the reader, and that is dangerous to a successful narrative.
I’m in the dark as to why some of the stories that win awards make it past their nominating committees. To be Rimbaud and scrawl “Merde a dieu” on a park bench might be genius. To not be Rimbaud and stand up in church to yell “Fuck!” is just crude. You can guess which way I lean here.
I was also surprised at the fawning in the comments. I only counted two (of 31) negative (both cleverly understated). It seriously made me wonder about the quality of the readership these days.
I selected that particular page of comments because I was trying to understand how so many people could love that story so much.
When I look for commentary on just about any story, the general pattern I observe is that people tend to be reading blogs and websites because they enjoy reading people who agree with their tastes. So on sites where the original poster gushed about this one, the commenters gushed back, whereas people who hated it just thought “These people are too crazy to talk to” and moved on. Conversely, I can point you to a site or two where the OP hates it and gets deluged with comments saying “Thank you for saying so. I thought I was the only sane person left.” Here perhaps, lovers of the story thought “What a bunch of hopeless prudes” and moved on.
Well, you know which camp I fall into. My worldview just doesn’t warp that way.
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