Kij Johnson’s “Ponies” is the second on Locus’s Short Story Club list of award-nominated stories. More than that, though, it’s an actuall award winner, having claimed a share of the Nebula for Best Short Story.
I enjoyed Johnson’s two novels, The Fox Woman and Fudoki quite a bit, so I’m happy to see her doing well, with award-nominated short stories the last two years. The problem is, like last’s year’s “Spar,” which was up for the Hugo, my primary reaction to this story is “Oh, ick.”
The set-up is simple and heavy-handed: like all young girls, Barbara has a Pony, some sort of artificial engineered life form serving as a pet/companion, and she’s going to a “cutting-out party”:
This is the way it’s always been, as long as there have been Ponies. All ponies have wings. All Ponies have horns. All Ponies can talk. Then all Ponies go to a cutting-out party, and they give up two of the three, because that’s what has to happen if a girl is going to fit in with TheOtherGirls. Barbara’s never seen a Pony that still had her horn or wings after her cutting-out party.
Barbara really loves her Pony, but also really wants to fit in with TheOtherGirls. And at this point, you really don’t need to hear any more to see where this story is headed. And yes, it goes exactly where that set-up suggests, with even less subtlety than you expect, if that’s possible.
This is presumably intended as social commentary of some sort, on the sacrifices adolescents need to make to conform to blah, blah, blah. The problem is, the core conceit is preposterously contrived, and couldn’t possibly exist except as a gigantic and unsubtle literalized metaphor. Which means this is nothing but a straw man argument disguised as a story– an unsubtle literalized metaphor for the way that the socialization of pre-teen girls makes them insufferable little shits, used to prove that the socialization of pre-teen girls makes them insufferable little shits. And, you know, I’m not sure that’s a message that really needs the apparatus of SF to bring it home.
Worse yet, there’s nothing to this story other than the crashingly obvious Point. The central conceit of the Ponies isn’t explained in enough detail to be interesting as worldbuilding (who makes these? how? what sort of horrendous adults conceived this system?), there’s essentially no plot, and it doesn’t do anything remotely interesting stylistically: it just marches straight through its homeopathic quantity of plot in a linear fashion with a simple third-person narration. The one nod toward anything remotely innovative is the use of “TheOtherGirls” and “TopGirl” in place of actual names, which is presumably intended to suggest the anonymity of conformist blah, blah, blah, but everything else is so slight that it just feels lazy, as if “TopGirl” was put in there as a placeholder for an actual name during the writing, and the author never bothered to replace it.
“It’s sounds like you didn’t exactly care for this,” you’re saying, “But don’t hold back. Tell us what you really think.” What I really think is that if I were voting for the Hugo, I would seriously consider putting “No Award” ahead of this five times, just to make sure that my point was clear.
I’ve liked Johnson’s work in the past, but this is two award-nominated stories in a row that were just dreadful. She’s teetering on the edge of Mike Resnick status at this point, where I just go directly to putting the story below “No Award,” rather than put myself through the aggravation of actually reading it.