spaceships and vortex by Jonathan BetancurA while ago there was a bit of a brouhaha about a story that came out in ClarkesWorld magazine (2010 Hugo Winner for Best Semiprozine). The story is “Spar” by Kij Johnson.   WARNING: The story is exceedingly explicit.  And while my example is specific, the issues it brings up aren’t new. 

At what point does using profanity or sex or violence cease to enhance a story and becomes merely a “shock tactic?”  Does that line differ for sex versus violence?  How about genre, does that impact acceptability?   When is something an actual story and when is it just author gamesmanship?  How do we know when something is edgy or just crass?  This story is just one example but I found myself thinking about my own personal convictions and how I defined “story.” 

In summary, a woman is trapped in a lifeboat with an alien and they have sex for a few thousand words. And action-wise, that is about all that happens in the tale. It has coarse language, harsh imagery and potentially some interesting/offensive themes – depending on your perspective. I can’t say I’ve completely made my mind up. You can get a feel for the narrative from the very first sentence: “In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.”

Let me give a few quotes from responses to the story:

“Oh My God! That crap won a 2009 Nebula? It’s virtually pornography with a little SF thrown on for icing. It’s barely concealed bestiality (actually, I believe the definition would be miscegenation, but there’s little indication the thing she’s screwing is even sentient so bestiality might be appropriate).  There’s hardly even a story in there anywhere that I could see.”

“This strikes me as literary exhibitionism. I don’t like the regular kind, why would I like this?”

” It’s stupid. I don’t get it. It is vulgar fo the sake of being vulgar. Sexual for the sake of being profane. Perhaps, PERHAPS it can be seen as edgy and unique but to be nominated for a dang Hugo??? Drivel.”

And on the other side:

“Personally, I found the story unique, provocative, and very well written (not a fan of the ending, but whatever.) I can easily see how, if you’re reading hundreds of submissions every month this story would stick out from all the rest.”

“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…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.”

“My first impression of the entire story was that I thought it was quite creative, and so I understood why it won the Nebula award, but that I didn’t particularly like the story. I felt better about feeling that way after reading Kij say that she herself doesn’t like it at all. A fuller quote from her is: “This is a story I love without liking it at all … It’s a difficult story to read, and it’s hard to see past the graphic aspects to what the story is really about.””

And then, there are the in-betweens: 

“The story itself, while a nicley crafted piece of writing, just didn’t have enough ‘story’ for my tastes.  To me, it seemed more of a thought experiment than an actual story.  I kept waiting or something to happen, and then the piece ended.  The premise is utterly horrifying, and I think it would have been right at home over at PP.  I understand that the MC had been more or less stripped of personality, and nearly her mind, by her ordeal, but what was left wasn’t much of a character, awful as her situation was.  Gary was certainly the lucky one.  I might have been able to connect to the story better if it had started before the collision, but as it was, everything was pretty much done by the time we see the scenario.  So, a well written scene, but it just doesn’t hit me as a story.”

So, what is Kij Johnson REALLY trying to say?  What is she as a writer trying to do?  Thankfully, she doesn’t keep us guessing and you can find some of the behind-the-scenes from her interview in ClarkesWorld.  I have to admit, a small part of me would probably have rather enjoyed it not being explained but for those of you who HAVE to know, check out the link.  Also, there is some great discussion on the EscapePod Forums as people really try to come to grips with a “beautiful-ugly” story.

 My thoughts probably most closely echo Adam Calloway although he definitively calls it a “story” where I’m not so sure – “While the “story” part of it leaves me feeling filthy (not in a good way either), the language makes up for it (although that also makes me feel filthy). ”  It is vicious and visceral, leaving you with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and imagery in your head that you might prefer to forget. 

So…is this a story?  And if it is, does it have any value?


To date, Spar is a 2009 Nebula Award Winner, 2010 Hugo Award Nominee, and 2010 Locus Award Finalist.

About the author

DayAlMohamed Day Al-Mohamed is author of the Young Adult novel, “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.” She is also co-editor for the anthology, “Trust & Treachery” from Dark Quest Books. In addition to speculative fiction, she also writes comics and film scripts. She is an active member of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia Writing Group, of Women in Film and Video, and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.