The cover to this collection popped out to me on NetGalley, and the name Matthew Johnson immediately rang a bell of vague familiarity. I knew I’d read a lot by the author, mostly in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and also in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and respected online publications like Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine (the latter now merged into Lightspeed).
I recalled his name with fondness, not a sense of trepidation. But I couldn’t really remember any particular story clearly from a title, nor did I have any sense in my head of what kind of story Johnson writes.
Going through this grand debut collection of twenty-two stories spanning over a decade of productivity, I begin to get a sense why. Johnson’s writing doesn’t fit neatly into a single sub-genre mold, nor within the confines of any particular style (to my note). His stories are incredibly varied within the vast SF/Fantasy field and the breadth of markets where he has published is a testament to how well he can move across the spectrum.
While reading the contents didn’t jog specific memories, several of the stories became immediately familiar once starting them anew in this collection. With that special joy of rediscovering something beloved but neglected I savored this group of stories, notably “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”. Though I recalled loving each originally, I had never connected that they were written by the same person, likely because these two stories are very different on the surface – one an alternate history or time travel mashup of sorts and another a post-apocalyptic zombie tale.
Yet both feature a strong emotional resonance that reaches beyond the plot. For Johnson’s stories are full of realistic characters with basic human struggles that readers can relate to. Even when those characters are temporally displaced Romans struggling in present day culture and bureaucracy, or a young woman trying to provide medical aid and hope to the populace of a plague-ravaged wasteland.
Others, including in the introduction to this collection, have discussed the importance of language and communication as a defining characteristic link between Johnson’s stories. This theme is certainly present in several stories here, mostly notably the title piece of the collection, “Irregular Verbs”. New to me, this opening story is profoundly powerful and moving, the type of short story that should be featured in a Best of… literary collection regardless of the fantasy ‘created’ world in which it is set. A perfect tale tot start this collection, because you don’t want to stop reading after it closes.
The plot and culture of Irregular Verbs rests on this theme of linguistic communication, of words. I believe a better (well more accurate) common theme between Johnson’s works, however, involves the setting. It isn’t so much as Johnson’s characters are struggling to find the proper precise words to communicate, it is that they are struggling to exist in a time and a place where they are not really meant to be. His characters are ‘fish out of water’ or ‘strangers in a strange land’.
For instance in the wonderfully spooky “Beyond the Fields You Know” (the sole story I’d classify as horror in the collection) the child protagonist is enticed into a dark, magical realm of slavery, a place and position he should not be in, and that of course he is trying to find escape from. And sometimes the character learns that the setting they are trying to free themselves from is actually what they need most (“Closing Time”). In others (“The Dragon’s Lesson” or the previously mentioned “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”) the characters struggle to maintain a personal culture or moral outlook that is in direct opposition to the society they find themselves within.
With such a large collection as this with stories varying in every way imaginable, including from humorously light to deeply serious, it is likely that there will be some things in this collection that you might not like as much as others. And that’s okay. There are a few authors out there who I can adore for each thing they produce, but many quality writers like Johnson who will produce something amazing one day and something that just isn’t my cup of tea the next.
The high points of this vast collection, though, make it an easy recommendation for any fan of speculative fiction, particularly if you are someone that normally doesn’t read the shorter published works out there. A handful of exceptional tales that deserve universal note beyond the realms of genre (such as the lead-off “Irregular Verbs”) also should give this collection a certain broader appeal.