Short Story Club: "Ponies," by Kij Johnson

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.

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I'm interested in reading this now.

I have to be honest, I must be stupid because I don't see where it is headed. @1, a bit heavy handed without reading the story, isn't it? Sounds like ponies keep their voice, but not horns and not wings. Horns are for defense and wings are for flight. They are not necessarily about conforming to a standard of beauty. In fact it says all ponies keep their voice, none keep their wings or horns. As I said, maybe I'm stupid, but it sounds like it is about giving up childish ways: fighting and flights of fancy, but retaining the ability to communicate, cooperate and share knowledge. But, it does make me want to read it too.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 28 May 2011 #permalink

@2, read the story, man... it's short and it's just linked in the main article.

My feeling about Spar and Ponies is that maybe Kij Johnson had a need to write something ugly after writing The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles ( But I intensely dislike both those stories and don't understand the mindset of people who think them worthy of reward. But that's just me... obviously my preferences aren't anywhere near close to being in line with those of the Hugo voters.

Okay, you got me, I read it. #1's comment was true in a way, for certain. But, to be honest, although young women seem, from all reports to be very susceptible to that sort of thing, I think all humanity is susceptible to some degree. It is certainly a disturbing read. But, not as disturbing as, "The Windup Girl." A novel which I also felt contained a lot of scary truthes. And no, I usually don't read such frightening tales of normality. Usually, Stephen King or Neal Stephenson. Somehow there is irony in that.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 29 May 2011 #permalink

Just because a story may have a certain amount of truth to it does not mean that it is a good story. All stories should have elements of truth to them. Ponies is just as terrible as Spar was for all the above reasons stated. Also, the fantastic elements are pointless. The story would work just as well with a plastic unicorn. Thank you Mr. Orzel for being vocal in your dislike. We appreciate it.

I absolutely loved 'Ponies'. I didn't care for it particularly the first time I read it, but for months afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about it.
I liked her use of 'TopGirl', 'EveryoneLikesHerGirl', 'SuckUpGirl' ect. instead of names; its a way of quickly showing the social dynamic within that group of girls. Naming them would be superfluous since they exist primarily as personifications of archetypes.

I love its visual descriptions. Very vivid. I loved its surreal nature.
I didn't take it as direct social commentary, nor does it strike me as heavy handed.
I saw it as an allegory for the ways in which unsupervised kids can be cruel and damaging to each other (think Lord of the Flies) but without trying to convey a distinct moral or a message. Shit happens. Don't let anyone else trample your dreams. Loving yourself is more important and longer-lasting than other people's attentions. All those kinds of warnings are wrapped up within the story. But I didn't see it as saying anything so much on 'conformity'...that idea strikes me as a bit jejune.