Short story: “Mantis Wives”

by look i have opinions

“Mantis Wives,” by Kij Johnson

From Clarkesworld, issue 71, August 2012 (read or listen); 2013 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Short Story, 2013 Locus Award Finalist for Best Short Story; also available, curiously missing the last sixteen words, as episode 409 of Escape Pod, released August 16, 2013 (here)

963 words according to my word processor (epigraph included); Clarkesworld says 964

This is the kind of story that makes people say, “That’s not a story. Where’s the plot?” And it’s true that there’s no ostensible plot, but the thing has the shape of a story nonetheless. I would say the plot is an implied one. It could even be said that there are implied characters. The only “characters” on stage are the nameless and almost interchangeable mantises, but we can sense the power dynamics, the desire, the inevitable frustration between these two lovers as they devise increasingly intricate ways of fulfilling their biological and emotional destinies. It’s only from our own alien perspective that we can see how desperate these acts are, how far the lovers are from achieving the union of love. For me, the clinical sadism of the narration works beautifully. It provokes the reader to fill in what is missing.

I had started to write a defense of my use of the word “love” above, but then I realized the story itself uses it very effectively, and just once.

Some have suggested that humans are hardwired with simultaneous tendencies towards monogamy, jealousy, and infidelity. If that’s true (I haven’t researched the matter), we are in a position not much different from these mantises. Not that “Mantis Wives” is an allegory for anything so specific—at least, I don’t read it that way.

I found an interesting blog post that offers a similar, more in-depth interpretation informed by feminist theory.

Other miscellaneous thoughts:

  • The sheer volume and intensity of sexual sadism in this piece is bound to turn some readers off, and also, I think, to distract them from its real subject. (Johnson’s “Spar” had a similar difficulty.) I’m tempted to think the author includes such extreme material more for fetishistic than for artistic reasons.* And yet it doesn’t feel gratuitous. I wonder if that’s because I’m somewhat desensitized. One thing that makes the violence effective is that almost every “art” offers a new variation on the theme: a new form of suffering, perhaps a new hint of cooperation and consensuality.
  • Good use of an epigraph. I’m not usually a fan of epigraphs.
  • I wonder if Escape Pod removed those sixteen words at the author’s request? I listened to that version first, but I like the story better with the final section included. Perhaps Johnson felt it was gilding the lily.

*Edited to add that I sort of regret speculating about the author’s predilections. It seems inappropriate, although it’s hard to avoid the topic when studying a writer’s body of work.