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!