CC: Spar

This week’s story is Spar by Kij Johnson.

To give some context for the members of the audience who need it, this story was published in 2009 to cries of “Brilliant!” and “Ew, tentacle porn!”  It won awards and award nominations, and people told Neil Clarke he was peddling smut by publishing it.  Kij Johnson is generally considered to be a writer of consistent and reliable brilliance, and one who some people just don’t get.

Craft-wise, this story is demonstrably excellent.  The reading experience is intense and claustrophobic, the thematic content built and reinforced out of the imagery, and the conclusion is the particularly difficult “appropriate, correct, and doesn’t resolve the problems,” sort that I’m fond of.  How’d she do that?  Two main things.

Sparse. Prose.

This story could be a textbook study in what people mean when they say “sparse prose,” and they aren’t trying to tactfully say “boring.”  The sentences are short, fragmentary, and you see the same words repeatedly.

The alien is not humanoid. It is not bipedal. It has cilia.

Three sentences, each building the image you need in a progression of negative space.  It is not, it is not, it is.  Should could have said, “Picture an amoeba,” and used fewer words to get you to the same image, but that wouldn’t have worked the same way.  This is a pulling back of the camera, a hustling of the reader forward toward understanding exactly how alien this alien is.  Not Star Trek.  Not even Star Wars.  Amoeba.  Even the rhythm of the sentences feels like a march.  Each sentence is shorter than the one before it, which focuses your attention on the concluding word, and that word is “cilia.”  Which tells you far, far more than “the alien is covered in fine hairs that can wiggle on their own.”

Even longer sentences carry this brief, rhythmic element.  She does a lot of clausal constructions via punctuation rather than verbal conjunctions.

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

This is a delivery of three bits of information again, but in one sentence instead of three.  But look at how she packaged that information in the sentence.  Assertion about the wreck, colon, fragmentary clause giving you more detail, comma, evaluation of that information.  It’s all grammatically valid, but the actual verbiage doesn’t carry any of the transition.  It’s one complete sentence, but it’s built out of fragments strung together.  Again, we’re hustling the reader along, never giving them a full stopping point.  This construction does the opposite of the previous one, where each clause grows longer than the one before it.  That keeps the prose engaging while maintaining the rhythmic qualities of the prose.  There’s still a progression – if we had it arranged long-short-mid it would stumble.

Also interesting to note: the only named character in the story is dead and appears only in flashbacks.  We have “She,” “It,” and “Gary.”  I doubt Gary got two syllables by accident.  The flashback where there’s actual dialog with Gary and descriptions of organic, bright, pleasant things is also the longest in the story, and very close to the end.  This story is built of small, brief sections, sometimes just a sentence long.  By the time you get to the scene in the park the reader has been inside the story long enough that rhythm and hustle the prose has been doing all along has them, so this comes as the refreshing break it’s meant to be.

And then right at the end of the section she shows off my favorite bit of the story’s second major technique to take it away.

Word Play

“I fucking hate you,” she says. “I hate fucking you.”

This story is full of work play, but this is my favorite.  (I’m a sucker for well done plays on “fuck,” though)  English is awesome for using the same word to mean different things just by putting it into different contexts, and you don’t get a clearer example than this one.  But much as I’m giddy over it, this isn’t the play that clenches the story.  This is just Kij showing off.

Ins and Outs.

That’s the one that matters.  The story is about isolation and loss, and the Ins and Outs that come up throughout it become contagious.  It starts off as a mere description of phallus/orifice options, because the story starts off as Amoeba porn, but it grows from there (like the story.)

Sometimes she watches it fuck her, the strange coiling of its Outs like a shockwave thrusting into her body, and this excites her and horrifies her; but at least it is not Gary. Gary, who left her here with this, who left her here, who left.

The juxtaposition here is really important.  We’re reminded that she’s being rather unpleasantly fucked by an alien – because we are not allowed to forget that lest to story not feel claustrophobic – and the image is of an Out overwhelming an In.  And then we have Gary, and Gary is an In, unfilled, an absence.  Gary is, at the thematic level, the reason the amoeba sex is so mediocre: he’s an In its Outs can’t fill.  Gary’s the reason this story isn’t just Amoeba porn and Neil Clarke is not a mere peddler of smut.

And this unfilled In is the reason the conclusion of the story works.

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

Here you see all the fragmentary prose construction we’ve had before, and a new meaning for Out.  Up to this point, Out has always been “phallus” and now it’s escape.  It’s the metaphorical, thematic Out to match the metaphorical, thematic In of Gary.  He’s still dead, she’s still grieving, nothing is fixed at the end of this story, but the reader is okay with that because we found a compatible Out for the In that was gunking up the works.

There’s a lot more going on in this story, but those were the two elements that struck me as the most interesting and important.  Now it’s time for the interactive part.  What did I get wrong or leave out or ignore?  Play along, people 🙂

Next week: Consumer Testing by John Greenwood

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2 thoughts on “CC: Spar

  1. Hi. Wow. I had a lot of fun rereading and thinking about Spar. I agree with all that you said about Johnson’s sparse prose, her mastery of wordplay and her poetic use of repetition.

    There’s also the constant comparing and contrasting. As you said, building up things in the negative and then looking at them in the positive, it’s as if they story is conveyed as a kind of binary set with each repetition adding new layers of meaning. This is a story of survival, and beautifully illustrates how everything is reduced to its simplest elements.

    Her struggle is real and deeply visceral but also esoteric. Her memory of grass is so poignant partly because sexual associations with the alien’s cilia immediately pollute it, but also because the mental image of grass is so delicate that she can’t hold onto it. She’s losing herself so completely that she can no longer remember the name of the starship that they surely spent a lot of time on. All of this reinforces her particular struggle. We speak of “battling to survive” but it’s not tactically an offensive maneuver. It’s all about holding on. (Jack London’s To Build a Fire comes to mind.)

    The narrator comes up with a second concrete image, the sunflowers on the desk. The simplicity of flowers and grass set against her situation and the cold empty space beyond… Then there’s the brilliant:

    “After a time, the taste of bread becomes “the taste of bread” and then the wolds become mere sounds and stop meaning anything.”

    Oh the capricious fungibility of our feeble memories! She promises herself that if another memory presents itself she will try to ignore it in a twisted logic to somehow husband these precious moments of escape. Again, these relentless cycles of grasping and losing ground moment by moment gives us the endless claustrophobia of her struggle.

    Then we have a couple lines of poetry. I was thinking they might be taken from the Tempest. Thanks to the Internets it was easy to track down. It’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:

    Let me not to the marriage of true minds

    Admit impediments. Love is not love

    Which alters when it alteration finds,

    Or bends with the remover to remove:

    O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 

    That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

    It is the star to every wandering bark,

    Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

    Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
    Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

    If this be error and upon me proved,

    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

    And now even more becomes clear.

    When I read Spar this time, I was struck by the fact that she called their ship a “lifeboat.” It seems oddly nautical for a science fiction story set in space. There are more nautical references. She mentions “The mariner’s code” –again, odd for a space story. There’s the line from which the title is taken:

    “A shipwrecked Norwegian sharing a spar with a monolingual Portuguese?”

    A spar can be the mast of a ship (but also what two people do when they go through the motions of hand to hand combat – similar to the kind of motions she and the alien are relentlessly going through as well.)

    Looking at the sonnet, the only concrete images in it have to do with seafaring.

    O no! It is an ever-fixed mark (i.e. lighthouse)
    That looks on tempests and is never shaken

    And

    It is the star to every wandering bark (i.e. a small boat – something like a lifeboat…)

    Here love is described as constant but also distant, untouchable. Like dead Gary or the idea of him or her last image of his body frozen in space.

    The sonnet backs into its topic with a negative:

    Let me not to the marriage of true minds
    Admit impediments. Love is not love

    And just as you observed, Johnson, begins by describing what the alien is not:

    “The alien is not humanoid. It is not bipedal.”

    The middle of the sonnet describes what love is (the pole star, a light house, unmoving and distant)

    The final couplet is a strange negative statement, which is a little harder to parse. (Does it proclaim his love since the poem stands as proof that he did indeed write/love? Is it an admission that his feelings have changed and therefore are not constant and he is no longer in love? Is this a poem of illicit love to his male lover and the last couplet serves as a kind of plausible deniability?)

    Regardless of how you read it, it’s the same negative positive negative binary pattern that’s all over Spar. Johnson ends her story with reversals.

    “It is bipedal” in the third to last paragraph, the opposite of the second paragraph’s statement. And her resounding “No.” which is as equally a yes as she climbs out of the ship having survived.

    Yeah, that was fun! Let me know what you think. See you next week.

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