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Alien Sex Fiend
May 17, 2010 11:15 AM   Subscribe

In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly. - Kij Johnson's Spar, the winning short story of this years Nebula award. Audio version. Interview. More stories by Kij Johnson. Kitty chaser: The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles.
posted by Artw (176 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite

 
wait, what?
posted by nathancaswell at 11:23 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


How awesomely sexual and totally non-erotic. Very brave writing. I don't know that I want to read it again, but great post. Thanks!
posted by hippybear at 11:26 AM on May 17, 2010


I am SO glad it has a happy ending ;)
posted by ReeMonster at 11:26 AM on May 17, 2010


Damn, that is one horrifying story. Not sure I'm convinced by this from the interview:

It's a difficult story to read, and it's hard to see past the graphic aspects to what the story is really about, which is how communication fails in relationships.

Maybe, but it's also about gruesome slimy violent extended rape.
posted by mediareport at 11:26 AM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


*shakily smokes a cigarette while heading for the shower*
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:31 AM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


it is, this line is very telling:

Fuck Gary, anyway. He is dead and she is here with an alien pressed against her cervix.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:31 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


This won the Nebula? Raised eyebrow -> ~_-
posted by adamdschneider at 11:35 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's a great and harrowing story. There are quite a few short, harrowing SF tales out there, going all the way back to "The Cold Equations." This is one of the best I've seen lately.

Also, great title.
posted by Mister_A at 11:36 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a difficult story to read, and it's hard to see past the graphic aspects to what the story is really about, which is how communication fails in relationships.

Maybe, but it's also about gruesome slimy violent extended rape.


Which is how relationships with poor communication, extended far beyond their point of hopelessness, can feel to either party.

Tentacle porn wins an award. How awesome is that?
posted by Revvy at 11:36 AM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I wasn't thrilled to be thought of as a tentacle-porn girl.

Whoops.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:37 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


it is, this line is very telling:
Fuck Gary, anyway. He is dead and she is here with an alien pressed against her cervix
.

Of what is this telling? I am confusion the whole thing accidentally.
posted by Babblesort at 11:37 AM on May 17, 2010


"This is a story I love, without liking it at all."

Captures it nicely.
posted by Slothrup at 11:39 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I can't unscrub my brain, goddamit.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:40 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


interesting.... not sure if I like it. But I will think about it a lot longer than a random short story I "kind of like". Not sure if I can say much of worth about it after immediately reading it, have to process.
posted by edgeways at 11:41 AM on May 17, 2010


Parameter/Solstice symbiotes by John Varley
posted by DU at 11:42 AM on May 17, 2010


website with graphic pictures in 5,4,3,2,..........

and... did anyone else note the first two "related posts" below???

Related Posts
A special kind of person with special weird things... April 30, 2010
I shared my flesh with thinking cancer January 4, 2010

posted by HuronBob at 11:44 AM on May 17, 2010


it is, this line is very telling:
Fuck Gary, anyway. He is dead and she is here with an alien pressed against her cervix.

--
Of what is this telling? I am confusion the whole thing accidentally.

--

the kind of disgusting anonymous sex sometimes you gotta have after you come out of a long and intense relationship... to re-establish ownership of your own sexuality. sometimes you just gotta go out, find an alien and fuck the shit out of it. cause gary's dead and you're still alive. you gotta prove it to yourself.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:45 AM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is The Cat who Walked a Thousand Miles a condensation of her novel, Fudoki?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:46 AM on May 17, 2010


Great story. Deserves the award.
posted by kyrademon at 11:46 AM on May 17, 2010


This is a pretty good story, but I'm not in love with the ending, which seems a little too easy.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:46 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


Just don't look for one in Arizona.
posted by spicynuts at 11:47 AM on May 17, 2010


and... did anyone else note the first two "related posts" below???

Oh dear. Am I going to get some kind of reputation or something?
posted by Artw at 11:47 AM on May 17, 2010


ReeMonster: “I am SO glad it has a happy ending ;)”

Seems like it didn't have a happy ending so much as it ended, and you were glad.

Great story, this.
posted by koeselitz at 11:52 AM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


but I'm not in love with the ending, which seems a little too easy.

Nah, I think after that story, the reader needs an ending that at least hints at the possibility of the ordeal ending and being able to move on.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:53 AM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Artw, I will always think of you as tentacle-porn girl now.
posted by kyrademon at 11:53 AM on May 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


That was a horrifying read. The fucking was disturbing, but what was most horrifying was reading the protagonist turning off all thought as a defense mechanism and resentment at death.

Guh.
posted by yeloson at 11:53 AM on May 17, 2010


a little of the ole in-out in-out
posted by joelf at 11:55 AM on May 17, 2010


Fuck Gary, anyway. He is dead and she is here with an alien pressed against her cervix.

Band name or album name, I can't decide.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:55 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


If that freaked you out, read The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles. It's lovely.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:55 AM on May 17, 2010


Now I'm craving a Double-Double.
posted by studentbaker at 11:55 AM on May 17, 2010


I didn't like the very last line -- it felt rushed, as Shakespearian noted. Either she should have unpacked the process of re-humanization more thoroughly, or just left it out altogether (i.e. it would have ended on the penultimate line). Either way: still a very affecting piece.
posted by Drexen at 12:00 PM on May 17, 2010


I vote "Fuck Gary, anyway" as a great song name
posted by nathancaswell at 12:00 PM on May 17, 2010


Cool and gross story. Nothing beats Chuck Palunik's "Guts" for cool and gross tho (albeit it's not scifi)
posted by angrycat at 12:00 PM on May 17, 2010


Might as well throw a link in here to Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia's 'The Beloved Time of their Lives' (PDF) which won the BSFA award this year for Short Fiction... it's from a collection The Beloved Of My Beloved (NSFW) the web site of which features promotion from some delightful ladies.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:02 PM on May 17, 2010


On the one hand, it's one of those cliffhanger endings that would be a trite cliche in most other cases. On the other hand, I think this is one of those few cases where that particular plot device actually works. It provides a nice tight framing for the main action of the story.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:02 PM on May 17, 2010


Damn forgot the link to the short story... it's here.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:03 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a difficult story to read, and it's hard to see past the graphic aspects to what the story is really about, which is how communication fails in relationships.

It's hard to see that? I thought it was pretty clear. Not a bad story, I guess.
posted by rusty at 12:03 PM on May 17, 2010


If the rescuers are either human, or humanOID, it would be interesting to see how the protagonist dealt with the slimy creature, after rescue. . .would it be, "eww, flush that slimy thing into space," or, "hey that thing saved my life out there," or somewhere in between.
posted by Danf at 12:04 PM on May 17, 2010


now i can never say, "i am so fucked.. literally!" without thinking of this.
posted by phaedon at 12:04 PM on May 17, 2010


Can't read this at work, but it is reminding me of "All My Darling Daughters" from Connie Willis' _Fire Watch_ collection.

Sheesh. I didn't need that.
posted by QIbHom at 12:06 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nah, I think after that story, the reader needs an ending that at least hints at the possibility of the ordeal ending and being able to move on.

That was exactly my problem with it, because the entire premise of the story is of her losing all epistemological coherence, of how the disappearance of particular language equates to the disappearance of particular reality. To get so close to the end, to deliver so solidly on this premise by asking if she's even human anymore, if she has bones or a voice, because of the structural breakdown of her linguistic faculties, only to end with 'Oh, nope, she's okay after all!' was a disappointment.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:09 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Neal Asher's short story "Bioship" in this collection is less intense but works kind of similar ground.
posted by mediareport at 12:10 PM on May 17, 2010


And I completely agree with shakespeherian; the ending is something of a betrayal of the rest of the story.
posted by mediareport at 12:10 PM on May 17, 2010


Metafilter is always good for my ongoing "horrible things to contemplate" list. Getting raped by aliens, getting killed in my sleep by police, etc.
posted by amethysts at 12:11 PM on May 17, 2010


Call me picky, but the author lost me at "tastes of snot."
posted by heyho at 12:12 PM on May 17, 2010


It's an ending that's too easy if you take it literally, which may be why I can't take it literally. Is it really a rescue? Can the narration be taken as reliable at this point?

On the other hand you could descend into a solipsistic black hole at that point, so.
posted by Jeanne at 12:13 PM on May 17, 2010


Wordlessly crawling out strikes me as very low bar of "okay after all."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:14 PM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


if she has bones or a voice, because of the structural breakdown of her linguistic faculties, only to end with 'Oh, nope, she's okay after all!' was a disappointment.

Interesting, I didn't take it as "nope, she's okay after all", but as "oh, there's something different in the sensory output" forcing her to remember things. The story seems like a sudden horrible remembering after a metaphorical bad night. If the 'night' hadn't ended, that lost of self and identity could have gone on forever in a blissful ignorance.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:18 PM on May 17, 2010


For some value of "blissful," you mean.
posted by mediareport at 12:18 PM on May 17, 2010


I hadn't caught the possibility that the ending is all a hallucination on the first read. Nice bit of ambiguity there now that I think about it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:21 PM on May 17, 2010


Oh, nope, she's okay after all!

See, I didn't get that feeling at all from the ending. I got something more like, "Maybe her humanity is gone forever. Maybe she won't recognize any sort of kinship with this human/humanoid. Maybe she and the alien have entwined too deeply to ever disentangle." I did not read this as a hopeful ending at all.
posted by Mister_A at 12:22 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


OTOH, maybe she finally figured the airlock out and spaced herself...
posted by Mister_A at 12:23 PM on May 17, 2010


For some value of "blissful," you mean.

Yeah. I want to say the character eventually reached some point of...not bliss, or contentment, but "This is is my life now and at least I'm not dead, I guess, maybe". I can't handle rereading the story at this point to verify that though.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:24 PM on May 17, 2010


See, I didn't get that feeling at all from the ending. I got something more like, "Maybe her humanity is gone forever. Maybe she won't recognize any sort of kinship with this human/humanoid. Maybe she and the alien have entwined too deeply to ever disentangle." I did not read this as a hopeful ending at all.

I'd like to read it this way, but I'm not sure how to square that with No. She pulls herself free of its tendrils and climbs. Out., which I can only read as 'Nope, she decided that she isn't forever entwined, so now she's not, and here's a satisfyingly ironic restatement of the central motif of the story to tie it off nicely with the assurance that she's okay.'
posted by shakespeherian at 12:27 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is making it difficult to convince my s/o that S.F. is not just about intercourse with aliens.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:33 PM on May 17, 2010 [9 favorites]


Her climbing. Out. reflects the Ins and Outs of the rest of the story. Hence that extra full stop. I'm not exactly sure what that means but I don't think its the simple ending it could be construed as.
posted by seanyboy at 12:33 PM on May 17, 2010


No, she's not okay. She can't even figure out if the bipedal thing in the portal is human or not. She's able to figure out that her and the alien can be separated, are meant to be separated, but otherwise, to put in an blunt and ugly fashion, she's fucked.

She's an Out, a thing detached from the world, doesn't belong there, but she's thrusting herself into, invading it, even as the world invades her.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:37 PM on May 17, 2010


The fact that this was written by someone who looks like my midwestern high school librarian makes it all the more disturbing...especially when she's on the right hand side of the page smiling while she's watching me read that.
posted by availablelight at 12:49 PM on May 17, 2010 [11 favorites]


Some thoughts:

1) I find it interesting that the main criticism raised here has essentially been, "Well, that wasn't nearly bleak enough for my tastes. I would have preferred it if the narrative had made clear that she had been driven entirely and irrevocably insane."

(Personally, I disagree with this criticism -- it is possible to pull yourself even out of the kind of mutually annihilating world-unto-itself relationship that severs all your bonds with reality and self, although it is never easy.)

2) This kind of story is why I completely disagree with the people who believe that science fiction *must* contain elements of science which can be extrapolated from current understanding. Sometimes -- probably most of the time -- that isn't really the point.

3) The part where she has sex with Gary just to shut him up is a nice touch.
posted by kyrademon at 12:51 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I vaguely remember Philip Jose Farmer's work evoking similar feelings a long time ago.
posted by bashos_frog at 12:51 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that the main criticism raised here has essentially been, "Well, that wasn't nearly bleak enough for my tastes. I would have preferred it if the narrative had made clear that she had been driven entirely and irrevocably insane."

You misunderstand my criticism. My issue isn't that the story isn't bleak enough, it's that the ending isn't earned. Dark stories can have pleasant endings, but this story is entirely about someone slowly losing a battle, and then the last line is essentially 'And then she won.'
posted by shakespeherian at 12:54 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I hear you, shakespeherian, but I'm talking about more of the metaphysical intertwining than the physical, if you catch my drift. Of course, I don't think there is meant to be a "correct" interpretation. This is not a puzzle to be solved...
posted by Mister_A at 12:55 PM on May 17, 2010


And also, if you read this as a "happy" ending, well, sometimes things go like that. Life is hell for a long time, and then suddenly it's not. You have a raging toothache and then suddenly you don't. You're sad about that girl and then suddenly (after a couple years) you're not anymore...
posted by Mister_A at 12:56 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm from Metafilter and I can overthink a plate of tentacle porn.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:57 PM on May 17, 2010 [14 favorites]


And also, if you read this as a "happy" ending, well, sometimes things go like that.

Yeah, but narrative fiction has different, more restrictive rules than real life, because real life doesn't exist in the tenuous relationship between a reader and a text. In other words, I have plenty of dreams that feature mysteries, but if I write a story wherein the mystery is resolved by having the character wake up at the end, the audience is right to complain.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:02 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I didn't like this story, but upon reflection it does nicely encapsulate what it's like to do my job day after day.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:03 PM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, but narrative fiction has different, more restrictive rules than real life...

Can you explain that a bit more? It seems like you stating a hard fast rule about fiction and at first thought it seems so obviously wrong. Making hard and fast rules about art is always tricky, IMO.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:07 PM on May 17, 2010


It's an ok story, but I'm surprised it won the award. And the ending was kind of pat.
posted by Forktine at 1:09 PM on May 17, 2010


"The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles" was an excellent story, plus amazing illustrations.
posted by HopperFan at 1:11 PM on May 17, 2010


What shakespeherian said; for me it's not that the story wasn't bleak enough (believe me I was hoping she got out as I read the thing) but that the way the ending was presented didn't match the rest of the story. Endings are hard, sure, but this one was just too easy, given the difficulty and depth of the rest of the story. (Plus I find it hard to believe anyone would be "climbing" anywhere after weeks/months locked in slimy embrace with an alien in an enclosed space, but that's minor geekery.) I'd love to have had a couple of paragraphs at least about what disentangling was like, say.
posted by mediareport at 1:11 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm wondering if the title is also a literary allusion. I know the denotation of spar as a fight, but was also in the title of one of Stephen Crane's most famous poems, "A Man Adrift on a Slim Spar," a poem whose subject matter matches the story's situation (well, except maybe the alien fucking part).
posted by kozad at 1:11 PM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I Have No Mouth But I Must Fuck.
posted by googly at 1:13 PM on May 17, 2010 [12 favorites]


I assumed that "I am SO glad it has a happy ending ;)" was meant as a joke.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:14 PM on May 17, 2010


"... The sinkings, green, seething, endless / The upheaval half-completed ... Inky, surging tumults ..."

Hmm. Are you absolutely sure that poem doesn't have any alien fucking in it?
posted by kyrademon at 1:15 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of Lydia Davis, if she wrote scifi.
posted by Falconetti at 1:15 PM on May 17, 2010


I'm just trying to reconcile the story with the "church family directory" photo of the author.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:17 PM on May 17, 2010


I'm just trying to reconcile the story with the "church family directory" photo of the author.

People will surprise you.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:19 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm just trying to reconcile the story with the "church family directory" photo of the author.

I've often wondered how Stephen King's wife and kids sleep at night.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:20 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I fucking hate you," she says. "I hate fucking you."

This reads like something from a high school creative writing class. I'll admit I don't read a lot of science fiction, but I don't understand the enthusiasm for this story.
posted by oulipian at 1:21 PM on May 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


Can you explain that a bit more? It seems like you stating a hard fast rule about fiction and at first thought it seems so obviously wrong. Making hard and fast rules about art is always tricky, IMO.

I don't mean rules about what can and can't be art, or e.g. a story always has to X, Y, and Z, but that unless part of your subtext is the violation of the relationship between reader and text, your work needs to be sure to maintain the audience's trust. This isn't a rule about art so much as a characteristic of the established genre of narrative fiction; like I said above, you (generally) can't end with '...and then he woke up and it was all a dream!' as narrative resolution because it obviates the rest of your narrative. I feel the same way about 'Spur.'
posted by shakespeherian at 1:22 PM on May 17, 2010


'Spar,' rather.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:23 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


An apt, unusual metaphor for an abusive relationship.
posted by Minus215Cee at 1:26 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


turning off all thought as a defense mechanism and resentment at death.

survival mechanism

also, dunno if after all the comments, i want to read it or not

though I did used to enjoy the alien sex collections

but the story that really left me disturbed, interestingly enough, was A Handmaid's tale
posted by infini at 1:28 PM on May 17, 2010


also, dunno if after all the comments, i want to read it or not

Oh, I'd say definitely read it; I think it's pretty good, and I merely regret the last line. But then, my first piece of advice as editor or in workshopping is almost always to end the story a line or two earlier, so YMMV.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:32 PM on May 17, 2010


The wreck was random: a mid-space collision between their ship and the alien's, simultaneously a statistical impossibility and a fact.

So this is why the Gilligan's Island 2525 pilot was never picked up.
posted by ignignokt at 1:33 PM on May 17, 2010


k, will do, but tomrorow, in the daytime... (pokes head into machine to check the laundry)
posted by infini at 1:34 PM on May 17, 2010


Whoa. Maybe I shouldn't have read that first thing after waking with mild-hangover-bowel-discomfort, but that was harder to get through than Guts.
posted by maus at 1:36 PM on May 17, 2010


I've often wondered how Stephen King's wife and kids sleep at night.

If the chloroform ever stops working, there's always the hammer.
posted by rokusan at 1:41 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nothing beats Chuck Palunik's "Guts" for cool and gross tho (albeit it's not scifi)

What do you mean, not sci-fi? Doesn't an out-of-body experience count?

Sorry.
posted by rokusan at 1:42 PM on May 17, 2010


I've often wondered how Stephen King's wife and kids sleep at night.

If the chloroform ever stops working, there's always the hammer.


Some people say I have the heart of a child. I do, it's in a jar on my desk.

-- Stephen King
posted by shakespeherian at 1:44 PM on May 17, 2010


Great story. This reminds me of the new wave SF that was being written in the 60's and 70's. And it seems I'm not the only one who thought "Harlan Ellison," either.
posted by KingEdRa at 1:45 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fine story. I agree that the ending was just too thin. I was envisioning the two entities sort of becoming a symbiotic lifeform like Spiderman & the Venom suit or Leto Atreides II merging with the sandtrout, but then "No." It was just a bit too ambiguous for me.
posted by BeerFilter at 1:46 PM on May 17, 2010


I thought of Harlan Ellison but couldn't place the reference... is that a good thing or bad thing that we've been conditioned to think of him when topics like these arise?
posted by infini at 1:47 PM on May 17, 2010


Man, after reading that, all I can think is: what the fuck broke off inside of it?!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:47 PM on May 17, 2010 [16 favorites]


My SciFi repertoire began and ended with Ray Bradbury, so can someone clarify - is good science fiction just a matter of having a facility for the bizarre but the literary skill set of a dreamy high school sophomore, because this writing is fucking horrible. And just to be sure I've gone back and looked at a few paragraphs from "There Will Come Soft Rains" and indeed, quality verbal expression seems to be part of the bargain.
posted by docpops at 1:52 PM on May 17, 2010


I don't think the writing is horrible at all. Can you elaborate?
posted by shakespeherian at 1:53 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I liked it in an odd, sideways, offputting way. I would say it is not only about communication problems in relationships but the loss of sense of self (you all know couples who are only a we). My take on the ending was not so much that it was happy as she no longer has any sense of herself as being human and is not able to really put the bipedal figure and herself into the same category. Is the figure outside human? Irrelevant -- she doesn't know, so why would we.

And what it reminded me of most was Zelazny's Go Starless In The Night, which I was steered to by responses to an askme question.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:55 PM on May 17, 2010


And the fact that we have multiple interpretations for what's going on in the last line really makes this story great.

I don't think it's possible to write a satisfactory ending to this story. If she stayed with the alien, people would be howling about stockholm syndrome and the cliche of women experiencing affection for abusers. It would also ignore the clearly established hatred that's been clearly established over the course or the narrative.

Choosing to stay in a relationship that offers nothing beyond catatonic submission to violation punctuated by bursts of shouting and violence strikes me as nonsensical and undeserved. Nematodes are smart enough to move away from something that gives them displeasure.

Now perhaps it's a problem for bringing it to a conclusion at all. Certainly a more ambiguous ending might be possible.

I don't mean rules about what can and can't be art, or e.g. a story always has to X, Y, and Z, but that unless part of your subtext is the violation of the relationship between reader and text, your work needs to be sure to maintain the audience's trust. This isn't a rule about art so much as a characteristic of the established genre of narrative fiction; like I said above, you (generally) can't end with '...and then he woke up and it was all a dream!' as narrative resolution because it obviates the rest of your narrative.

I disagree in that the ending isn't even in the same universe of "... and it was all a dream." Johnson has done no narrative groundwork to suggest anything other than profound antipathy towards the alien, and the best it can offer at the end is not too cold and not too bright. It's a Lovecraftian horror story in which "winning" means escaping certain torture to a more benevolent madness.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:56 PM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I say it's alright, I do.

I agree with many others here that the ending is a bit clumsy, and I would have preferred pretty much any sort of payoff, instead, no matter in which direction. And I did cringe at a couple of word choices here and there that I thought rung particularly false... but overall it was an interesting little, er, ride.

Also, it was exactly the right length for what it was: a single (novel?) idea, explained and expanded upon pretty darn well. Too often, these sorts of stories get drawn out far past their useful length.
posted by rokusan at 1:59 PM on May 17, 2010


ouch redundant sentences are redundant ouch!
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:02 PM on May 17, 2010


shakespeheria, we just see the ending differently. To me it's astonishingly bleak and about as far "..and then everything was fine" as you can get. Her mind is clearly in tatters and I doubt anything will ever be truly ok for her again.

Man, after reading that, all I can think is: what the fuck broke off inside of it?!

Thank you so much for that visual and thought.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:03 PM on May 17, 2010


Wow, that was really disturbing and way too evocative.

Skillfully written, certainly, but not the kind of work I'd want on my bookshelves.
posted by misha at 2:13 PM on May 17, 2010


I can see other endings as being feasible. But choosing get away from the alien when given the opportunity is certainly consistent with the rest of the narrative as given, and treating it like the ending to Wizard of Oz (movie, not novel) strikes me as an overly harsh criticism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:16 PM on May 17, 2010


Choosing to stay in a relationship that offers nothing beyond catatonic submission to violation punctuated by bursts of shouting and violence strikes me as nonsensical and undeserved [...] Johnson has done no narrative groundwork to suggest anything other than profound antipathy towards the alien.

I wasn't arguing for the protagonist to choose to stay with the alien, I was arguing that the premise of the story is that she loses comprehensive epistemological cognition, no longer knows how to make comparisons 'because there is nothing to compare'; she recites poems until they are 'treadless, and they no longer gain any traction in her mind'; words 'mean nothing, are not even sounds in her mind'; the entire story is laced with the protagonist being unable to remember things or keep track of things or recall sensations or, eventually, even meaning: At the end, when the airlock opens, she cannot recognize whether the bipedal creature is human; she can't even recognize if she herself is human. She wonders if she still has a voice.

This all reads, to me, like a thoroughgoing narrative of loss of epistemology. To end this narrative with No. She pulls herself free of its tendrils and climbs. Out. without any explanation as to how she is able to reconcile the preceding breakdown of her sense of being and self and present the resolution Out as though the conflict of the story was merely that she was in is a betrayal, in my opinion, of the story I'd been reading.

I'm probably just beanplating it, but the story seemed to be a lot more about phenomenology and post-structural reference/referent intertwining than just about a woman trapped in a ship with an alien that she hates, so maybe that's why I'm seeing the ending as out of step with the rest of it.

shakespeheria, we just see the ending differently.

That's fine, and allowed. I just wanted to (over-)state my case.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:19 PM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Is it a problem that I wasn't really that disturbed by it? And that I sort of identified with the blob alien? The only time I identified with the lady is when she tried to kill it.

*reflects*
*calls psychaitrist*
posted by DetonatedManiac at 2:20 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm a little sick and a little messed up on Robitussin, and I have a feeling that's the optimal state in which to read this story.
posted by Robson at 2:20 PM on May 17, 2010


I have to agree with docpops, I don't understand how this writing can win awards. Here is a sample line from another story by the same author, 26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss:

And then it was 4am and they were kissing in the bus, monkeys letting themselves in and getting ready for bed; and Aimee and Geof made love.


I'm no editor, but "4am" could use some editorial attention. Starting a sentence with And - questionable, especially when you do it five or six times in the same short story. Most of her other sentences start with "The", "She", or "Her". In the sentence above, the semicolon seems unnecessary, and "made love" is such a platitude. How is this award-winning English?
posted by oulipian at 2:20 PM on May 17, 2010


oulipian, I think you're getting hung up on details, missing the forest for the trees so to speak. It's not any one letter or sentence that makes a story, but the collective whole.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:23 PM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


To end this narrative with No. She pulls herself free of its tendrils and climbs. Out. without any explanation as to how she is able to reconcile the preceding breakdown of her sense of being and self and present the resolution Out as though the conflict of the story was merely that she was in is a betrayal, in my opinion, of the story I'd been reading.

Just a note, I saw the ending as her essentially just reacting to almost out of habit, i.e. "Oh hey, there's a new light over there. Let's move towards that." Almost like a giant amoeba.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:27 PM on May 17, 2010


For anybody needing a palette cleanser after Spar, allow me to recommend 26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss.
posted by lekvar at 2:27 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm no editor, but "4am" could use some editorial attention. Starting a sentence with And - questionable, especially when you do it five or six times in the same short story. Most of her other sentences start with "The", "She", or "Her". In the sentence above, the semicolon seems unnecessary, and "made love" is such a platitude. How is this award-winning English?

Plain English can be award-winning. Short, declarative sentences can be effective. Beginning a sentence with a conjunction like "and" can lead to a breathless effect.

She might need a better copyeditor (I also noticed a typo in the Clarkesworld story, but, as someone who proofreads for a similar SF mag, sometimes these mistakes sneak in, unfortunately--and sometimes they aren't even there in the original manuscripts), but that would make her no different than many other award-winning authors. There's no requisite that one needs to be up-to-date on whatever style guide you favor in order to tell an effective and emotionally resonant story.

Which this is. So there.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:28 PM on May 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's not any one letter or sentence that makes a story, but the collective whole.

yes and no, the rhythm of the words matter - and errors or bad wordplay can jar you out of the headspace of being "in the story" while reading thus losing the intangible pleasure

narratives are just that, its the flow of the writing that differentiates a teller of tales, one who enthralls you, from someone who tells you a story
posted by infini at 2:29 PM on May 17, 2010


oulipian: "How is this award-winning English?"

All of those English classes, the ones where your obese

pretentious

        prescriptivist

                instructor

told you about
*the five paragraph essay
*the need for objectivity
*clarity of argument

He was simply

                        wrong

Awards for stories are not granted on MLA format adherence; Strunk never guided a poet's soul to the evocative. White never pushed a fiction writer to explore
new heights
                 new depths
                                 and especially never what it would mean to
have an alien
                                       ramming into your cervix.
posted by boo_radley at 2:36 PM on May 17, 2010 [46 favorites]



I've often wondered how Stephen King's wife and kids sleep at night.


His wife and two of his three children are published writers, one (Joe Hill) of horror. (His daughter is a Unitarian Universalist minister.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:37 PM on May 17, 2010


١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١١
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 2:41 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I thought of Harlan Ellison but couldn't place the reference... is that a good thing or bad thing that we've been conditioned to think of him when topics like these arise?

Its not just the topic that led me to make the irresistible "I Have No Mouth And I Must Fuck" (though I mistakenly said "but" instead of "and") pun. Everything about "Spar" screamed Ellison, and that story in particular: the transgressive premise; the liberal and matter-of-fact use of curse words for shock value; the use of broken sentences to amp up the horror; and the figures of a mute, shapeless blob and an oppressive alien presence endlessly torturing an individual for an abstruse or unknown reason. It reads almost like an homage.
posted by googly at 2:45 PM on May 17, 2010


shakespeherian, I think you may have the most easily misspelled username in site history. Why, up until last week, I always read your name as shakespherian, and figured it was the expression of some obtuse meeting of literature and geometry.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:46 PM on May 17, 2010


It serves me right for picking something out of Eliot. Although I'll bet jjjjjjjijjjjjjj's is harder to get right.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:50 PM on May 17, 2010


Beginning a sentence with a conjunction like "and" can lead to a breathless effect.

This is true, certainly, but when it is used so often, mostly at the start of paragraphs, I begin to think that it is not really being used on purpose, so much as out of habit. 26 Monkeys does not seem like such a breathless story, and yet the effect is used ten times.

I think you're getting hung up on details, missing the forest for the trees so to speak. It's not any one letter or sentence that makes a story, but the collective whole.

I disagree with you completely, details are incredibly important in literature. In any case, the details I pointed out were merely one example. My complaint is not really about the copyediting, but about the quality of the story overall. I read a lot of fiction, and I do not think that this is very good fiction. Like docpops, I am curious whether this is really the best that American science fiction has to offer. These stories have the subtlety and character development of a porn video, and in the case of Spar, the ending is just as predictable.
posted by oulipian at 2:53 PM on May 17, 2010


Like docpops, I am curious whether this is really the best that American science fiction has to offer.

Oh geeze. If you genuinely are curious about this, then go read some. It's available for free online in spades.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:04 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah, here it is. Not Ellison, but in his Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), by James Tiptree, Jr., "The Milk of Paradise":

And then they were down, tearing and rolling in the sweet mud, gray bodies with him. Until he found that it was no longer fighting but love—love as it always had been, his true flowing, while the voices rose around him and the muddied thing under him that was dead or dying slipped away in the gray welter, in the music of many, flowing together in Paradise in the dim ruby light.

Sort of the flipside to Spar, but that's what I was reminded of.
posted by steef at 3:14 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


He's a good bloke, is Mr. Tiptree.

;-)
posted by Artw at 3:15 PM on May 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


"The Milk of Paradise" is good, but for weird alien sex stories by Tiptree you just can't do better than "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death."
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:37 PM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's the classic!
posted by Artw at 3:40 PM on May 17, 2010


H.G. Blob.
posted by pashdown at 4:00 PM on May 17, 2010


I loved the cat story.
posted by millipede at 4:01 PM on May 17, 2010


The story notes that the crash was a statistical impossibility.

This implies that something happened to make it something other than a statistical impossibility. For instance, one or the other of them rammed the ship on purpose.

--

2) This kind of story is why I completely disagree with the people who believe that science fiction *must* contain elements of science which can be extrapolated from current understanding. Sometimes -- probably most of the time -- that isn't really the point.

The type of science fiction you refer to is now called "hard" science fiction. This story is "soft" science fiction, where the science isn't real science, but it's necessary to regard it as real and verifiable in order to get the story. You can go softer than even that, Star Wars for instance doesn't give a shit about real and verifiable, at which point you call it science fantasy. Fantasy with science in.

--

Using a sexual act as an allegory for an entire relationship and the worldview built thereupon isn't exactly a new idea, even in the alien fucking genre, it's just that the stories that do this are normally a good deal more erotic and therefore make competition judges uncomfortable. So now we have a deroticized take on this type of story, and it wins a Nebula, because it makes you even more uncomfortable.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:02 PM on May 17, 2010


I'm no editor, but "4am" could use some editorial attention. Starting a sentence with And - questionable, especially when you do it five or six times in the same short story. Most of her other sentences start with "The", "She", or "Her". In the sentence above, the semicolon seems unnecessary, and "made love" is such a platitude. How is this award-winning English?

she being Brand

-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff the weird
little alien blob
fucked the everloving bejesus out of her
posted by nathancaswell at 4:03 PM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


shakespeherian [...] I always read your name as shakespherian

I always read it that way too.....GOD DAMN IT NOTHING MAKES SENSE ANY MORE
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:17 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I disagree with you completely, details are incredibly important in literature

1) Instead of a comma, you ought to have used a hyphen or a colon to indicate a direct relationship between your two clauses.

2) You are both entirely right and completely missing the point.

Literature is at once about the mechanics behind language and about the construct that language forms. On the one hand you have sterile aesthetic prose which is all about the sounds and the relationship between words. On the other hand you have the heartfelt but ugly-sounding.

I'm going to quite Bruce Nauman by way of Shakespeherian's profile:

I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs... if you only deal with what is known, you’ll have redundancy; on the other hand, if you only deal with the unknown, you cannot communicate at all. there is always some combination of the two, and it is how they touch each other that makes communication interesting.

The same thing with aesthetics and detail versus the message behind a story in literature. You can't have the one without the other, and where you place your flag in between is what makes your writing unique.

I am very much a fan of linguistic improvisations. Finnegans Wake is my literary bible and one of the most important books I've ever read. I spend a lot of time trying to craft beautiful spears out of my sentences because I know how deep a sentence can strike. But sometimes I have problems with writers whose style obscures their message. Sometimes I feel that way about Nabakov and his perfectly-constructed narratives that don't ever really make me feel anything. I constantly feel that way about John Updike, whose stories never seem to deserve the craft he furnishes them with. So I tend also to love writers like Stephen King, who lack precision in their needlework but deliver a cozy yarn.

I find that when I write it's impossible to aim for both at once. Either you have that spontaneous passion or you have that meticulosity or you have something that's a mix of both. Even in the editing process I find that fixing small errors takes something out of the way a story flows, which is why I tend to follow Isaac Asimov's writing style and simply write every story twice, where the second time avoids mistakes and builds a new flow entirely.

I thought this one had some lovely details to it. I liked the ambiguity of the alien form, and how the story avoids certain details of categorization while getting uncomfortably specific about other details. I liked the flashback vignette with Greg that added words of certain colors not found in the rest of the prose. And I liked the ending, because honestly I didn't even feel that we'd been rescued by humans. I felt there was an equal chance of leaving and finding a bunch of terrifying aliens. It also does a remarkable job of illustrating insanity in relationships, where you so fixate on one interpretation of one person that you find it impossible to relate to the rest of the world.

I thought Spar was one of the best short stories I've read all year.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:17 PM on May 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


This story is better if you imagine that the tentacle monster is engaged in precisely the same ontological self-mutilation as the woman.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:22 PM on May 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


I was reminded of Tiptree, too -- well, to be fair, what I thought was: "This reads like it was written by a far more psychologically stable James Tiptree." But reading Tiptree is for me a little like how fucking the alien was for the protagonist of "Spar." (make of this what you will.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:36 PM on May 17, 2010


LogicalDash, to me one of the great things about the story is that the monster *may* be going through exactly what the woman is, or it may not be. It might be torturing her or fucking her or trying to talk to her or it might not have any feelings at all because it might not even be a sentient being but a plant or a toy instead. There is no communication, and there might be a rapport or at least mutual hatred binding you together but even that might only be an illusion in your head. So you have sex because that way at least that way you feel something, anything, at least at first, and maybe convince yourself that there is some reciprocity, but even that breaks down and now you're just aping an act that used to have meaning, over and over and over and over and now you're hitting and biting and scratching just to provoke a response, say something, say anything, tell me how you feel tell me a lie tell me anything do anything but this endless repetition of meaningless fucking and something is broken but you can't touch it you can't get that close but at least there was a reaction but what did the reaction mean you don't know you can't know there is nothing but a blank where there should be emotions and are you being fucked and punched in the face because you are loved or because you are hated you don't know and you don't know and you don't know


(I did eventually run away and get a divorce from that person.)
posted by kyrademon at 4:38 PM on May 17, 2010 [11 favorites]


Wasn't there talk of a Tiptree biopic a while ago? Because that really could be something (Googling suggests I imagined that though)
posted by Artw at 4:42 PM on May 17, 2010


Wasn't there talk of a Tiptree biopic a while ago? Because that really could be something (Googling suggests I imagined that though)

I know there was a longish biography of her written a year or so back.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:44 PM on May 17, 2010


I've got that. Never got far into it for some reason - it might have been a little dry.
posted by Artw at 4:45 PM on May 17, 2010


This story is better if you imagine that the tentacle monster is engaged in precisely the same ontological self-mutilation as the woman.

Apparently, the story is also better if you imagine that Kij Johnson is engaged in precisely the same ontological self-mutilation as James Joyce.
posted by oulipian at 4:57 PM on May 17, 2010


No. She pulls herself free of its tendrils and climbs. Out.

I felt that the ending was left quite ambiguous. I my mind, I connected the last sentence/word with all the previous Ins and Outs. The woman doesn't know who or what she is any more. The way she understands the world around her now, well, this is just another Out. It's a different kind of Out maybe, but still an Out, continuation of the same. And maybe that will change given time, but right now, this is the way her mind works.

As a reader, I wasn't convinced that any kind of happy end follows from this. In my mind, I see her maybe going through the same process in reverse. Adjusting to the new environment, but trying to use the old methods of communication. Will she continue to perceive her environment as a set of Ins and Outs, and how will she try to interact with others? I expect the process of gaining what she lost in the lifeboat would be quite painfull and difficult, if at all possible.
posted by severiina at 5:27 PM on May 17, 2010


From now on, I'm going to imagine that any "I'm going to love you all night long" croony R&B ballad is being sung by the alien.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:32 PM on May 17, 2010


White never pushed a fiction writer to explore new heights new depths and especially never what it would mean to have an alien ramming into your cervix.

Clearly you never read the original sequel to Stuart Little.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:24 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the ending might be the primary thing that ruins it as a strong metaphor for abusive relationships; at the first opportunity for escape, she does so. Also there's not so much of the feelings of one step forward two steps back, or the one part sweet to ten parts awful.

This is literally torture porn, with the weird addition of seeming juvenile. It's not awful but I'm not convinced that it achieves higher than Piers Anthony, either.
posted by fleacircus at 6:52 PM on May 17, 2010


LogicalDash, to me one of the great things about the story is that the monster *may* be going through exactly what the woman is, or it may not be

I was washing the dishes tonight, thinking about the part of the story where the Part breaks off (don't you love it when a story stays with you like that?). And I started thinking about how it's really unclear how the sexual interaction began. She says it's easier to think that it forced her; it's not necessarily true that that's the case, though. You can also look at this the other way: the woman forcing herself on something that may or may not be deliberately reciprocating. From the breaking bit, and the resulting defensive-seeming mechanism, I'd guess that the alien is at least also physically harmed by the interaction.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:18 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Note to self; never read this before a date.
posted by emjaybee at 7:21 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


oulipian: “This reads like something from a high school creative writing class. I'll admit I don't read a lot of science fiction, but I don't understand the enthusiasm for this story... I'm no editor, but "4am" could use some editorial attention. Starting a sentence with And - questionable, especially when you do it five or six times in the same short story. Most of her other sentences start with "The", "She", or "Her". In the sentence above, the semicolon seems unnecessary, and "made love" is such a platitude. How is this award-winning English?”

I don't think those standards work, really, for "award-winning English" anymore. The body of literature is too full of fantastic examples that break the rules you're setting out. Have you read Samuel Beckett's novels? They're fantastic – far better, in mind, than his more popular plays. But he does the things you're listing here over and over again. Cormac McCarthy, too, has (I recall) a habit of beginning lots of sentences with "And."

“My complaint is not really about the copyediting, but about the quality of the story overall. I read a lot of fiction, and I do not think that this is very good fiction. Like docpops, I am curious whether this is really the best that American science fiction has to offer. These stories have the subtlety and character development of a porn video, and in the case of Spar, the ending is just as predictable.”

Well, it's not really about the quantity of fiction you read; it's about the quality. And this is, I believe, a very intelligent story. For one thing, it's not a story that's about character development; you should know that character development isn't necessary for a good story, and it's very efficient, so it's cut out that development in order to make room for the exploration of other ideas.

Moreover, if you think this is the "subtlety... of a porn video," then you've seen some sort of fantastic pornography that I'm not aware of at all. I think you're letting your squeamishness at the premise stop you from paying attention to what's actually going on within the story, which by the way honestly is nothing like pornography, in that it's clearly not intended to impress or titillate the reader in any way. Once you let go of squeamishness, you can start to notice the fact that every single sentence in the story communicates an interesting idea that can be unpacked and considered at length; often these ideas have nothing to do with one another, but all of them are compelling, and it's almost astounding to see them all on one page together. For example, I laughed out loud at the ingenuity and deadpan humor in this bit:
She tries to teach it words. "Breast," she says. "Finger. Cunt." Her vocabulary options are limited here.

"Listen to me," she says. "Listen. To. Me." Does it even have ears?
It's hilarious, and horrifying, and touching, and revolting all at the same time, and it introduces a very deep and difficult question: how in the world can you initiate communication with a creature with which you have no frame of reference? Ordinarily, when we think about communicating with someone with whom we don't share a common language, we imagine we'd point at things to teach words: tree, rock, table, cat. Even this is sort of awkward, because it might be foolish even to assume that we've communicated that we're naming things, rather than (say) the functions of things – but she's a remove away even from that awkwardness, and has to confront an even more difficult question: how do you initiate communication with another being in a situation in which your only common objects of reference are your bodies? So she starts naming these parts: "this is my breast. That is my cunt." There is a humor in trying to initiate communication with a creature by naming one's intimate parts, with which the creature is already intimately familiar; generally we think of at least some form of conversation preceding intimacy, but here that's entirely turned on its head. Here, she's actually trying to teach her language to a creature that seems to be actively having sex with her. Yes, it's a morbid futility, but I couldn't help but find it oddly funny.

And it's fertile ground for extending these thoughts to touch on the larger theme: the similarities between this situation and situations we all find ourselves in. There are certainly times in various relationships when the person we're with seems alien to us; we rarely believe that we might as well be trying to teach them the names of the parts of our bodies, but sometimes maybe that's how it really is. I know that there have been times that this assumption of shared understanding that goes with sleeping with someone has failed me; in such moments, one finds oneself fighting to be communicative and teach another how to interpret one's words, even in the midst of apparently deep intimacy.

It's tragic somewhat because the attempt to make that communicative link is an inevitable failure. "Does it even have ears?" she asks, and that question is significant not just because it probably can't even hear her, but also because if it doesn't have ears then teaching it words like breast and cunt is absolutely and completely pointless; if words have one and only one object, they're not any more useful for communicating than pointing with a finger, and it somehow doesn't seem likely that the alien creature will have any parts in common with her. At least with another human being, she could point at her knee, and then the other human being's knee, and then say "knee," indicating what the two things have in common; but that's not remotely possible in the little lifeboat.

There are all kinds of interesting little moments like this in this story; it seems as though every idea that seems sure on the first reading is more complicated than it appeared. To take another example: the story doesn't say that the alien initiated the rape, or that it forced itself on her. It says that it's safer for her to believe that it forced her. There's plenty of difficult stuff hidden in that statement. Is she saying that it might be that she forced it in the beginning? It's apparently dangerous for her to contemplate the possibility that she herself initiated all of this; I find that really interesting, as it's somehow evocative of a very common experience, I think, or at least an experience I think I've had on some level. And yet there's something very raw about that, something that is tough to contemplate without getting a little nervous, I think.
posted by koeselitz at 7:22 PM on May 17, 2010 [8 favorites]


fleacircus: “This is literally torture porn, with the weird addition of seeming juvenile.”

I would've thought that by now we'd acknowledge a difference between "porn" and "graphic descriptions of sex."
posted by koeselitz at 7:24 PM on May 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sensual. Playing with primal fires. I like it.
posted by wobh at 7:50 PM on May 17, 2010


Kij is highly amused by this post.
posted by sdn at 8:06 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Moreover, if you think this is the "subtlety... of a porn video," then you've seen some sort of fantastic pornography that I'm not aware of at all. I think you're letting your squeamishness at the premise stop you from paying attention to what's actually going on within the story, which by the way honestly is nothing like pornography, in that it's clearly not intended to impress or titillate the reader in any way.

Oh! I don't know about that, actually. I think it's laughable to call this porn, but the subject matter (minus the sex with Cthulhu) is straight-up S/M in a great many ways. It's not a story about rape -- I don't think it is, anyway -- but it is a story about dominance and submission, and how unhealthy those power games can be in the absence of communication. (I also think it's basically an alternate ending to Alien, but that could just be me.) Or anyway, it's that stuff in part; I don't think most good fiction can be reduced to symbols and emblems. Point being, though, that I think we're kind of kidding ourselves if we think no Rule 34 applies here at all -- that there is an element of titillation (the protagonist is covered in her own cum!) is a big part of what makes the story so damn uncomfortable. It may not be what titillates you, but if you really think no one would be titillated by what could be viewed as a space-bondage tone poem, then no. I am sure that you are mistaken.

(And if you'd like to get really confused and uncomfortable vis a vis your feelings about the story, listen to the podcast. Kate Baker does a fantastic job with something I think most of us would be nervous about reading aloud at all, much less for internet consumption, and her reading is perhaps too pleasant to listen to in some places, and downright tortured in others. I'm kinda iffy in a lot of ways about fiction read aloud -- way back when, I used to read my own stories, and it was gutwrenching to do -- but more to the point, I feel like good writing should be able to convey this stuff on its own. In the case of "Spar," though, I think that on the page there's a temptation to skim ugly stuff, a temptation to read with some detachment, and you can't do that when the story's being told to you. You have the option to just turn it off, of course; but if you listen, you'll be immersed in it. Which may just be a testament to Baker's abilities as an actress, but I'm pretty sure only in part.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:10 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


HuronBob: "website with graphic pictures in 5,4,3,2,.........."

Dude, Spar is a straight rewrite of Hokusai's Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, the textual portions excepted.

Outstanding. Art, I would surely have missed this story without your pointer. I am really not joking when I refer to that print; this story makes that art make sense and elevates it beyond my prior and limited comprehension. Also, great thread title.
posted by mwhybark at 8:11 PM on May 17, 2010


sdn, I'm right, am I not?
posted by mwhybark at 8:15 PM on May 17, 2010


Have you read Samuel Beckett's novels?

Yes, I've read Beckett. I've also read science fiction, for example J. G. Ballard and Jorge Luis Borges, which I think is light years beyond the quality of these stories. However, I admit I got caught up in arguing my point, and did not mean to come across as so entirely dismissive. Spar is not a terrible story, I'm just surprised that it is an award-winning story.

I think thematically what Spar reminds me of most is actually the scenes from Seventh Seal where the knight is playing chess with Death. Except directed by Takashi Miike.
posted by oulipian at 8:25 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


To be fair, comparing any prose to the prose of Beckett is exceedingly unfair to both proses. Ditto Borges; I haven't read enough of Ballard to talk about him. Beckett and Borges both have astonishingly unique literary styles that influenced a whole trend of writers. Spar is very obviously inspired by Beckett's later, more experimental work. It's not aiming for so pure a style.

I think that managing to use a generic science fiction trope in such a shocking way, and to manage to make that shock both powerful and — in many instances — tender, while simultaneously working as a metaphor for something grander and harder to convey with language made this a special story for me. I haven't read many sci-fi stories that manage to be that deep without a hint of pretension. I'd give it a ribbon or something.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:30 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd give it a ribbon or something.

FWIW it's also up for the Hugo.
posted by Artw at 8:58 PM on May 17, 2010


It is quite an interesting story, generally pretty well-written, and does a great job at being a science fiction story that is not remotely about science fiction – though I am not at all a fan of the "I fucking hate you, I hate fucking you" line either, and I also agree that something's wrong with the ending.

I am glad I read it though. Sort of.
posted by furiousthought at 9:29 PM on May 17, 2010


Spar is not a terrible story, I'm just surprised that it is an award-winning story.

I think you're just not getting what it means to win this award.

The award does not mean "THIS IS A TOWERING ACHIEVEMENT THAT WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR A THOUSAND YEARS!" or "Better than Borges!" or anything like that.

It means only that of the however many science fiction short stories that were professionally published in 2009 in the US, which probably number fewer than 150, the voters of the SFWA either preferred Spar over the others, or liked some other short story more but preferred to give Johnson the award anyway for whatever reason.

That's all. The award made no comparison to Borges or Ballard or Beckett, who did not (AFAIK) publish any science fiction stories in the US last year. The award offers no assurance of absolute quality. Winning this award doesn't say OMG BEST THING EVER!!! any more than Return of the King or Titanic winning best picture meant that the AMPAS membership thought they were better than Citizen Kane.

It especially doesn't say OMG BEST WRITING EVER!, as the award makes no pretense whatsoever about rewarding the short story published in the US in 2009 that had, in whatever sense, the best prose as divorced from other aspects of the story.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:34 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know I've seen mention of a "MetaFilter Book Club" around the site from time to time. It's one of those things I've always had on the "I should check that out" list, but have never managed to do.

This thread has pushed me to find it, and now I *can't*. Would someone drop me a MeMail and point me in the right direction?

Terrific thread, Fites. I believe I love nothing so much as people thinking at one another.
posted by tzikeh at 10:58 PM on May 17, 2010


I loved this story and thought it was absolutely brilliant.

My take on its meaning though...I couldn't help but see the alien as anything other than a metaphor for loneliness and despair when you grieve a love lost. There's no sensation. No taste. Nothing means anything. You come up against this almost tangible beast that you can't make any sense of. You relive the past until it's boring and meaningless. And there are no comparisons. And then one day, much like the day it all began, you wander your way out of the relentless, dark place.

Even the prepositions, Out and In, used to punctuate things, but never once referring to falling in or out of love, was a phrase turn that seemed noticeably missing (yet not at all. I think to do so would have been way to on the nose. So you just have this notion of out-ness and in-ness, in relation to this alien-thing/feeling/construct).

Maybe I'm way wrong about all that. But that's how it resonated with me. It also reminded me a LOT of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which I also found the sci-fi plot to be a vehicle for the deconstruction of a relationship (back to the point where you remember why you loved this person in the first place, and must decide which direction to go from there).

Anyways, that's my 2¢. I know everything doesn't have to mean something, but I would be curious to hear others' interpretations of the story.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:21 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fun story. Thanks for the link, and I'll be sure to check out this writer's other works.

everything I would have said has been said by PhoB and Rory Marinich, but I still wanted to yay; so yay!
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 12:50 AM on May 18, 2010


I think the 'alien' is essentially Gary's genitals detached and living on their own, with a mind of their own-- which many women seem to attribute to men's genitals anyway (with considerable justice)-- and incorrigibly determined to do what free living men's genitals would do if they could, inflict themselves perpetually and relentlessly on any woman who could not get away from them.

It's a metaphor for being trapped in a relationship with a demanding, hounding man whose sex drive far exceeds your own (at least your drive to have sex with him).
posted by jamjam at 1:02 AM on May 18, 2010


Ah, here it is. Not Ellison, but in his Again, Dangerous Visions (1972)

that's it exactly ~ not the collections i linked to... I have both DV and A,DV - superb
posted by infini at 1:33 AM on May 18, 2010


What happened to her spacesuit?
posted by P.o.B. at 1:43 AM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


alt.sex.cthulhu
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:23 AM on May 18, 2010


This is what the sex scene in Mass Effect should have been like.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:06 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


What happened to her spacesuit?

It got in the way.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:17 AM on May 18, 2010


I'm afraid I'm in the minority that don't find this work to be terribly compelling. I get what she was doing. I do. I see the subtext, I understand the imagery, I absolutely understand what she was going for. It still left me "meh", at the end. Perhaps it's because prefer writers like Tiptree and Atwood.

I found the story to be predictable, but what I couldn't have predicted is the great amount of dialogue that the story has engendered. If the story can inspire this sort of discussion, then the story accomplishes something really outstanding.
posted by dejah420 at 5:15 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


One thing that seemed off to me was the asymetry of some of the details. For example, the weird shit where part of it breaks off, I mean, what the fuck is that. But you can almost imagine that happening, and the detail of the bruise around her wrist sort of brings it home.

But then it inserts herself in her, not in any preexisting orifice. How does she survive that, or not get infection and die afterward? Is it all the magical escape pod's doing?
posted by angrycat at 5:51 PM on May 18, 2010


Maybe it lives off of her bacteria and it is just looking for more in all her orifices.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:26 PM on May 18, 2010


How does she survive that, or not get infection and die afterward?

Yes, if you look at the details it doesn't hold up on the plot level.

Still a good story though.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:44 PM on May 18, 2010


This is some really top-notch discussion. Give this thread the Nebula!
posted by painquale at 1:19 PM on May 19, 2010


I only just got around to reading this. Thanks for posting it, I enjoyed it and the comments in the thread.
posted by Nattie at 3:49 PM on May 19, 2010


I'm going to have to support the dissenting voices in here. I found it to be mostly ironic shock value supporting one big, obvious metaphor. I don't get nearly as much out of it as I do other good stories.
posted by aesacus at 11:38 PM on May 21, 2010


How does she survive that, or not get infection and die afterward?

I hate that I'm suggesting this...but, not a literal violation?
posted by iamkimiam at 12:10 AM on May 22, 2010


all in the mind you mean?
posted by infini at 7:18 AM on May 22, 2010


Mosquito style anti-septic alien sex spit.
posted by Artw at 7:19 AM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


She's Wolverine's daughter.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:54 AM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Sofanauts (a spin off of the StarShipSofa podcast) covers the Nebula award choices.
posted by Artw at 7:11 AM on May 26, 2010


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