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"Names for Water" / Kij Johnson

from Asimov’s Science Fiction / Oct-Nov 2010
Reviewed by: Daniel R. Robichaud

After a quick perusal, Kij Johnson's contribution to the October/November issue of Asimov's Science Fiction might read like an optimistic science fiction vignette. Upon closer examination, however, something far more chilling lies beneath "Names for Water."

The straightforward plot revolves around Hala, a student running late for her Complex Variables class. As this is a course she doubts ever succeeding at, she pauses for a phone call from an UNKNOWN CALLER. She answers only to find a strange hissing sound on the other end. This is not a hissing at all, she realizes, but the sound of crashing surf. What follows is a catalog of oceans and lakes and rivers and cloud types as Hala tries to identify the water's source.

By the story's conclusion, the reader becomes privy to not only the call's uncanny source but to the course of events that stems from this odd event. This contact shapes both Hala's future and humankind's progress for the next couple of hundred years. This sequence invites interpretation. Whether the reader takes it as literal truth or as a student's momentary dream/delusion, the story itself ends on an unsettling note. This is due to Johnson's spare but deliberate prose.

Manifestations of loneliness, death, hopelessness, the alien, and the unknowable fill this story. These bring a manic quality to Hala's mission to identify the caller. Her actions recall those of Ramsey Campbell's obsessive characters or the unnamed narrator from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper."

And how about that ending? Despite the lack of tentacles or conical Yithians, I cannot help but see a nod to Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" here. Perhaps "Names for Water" is not interested in perceiving the end of the human race, but the flash forward sequence remains both reassuring and eerie.

Purchase the current issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, containing "Names for Water" by Kij Johnson.

Posted on Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 06:58AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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