“26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss,” by Kij Johnson (2008) E

Date read: 11.06.09
Read From: Asimov’s, July 2008
Reviewer: Emera

This post originally segued into an extremely long-winded discussion of what makes readers perceive fiction as “genre” versus “non-genre,” but two hours and >1100 words later, I got uncomfortable with some/all of what I had written. So, it’s been hacked back and all that’s left is a thematic discussion/analysis of Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss,” which, you might have noticed, Kakaner also just reviewed. (Later edit: But here’s the most expeditious compression of what I had been meaning to say about genre: if you like speculative fiction that makes a point of explicating mechanism – how the AI or the FTL drive or the summoning spell works – you’ll probably be disappointed by this story. It’s more of an absurdist fable.)

To make a mildly spoilery summary, the grief-embittered, formerly rootless heroine, Aimee, comes into possession of a strange miracle: a troupe of performing monkeys who, without any visible explanation, can disappear and reappear at will. She wonders endlessly at the miracle, and where it brings her to in life, but she never really does find out how it works.

The monkeys know, obviously, and one even agrees to show her the trick firsthand – but she still can’t see what the trick is. Despite the monkeys’ transparency (PUN) – here’s what we do, here’s us doing it, nothing hidden, just a bunch of monkeys in a bathtub – there’s a veil she can’t penetrate, something she can’t see beyond, can’t participate in. There’s just no way for her to “get it,” to seize the heart of the mystery, no matter how close she is to it and how clearly it’s laid out for her. It’s deliciously slippery and absurd, a mystery that’s all the more impenetrable for its almost banal apparent obviousness.

One of the story’s most accessible themes, then, might be: Life is weird and half of the things that happen to us don’t even seem to have explanations, or at least ones that we can understand, but they sometimes they get us to the places that we need to be anyway.

Another motif that I was interested in – the endless series of microcosms that enclose Aimee and the monkey. Aimee listlessly observes the extreme artificiality of the fairs* where the monkeys perform: “Fairs are as artificial as titanium knees: the carnival, the animal barns, the stock-car races, the concerts, the smell of burnt sugar and funnel cakes and animal bedding. Everything is an overly bright symbol for something real, food or pets or hanging out with friends. None of this has anything to do with the world Aimee used to live in, the world from which these people visit.” Aimee herself travels from fair to fair inside of a touring bus that she never exits except to perform. And inside the touring bus, each of the monkeys has a little cage, stuffed with toys and blankets and anything else they might need to keep them happy and comfortable in their downtime.  So, do we make our happiness inside cages, that are inside cages, that are inside cages? Is it our occasional jaunt to worlds that seem brighter, more exciting, that allows us to tolerate our cages? Or rather do they show us how breakable, how escapable our cages are (is a cage really a cage if you leave the door unlocked, and use that door?) – at the same time that we need them to be there waiting for us when we come home.

There’s a parallel between the people of “the world Aimee used to live in” visiting the fairs, and the monkeys disappearing, only to return bearing souvenirs (coins, fruit, Moroccan slippers) of places that Aimee can only imagine are distant and exotic and marvellous. And yet, when she’s settled down and is finally on the receiving end, so to speak, of one of the teleported/disappeared/whatevered monkeys, where does it show up but in her own apartment. Johnson creates a slippage here, an interpenetrability between home and the exotic, the mundane and the miraculous, that plays with how we estimate value and recognize happiness, and defies the attempts of analytical minds like Aimee’s to neatly square away problems and see to the center of the mystery.

Bottom line, a fun, twisty story to read and play with.

* More inter-book synergy, since I just read Water for Elephants

Go to:
Kij Johnson
Asimov’s Science Fiction
“26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” [K]

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  1. kakaner’s avatar

    So. About your genre comment.

    I wanted to comment on the inclusion of this story in Asimov’s… like, I really don’t think it’s science ficdtion. It’s not even mundane scifi. So, what? I can understand by a stretch of principles, and the fact that this story does seem to fulfill a lot on Asimov’s wishlist for a ideal short story, but still.

    You know, if i had gone into more depth with my reivew (which I didn’t), I was going to talk about… Aimee’s relationship with her boyfriend. I just, iono, found that in particular fascinating. The fact that he was her support, companion, and partner, yet it was blatantly acknowledged that they had no real love between them, and were very well aware of it. Just seemed like an unusual presentation of insight into superficiality and illusions of perfection.

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    Yeah, I thought it was pretty strange that it was in Asimov’s (also, nominated for a Nebula), because metaphysical, sure, but sci-fi? Reeeeally? *raises eyebrow* I’m sure that ruffled a lot of feathers across sf readership.

    I liked the Aimee/Geof relationship angle as well, since so many people really don’t end up staying with or marrying someone with whom they’re in love, but someone who just ended up, y’know, working.

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