First published in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, 26 Jan 2015
One of the best ways to understand where a writer is coming from is to read all their stories in one go: You can see more clearly what it is they’re up to—their obsessions, their shibboleths, their literary tricks. This can be a challenge when the writer has a considerable body of work behind them. But even young-ish and emerging writers have patterns to their work that can be subject to examination.
That is very much the case with Matthew Johnson, whose stories have been appearing in some of the most prestigious venues in our field, such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, F&SF and Strange Horizons, and have now been brought together in his first collection of short fiction, Irregular Verbs and Other Stories. These twenty-one stories, four of which are previously unpublished, reveal his modus operandi when taken in all at once.
In many ways Johnson’s stories are a reflection of his personality: An Ottawa resident who works as the education director for a digital and media literacy nonprofit, Johnson is thoughtful and considerate in person, but his demeanour belies a sharp edge of wit (full disclosure: we’re friendly acquaintances). His stories are not notable for their pyrotechnic prose, their literary flash or their outrageous concepts; what makes Johnson’s stories distinctive is that they’re terribly clever ideas-based science fiction and fantasy stories, but from a human—and humane—viewpoint. His stories are an effective synthesis of both idea and character, and a potent argument that the idea versus character dichotomy in science fiction is a false one.
In the title story, which opens the book, we have the intellectually stimulating idea of a people whose constantly shifting languages develop so swiftly and so personally that the language spoken among friends or family is indecipherable outside that circle. Those in this society must make regular effort to ensure that their common language stays mutually intelligible. Clever enough on its own: a parable on the inclusivity and exclusivity of language. But Johnson digs down to the emotional core of the issue, and explores what happens when the person with whom you have built your private language is suddenly lost: to preserve that language is to preserve the memory of that person.
Stories that have as their genesis a political or economic point maintain that human focus. “Another Country” is a story about time travelling refugees, but looks at it from the viewpoint of the caseworker helping those refugees adjust to modern life in Ottawa. “Lagos” plays with several things at once—outsourcing, telework, and spam—but its focus is on the workers being exploited, as is the case with “Talking Blues,” which looks at the plight of those condemned to work in the factories that have been relocated to Hell.
Even stories that draw upon familiar tropes of popular culture maintain their human focus, and show an empathy and kindness one does not normally expect from the genre. “The Afflicted” is on the surface one of those zombie stories where the Z-word is never uttered, but it approaches the subject from a public health perspective rather than yet another post-apocalyptic murder fantasy. The affliction is akin to dementia; the narrator a nurse who has to face the uncomfortable fact that she may have to shoot her patients. “Heroic Measures” is a superhero story with the serial numbers filed off (presumably to keep the comic book lawyers at bay); it’s not the first or only story of its kind—Kim Newman’s “Übermensch!” (1991) comes to mind—but again it touches on brutally personal end-of-life issues.
And in “Holdfast,” the focus is so resolutely on familial matters, on the household magic practised by a family to keep home and hearth together, that what threatens them is pushed back to the margins of the story: Dragons and sorcerers are hinted at, referred to, but never explained. The scale in these stories is quotidian, not epic—something that Johnson has in common with writers like Jo Walton and Ken Liu. On the other hand, stories like “Public Safety” and “Au Coeur des Ombres,” set in an alternate post-French Revolution Louisiana, are the sort of conceit I would expect from a writer like Howard Waldrop, though they’re an order of magnitude less weird than Howard.
All of which is to say that while Johnson has a storytelling M.O., it incorporates considerable range in tone, in subject matter and in execution.
Johnson has published one novel to date: Fall from Earth (Bundoran Press, 2009), a fast-paced and ambitious science fiction novel that benefited from weapons-grade world-building but suffered from trying to cram its epic scale, plus eight or nine viewpoint characters, into just 236 pages; it should have been either Dune-sized or a trilogy. But it’s the stories in Irregular Verbs that mark Johnson as a writer to keep a very close eye on.