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A collaborative blog by Locus editors, contributors, and other invited guests. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine or Locus Online.

 




 


Editor

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Contributors

Alan Beatts
Terry Bisson
Marie Brennan
Karen Burnham
Siobhan Carroll
John Clute
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Ellen Datlow
Paul Di Filippo
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Andy Duncan
Stefan Dziemianowicz
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Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
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Rich Horton
Guy Gavriel Kay
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Mark R. Kelly
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Russell Letson
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Brit Mandelo
Adrienne Martini
Tim Pratt
Cat Rambo
Paul Graham Raven
Graham Sleight
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Peter Straub
Rachel Swirsky
Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Short Story Club: “Ponies”

Here are some views from around the net of Kij Johnson’s Nebula award winning story, “Ponies“.

Lois Tilton, from her bi-monthly column at Locus Online:

Every girl gets her own pastel talking pony with wings and a horn. But before the other girls will let her join the group, she has to take a knife and cut these off. The ending stings, but it’s still Highly Unsubtle.

Life, the Universe, and Sci-Fi:

Ponies by Kij Johnson is certainly the most unique of the Hugo nominated short stories. It is far shorter than the other stories and isn’t actually science fiction, but it certainly deserves to be nominated for this award because it is one of the most effective horror stories that I have read in quite a while eliciting a number of levels of horror in a very short story.

This story is an alagory and does not attempt to be a realistic story. The names of the girls are things like TopGirl, Second Girl and similar. In addition it is a modern day story with unicorns that have wings, horns, can talk and with blood that smells like cotton candy. This is about children who surrender to the crowd who do something they wouldn’t want to do because that is what other people want.

Abigail Nussbaum, as part of an overview of the Hugo nominee list at Asking the Wrong Questions:

I haven’t gotten along with all of Kij Johnson’s Hugo-nominated stories in the last few years, but I always came away from them feeling that there was some substance to the story, even if I couldn’t quite grasp it. “Ponies,” Johnson’s nominee this year, is entirely, and almost insultingly, substance-less, a story as unworthy of Johnson as it is of its nomination for the Hugo. “Ponies” is a vignette–and though in theory I suppose it’s possible that a vignette could pack enough of a punch to deserve a Hugo nomination, none of the recently nominated ones, for example Kowal’s “Evil Robot Monkey” from 2009, have done so–in which a little girl named Barbara is invited to a “cutting-out party” for her pony, Sunny. In order for Barbara to fit in with TheOtherGirls, their My Little Pony-esque ponies have to lose two of their three magical attributes–talking, flying, or their horn. When Sunny realizes that she’s actually going to lose all three of her attributes, she rebels, the other ponies kill her, and Barbara is declared “not OneOfUs.” The End. No, really, The End. I’m trying to wrap my mind around a voting membership that, on the one hand, gave Johnson a nomination for her disquieting, controversial “Spar” last year, and on the other hand sees anything worth recognizing in this simplistic, old-fashioned piece that seems to be patting itself on the back for saying something that has been said so many times before, and in exactly the same way. It’s 2011, for crying out loud–are we really still shocked when someone takes a supposedly benign yet subtly patriarchy-affirming girls’ toy and makes something sinister of it? Haven’t we reached the stage where pointing out that female hierarchies encourage a destructive conformity is simply stating the obvious? For that matter, haven’t we reached the stage where that’s no longer entirely true? Even My Little Pony itself doesn’t buy into the rigid hierarchy of girls’ groups and the tyranny of niceness anymore–the new incarnation of the series, by all accounts, celebrates diversity, features characters who are encouraged to develop their skills and unique personalities, and rejects queen-bee-ism in all its forms. Johnson is too good a writer for “Ponies” not to have some effect, but the tools she uses are so blunt–I found the portmanteu titles like “TopGirl” and “ThisIsTheBestGame” particularly obvious–that I can’t believe that so many people found the story genuinely affecting, much less worthy of a nomination.

A sampling of comments from when it originally ran on Tor.com. (Overall the comments ran about 4:1 positive:negative, with a generous helping of “depressing.”)

  • Oh, that’s dark. Well done.
  • This story made me feel sick, and I’m a horror fan. I suppose that’s a compliment to the writer but mostly it just hurt and depressed me.
  • When it comes to cruelty, no fictional monster has a thing on primary-school girls. Children are monsters. I think that, deep down, we all wear the scars from the day we had to cut our own Pony.
  • There are two ways a story about the tyranny of the popular kids can go: you can tell a story about escape or a story about defeat. This is a VERY chilling and very effective story about defeat: the cost of acceptance is always more than it appears on the invitation, and sometimes you can lose everything and still not be accepted (as here).
  • Wow, good story! The touches of sugar coating (like the ponies not
    bleeding) and realism (like the girls playing on the Wii and listening
    to Ipods) really jarred in an effective way. Deliciously nasty.
  • Okay, it’s an interesting story, but I’m not moved by it in the way so many people here seem to have been. I came here to read it because I believe this is the story that was nominated for a Nebula, or some such award, but I think this is the wrong story. Sorry, but I don’t think it’s worthy of a nomination. The story’s not deep, it’s facile, I’m not illuminated by it, and I don’t understand what everyone sees in it. It reads like a writers worshop improv with the subject being the toy “My Pretty Pony.”
  • It’s like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with more emphasis on consumerism and class. Very derivative but interesting.
  • A lot of people seem to think the girls represent children, but I think they represent parents. I think the ponies are the parent’s children, and the story is about what parents do to their kids so that the *parents* can fit into their cliques. Then, the children give up the last of their gifts so that they can fit in with their friends. Why else would Topgirl say “Ponies pick their own friends”? Thoughts?

And a random comment from Beyond Reality that I thought was interesting:

It’s like Flannery O’Connor in a cotton-candy fantasyland. Creepy.

Over to you–thoughts?

Comments

Comment from Randy Stafford
Time May 29, 2011 at 1:57 am

The image of what Sunny’s fellow ponies do to her was memorable, but I found the story’s point — the human need for conformity and status — pretty unstartling.

I also thought, on a technical level, the beginning was rather confusing. I couldn’t keep straight Barbara and Sunny — and their species — separate. However, that was more a product of the distracting circumstances I read it under than a failing by Johnson.

Though I ultimately don’t think it’s award worthy or that special, I don’t think it’s just a vignette. It seems a story with a conflict.

But put me in the camp that sees this story as something of a writer’s exercise or a minor entry in a DAW theme anthology.

Comment from Martin
Time May 29, 2011 at 11:59 am

Facile, redundant, heavy-handed, out-dated. Just awful. It is also a story I find hard to say anything about since it comes right out and rubs the ‘subtext’ in your face:

You and your Pony ___[and Sunny’s name is handwritten here, in puffy letters]___ are invited to a cutting-out party with TheOtherGirls! If we like you, and if your Pony does okay, we’ll let you hang out with us.

If the story was to hold any interest for me the invitation should imply this, not actually say it.

It is also, I think, a lie. One of the Tor.com commenters says: “When it comes to cruelty, no fictional monster has a thing on primary-school girl.” This is balls. Kids can be cliquey, mean, bullying, hierarchical and all the other things the story suggests but it is hardly universal. The majority of people I know had very happy childhoods, enjoyed school and had large, mixed peer groups. Johnson went to school in another country (America being notoriously bad for this sort of thing) forty years ago so her experience may be different. I think the popularity of the story, the incredibly fact it actually gets awards, is down to the fact fans enjoying buying into the status of being outsiders and this story plays up to this.

I’m also astonished at the many, many comments on Tor.com describing the story as gory and distressing. One even says: “Animal mutilation and brutality, thinly disguised as social commentary. This story really made me want to vomit.” How utterly pathetic! The comments are far more interesting for what they say about SF readers than the story itself.

Comment from Martin
Time May 29, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I didn’t read all the way down to the bottom of the Tor.com comments so I missed the best one (best because it is the only one that actually finds anything interesting to say about the story):

I think the first sentence is a key: “The invitation card has a Western theme.” Consider the horn as a clitoris and the wings as labia. In that perspective, this story may show African female genital mutilation (FGM) disguised in Western terms.

Comment from Chad Orzel
Time May 29, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I didn’t care for it, for much the same reasons as Abigail Nussbaum, though she said it more kindly than I did.

Comment from Abigail
Time May 29, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I think the popularity of the story, the incredibly fact it actually gets awards, is down to the fact fans enjoying buying into the status of being outsiders and this story plays up to this.

There’s a hint of this in the story, but I don’t think it’s enough to explain its popularity. Barbara isn’t the innocent victim of cliquishness that fandom sometimes seems to see itself in. The combination of passivity and complicity she demonstrates in the story have the effect of making her a very unsympathetic character. On the contrary, I got the sense that the story, which as you say is very pleased with itself for decrying the cruelty of children, is as down on her as it is on the other girls.

Comment from Jim
Time May 29, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Kij Johnson’s Nebula-winning short story “Ponies” is a heavy-handed diatribe against the price of popularity and the nature of cliques in today’s western culture. Such cries of rage can have real resonance, from Stephen King’s Carrie to the film Heathers. The rage in these pieces is artfully placed within the context of a wider narrative. When the anger boils over, we, as readers and viewers, have an emotional connection to the victims and justified indignation at the behavior of the popular crowd. The rage in “Ponies,” however, is delivered directly by the author, with subtlety, art, and narrative little more than obstructions in her way.

The blunt and artless method Johnson uses is clear from the beginning of the story, where the evil popular clique is called TheOtherGirls, and the party is at TopGirl’s house. The sympathetic protagonist, however, has the real name of Barbara. The history of literature certainly provides authors with the ability to provide leading names, but TopGirl and TheOtherGirls are a far cry from Henry Fielding’s “Squire Allworthy.” As Fielding and Dickens knew, a little bit goes a long way. For Johnson, a little bit is presumably not clear enough, so she goes over-the-top. While we could perhaps forgive Johnson for hitting us over the head in an attempt at an Animal Farm-style allegory, it is harder to fathom why she abandoned the conceit for Barbara. Why not name her OutsiderGirl or UnpopularGirl? Imagine if Old Major in Animal Farm was named Lenin, while the other animals remained named Squeeler and Snowball. Consistency within an allegory is critical.

But this assumes that “Ponies” is an allegory, and, if that was the intent, it is a failed one. One of the goals of an allegory is to use symbolism and figurative speech to convey a message or to shine light on a story in a different way. It is, more than anything, an extended metaphor. If “Ponies” is intended to be an allegory, Johnson handles it poorly.

The most obvious criticism is that there is no symbolism in “Ponies” beyond perhaps the ponies themselves. The popular girls in “Ponies” aren’t all named “Heather,” they are named TopGirl and FirstGirl. This is about as close to allegory as C.S. Lewis naming Aslan “Jesus.” Again, the problem isn’t the lack of subtlety—sometimes a blunt instrument in literature can be profound—but the author’s inability to grasp the tools she is using to create her story.

The other reason his doesn’t work as an allegory is that the metaphors or symbols make no sense. Sure, we know that TopGirl is, well, the top girl. We know that Barbara is the normal girl. But what does the pony represent? I haven’t found a single review of “Ponies” where there is any allegorical representation of the ponies that makes any sense at all.

A common reading is found at the Life, The Universe, and Scifi website:

This is about children who surrender to the crowd who do something they wouldn’t want to do because that is what other people want.

But that isn’t what happens in “Ponies.” Barbara clearly is willing to sacrifice everything to join TopGirl and her friends. But it is the pony that rebels and runs off. Since the pony has its own mind and can rebel when Barbara is desperately wanting to fit in, what does the pony represent?

It certainly can’t represent any part of Barbara, because parts of someone don’t have minds of their own. She wanted to fit in, and the pony didn’t. That’s the metaphor we are working from.

You could say it represents a person’s own conscience, rebelling against her darker acceptance, but the other ponies kill Barbara’s pony. TheOtherGirls won’t accept her without her pony. If the metaphor is conscience, why do TheOtherGirls require it. You’d think they’d want someone pliable and without a conscience.

There are some interesting interpretations, but none of them work. One commenter on Tor.com believes that the story represents African genital mutilation, but, male jokes aside, I can’t think of genitals that have minds of their own and rebel against their fate even though the girl wants to fit in.

Clearly, the self-aware pony ruins the allegory. There is only one reading where I could remotely make the self-aware pony make sense as a metaphor—it represents the child of Barbara. In this reading, TheOtherGirls are adults and Barbara wants to fit in. But to do so, she has to make her child fit in, too. The child rebels, and that ruins Barbara’s chances. The trouble is that the other ponies kill Barbara’s pony when it runs and Barbara is left without a pony. That act ruins this interpretation of the story, as I don’t believe murdering someone’s child is a literal reality for most people trying to fit in.

In the end, “Ponies” makes no sense. Even as a metaphor, its symbolic representation of reality fails. The literary tools used, from naming conventions to metaphor, are handled poorly. Why, then, did it receive the Nebula, and why is it presumably so popular? The answer, I think, is that the story’s conclusion resonates with many people—Barbara did everything TheOtherGirls asked of her—even losing her beloved pony—but through no fault of her own she still wasn’t let into the clique. That’s a tragic ending of real power, but to get there, Johnson cheats and she manipulates the reader with a deus ex machina—the pony runs away and TheOtherGirls’ ponies kill it.

There is no allegory here. There are no real characters. There is Barbara, the reader-analog, and there is Johnson abusing Barbara and her pony in a way that makes the readers identify with her. I can understand Johnson’s frustration. To write this story in a way that would truly parallel real life requires nuance and complexity. In that story, we can’t blindly identify with Barbara because she readily sacrifices her pony to fit in. She’s rather monstrous. That also would shed light on the tragedy of TheOtherGirls—their ponies don’t have wings, horns, or voices either. Of course in “Ponies,” when Barbara’s pony runs away, this perception is turned on its head: TheOtherGirls’ ponies murder Barbara’s pony. Its their fault, not Barbara’s, even though she was complicit the entire time. It’s a contrived misdirection on the author’s part that should never have been required.

In the end, Johnson has written a short story that mishandles narrative, allegory, and metaphor and paints over the internal inconsistencies by using scenes of horrific mutilation and situations with no parallel basis in reality. She does so to make the reader identify with a complex yet sad reality today, but unfortunately she reduces it to a simple, obvious, and bluntly-delivered fable without any depth at all.

Comment from Ross
Time May 29, 2011 at 8:14 pm

I didn’t much like “Ponies,” either, but it was much more enjoyable to read than Jim’s tiresome over-analysis.

Comment from Susan Loyal
Time May 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm

“Ponies” is an animal fable. (Yes, like Aesop’s.) It has all the hallmarks of that narrative form: characters who are types (even if not “Fox” or “Crow), a simple plot in which characters make choices and the consequences of those choices are revealed, a narrative voice that is flat, detached, and almost cheerful, and a strongly implied moral. (In some animal fables the moral is stated overtly, but not in all, and not here. We can, therefore, squabble about how best to state the moral.)

I’ve never liked animal fables much, until now. I’d say that the best of them always fit Lois Tilton’s description above: “The ending stings, but it’s still Highly Unsubtle.” But “Ponies” expands the brutality of the consequences of Barbara’s and Sunny’s choices until it’s beyond “Highly Unsubtle” and well into “Obvious,” and so, for a change, I looked at it.

And, lo, brutality is built into fable as a narrative form. Characters who are greedy or needy or simply not-clever make wrong choices and they’re drowned or swallowed whole or otherwise fall into the gears of the narrative, where they’re ground up and spat out, pureed into a moral. (And they don’t bleed.) And the narrative voice remains calm and cheerful. That seems so inappropriate. And then I thought, oh, that’s right, Aesop was a slave in Greece, supposedly telling stories to the children of his master’s household. (I looked it up. There’s very little consensus about the details of Aesop’s life except on that point: slave, Greece.) So there he is, telling a privileged audience of people who feel safe that very bad things can happen to them based on relatively simple mistakes. And he’s smiling. And that smile gets encoded in the narrative form. No wonder I didn’t like Aesop’s Fables as a little child of privilege getting stories read to her. I was supposed to go to sleep with the message in my head that “One false move, honey, and it’s all over for you.” Thank you, Kij Johnson. I’d never have known what I was objecting to (because it was too uncomfortable to think about) unless you’d driven me to it. So “Ponies” counts, for me, as very good literary criticism.

Whether it’s a “good” story depends a bit on how you phrase the moral. “Don’t let them take your wings; they never stop there.” Maybe we already knew that, although it strikes me that there’s no harm being reminded. (And this moral would align us with the outsiders.) But what if the little girls are a Type more general than, you know, just their age and gender. What if they are perceived by their most general characteristic: they possess a privileged status. And the moral, then, can be phrased as: “People of privilege may exercise their power simply because they can. Nothing you sacrifice will be enough for you to join them.” There is, I fear, nothing retro about that statement.

Someone will surely complain that, if the characters are types, Barbara should be known as “She Who Wishes to Belong” or “Outsider Girl” or something like that. She already is. “Barbara” means “foreigner”–same root as “barbarian.” Sunny? Well, she’s pretty optimistic.

Comment from Randy Stafford
Time May 30, 2011 at 1:52 am

I don’t agree that this is an animal fable.

First, animal fables usually have, well, animals as characters. Aesop’s “Androcles and the Lion” is the only one I can think of with a human.

Second, who gets punished for bad choices? Barbara? She walks away with her life. Sunny dies, but Sunny is entering into an implied social contract. She knows you have to lose two out of three qualities to get picked by a girl. She’s fine with that. It’s only when a new, unspoken rule is presented her — that she must lose her voice — that she rebels and dies. It seems Sunny is a victim. Barbara, well, she gets to live with some guilt maybe. For that matter, she lives up to an implied contract too. Two mutilations and a pony is yours.

Jim’s point about a feeble allegory is good. The correspondence of character=type/quality/principle is weakened by blatant naming though I suppose Johnson just wanted to bring a contemporary quality through characters that sound like internet monnikers. That would fit in with the Coke Zero and Red Bull mentions.

And I agree with Martin about a lot of fans loving their alleged outsider status. It explains, amongst other things, “Slan”‘s enduring appeal.

Comment from Niall
Time May 30, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Martin:

“The comments are far more interesting for what they say about SF readers than the story itself.”

I do think the story’s success is almost more interesting than the story itself. I have no particular problems with it on its own; the central image is quite striking (the “cotton-candy blood” is the touch that makes it, I think), and I suspect it will stay with me; and I like the fact that it’s hard to get a straightforward metaphorical or allegorical reading out of it; and as Susan said the sentiment isn’t going to go out of fashion any time soon. But I can’t quite get my head around it winning a Nebula. (Appearing on the Hugo ballot seems more explicable, given we know votes were widely spread this year, so its appearance there doesn’t necessarily imply widespread approval, although of course it might, and we’ll know when the nomination stats are released after the awards.)

Susan:

Someone will surely complain that, if the characters are types, Barbara should be known as “She Who Wishes to Belong” or “Outsider Girl” or something like that. She already is. “Barbara” means “foreigner”–same root as “barbarian.” Sunny? Well, she’s pretty optimistic.

I thought the discordance in naming was quite effective, actually; it’s interesting to know that it has this other level, but having Barbara as the only conventionally-named character seemed to set up a nice tension with what is as Abigail notes, otherwise a quite unsympathetic characterisation.

Comment from Karen Burnham
Time May 31, 2011 at 4:05 am

Randy: I also thought, on a technical level, the beginning was rather confusing. I couldn’t keep straight Barbara and Sunny — and their species — separate.

The way I read the story, that’s deliberate. Actually, I ended up identifying with Sunny more than Barbara–Sunny actually says ‘No,’ but then suffers the consequences. And there are consequences to non-conformity; it doesn’t always make you a hero and get you respect. Barbara’s plight, although more realistic, is less sympathetic.

Everyone’s right that this is not a subtle story, and it only hits a single emotional note. However, that emotional note is pretty darn resonant with a lot of people, so I think it has to be called effective at what it sets out to do. I know I couldn’t help flashing back to the “I’ll be your friend if you do [X]; OK I’m your friend today; Now we’re not friends, I’ll be your best friend if you do [Y]” wash-rinse-repeat cycle that I went through with some girls in 4th grade. I’m sure many folks have had similar experiences, such that even if they’re not ‘outsiders’ today give them that experience of ‘outsiderness.’

Although I do have to agree with Martin that probably one aspect of its success stems directly from its lack of subtlety: it’s very satisfying for a reader to be able to say “Hah! I see just what you did there!” and that’s very easy to do in this case.

I wonder though: how is it possible that neither Sunny nor Barbara had any idea that the none of the other Ponies could talk? Had they both been entirely isolated before this? That seems a bit unlikely.

Comment from Martin
Time May 31, 2011 at 8:53 am

Karen: Actually, I ended up identifying with Sunny more than Barbara

Exactly. This is why I’d disagree with Abigail that Barbara’s unsympathetic nature means the story does not provide easy identification for the outsider; it is Sunny who rebels and is martyred and provides this point of identification.

Niall: the central image is quite striking (the “cotton-candy blood” is the touch that makes it, I think)

I think you are right to identify this as the core of the story and it is one moment when you can actually believe Johnson is a writer. The horrible, casual dissonance in the final sentence of that paragraph is also goos: “She thinks, It’s sort of pretty, and throws up.” I don’t think the horn cutting paragraph does enough to build on the wing cutting scene though, I’m surprised you think it is striking enough to stay with you.

As for the difficulty of a specific reading, I don’t see much ambiguity or interest in this. The overarching theme is blindly obvious and I think any confusion for the reader on specifics stems from a lack of care from the writer (see Karen’s last point).

Comment from Niall
Time May 31, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I thought it was pretty clear that Barbara and Sunny had, in fact, been completely isolated from post-cutting-out kids before this (“I can’t wait to have friends!”). And the voice-removal scar is presented as something that’s easy to miss unless you’re looking for it. So I didn’t have a problem with that part of the story, at least.

Comment from Matt Denault
Time May 31, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Barbara isn’t the innocent victim of cliquishness that fandom sometimes seems to see itself in.

In terms of fandom patting itself on the back, I think the inference would be that fans are outsiders because they rightly chose not to give up what Barbara did in order to fit in, not that Barbara is a metaphor for fans. What all the girls are losing is after all fantasy. They start out having these magic companions with wings and horns and speech, and are left with only mundane ponies–if with anything at all–thus entering the world of mechanized mass entertainment (Wii, iPods) and leaving behind the world of personal imagination. The SmartGirls are the ones who don’t accept the invitation. Which I suspect is how many in fandom see themselves.

“People of privilege may exercise their power simply because they can. Nothing you sacrifice will be enough for you to join them.” There is, I fear, nothing retro about that statement.

No, but I find that a difficult moral to locate in this story. There’s nothing to suggest that Barbara would not have been accepted into the group if Sunny had not rebelled, is there?

Beyond that, I have no great liking for the story, generally for the reasons Abigail mentioned; contra Niall, I read the story, oh, three days ago, and already details like Barbara’s name and the cotton-candy blood had slipped from my mind because of the sheer inconsequential obviousness of the whole piece. This would have been a daring story in the 1950s, perhaps. Today, as Abigail says, it’s an established baseline that everyone is trying to change. Beyond that, what ran through my mind as I read the story was the Phoebe Prince case, which took place here in Massachusetts last year–a younger girl made somewhat manic-depressive because of difficult home transitions, trying somewhat self-destructively to secure a place for herself in her new school’s social hierarchy with older schoolmates, their bullying of her, her eventual suicide. Reading a story like “Ponies” after all that feels like an affront to nuance..almost an affront to people, because the real story is not what Johnson has told here, but what happens next. What does Barbara do with the knowledge that she’s gained?

I will say, on that note, that while I have no great liking for the story, I also have no great liking for criticism of the form “all stories of type X must do Y, this story is of type X but does not do Y, therefore it is a bad story.” There’s nearly a greater focus here on what type of story this is than on what it specifically actually does, how it specifically works. That Barbara had a name while TheOtherGirls did not, for example, struck me as perfect for the story, given that it is precisely a tale of the individual’s confrontation with the generic, the group: it works both in terms of what the story wants to say, and in how Barbara perceived the world.

Comment from Karen Burnham
Time May 31, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Niall – I agree that Sunny has probably been isolated the whole time. However, looking at this paragraph:

Barbara sees TheOtherGirls’ Ponies peeking in the classroom windows just before recess or clustered at the bus stop after school. [...] When not at school and cello lessons and ballet class and soccer practice and play group and the orthodontist’s, TheOtherGirls spend their days with their Ponies.

It seemed to me that Barbara is much less isolated and has had more exposure to both girls and Ponies (at least at school and the bus stop). I guess omertà in this community is supposed to be both so strong and so specific that Barbara knows for 100% certain that she’ll need to have Sunny sacrifice 2 out of 3 attributes, but has No Idea that all TheOtherGirls’ Ponies had to sacrifice all three.

Comment from Susan Loyal
Time June 1, 2011 at 1:04 am

Matt: “There’s nothing to suggest that Barbara would not have been accepted into the group if Sunny had not rebelled, is there?”

I don’t see any specific textual evidence to support either your assertion that Barbara would, of course, have been accepted into the group if Sunny had not rebelled, or my conviction that acceptance into the group never was on the agenda. One of the things I like about texts that employ Types rather than mimetic characters is how strongly they draw out readers’ assumptions, which are then visible. You seem to trust the stated terms of the social contract in the story. I absolutely do not. This almost certainly makes you a nicer person than I am. :)

Niall: “I thought the discordance in naming was quite effective.” So did I, actually. (And that will teach me to answer objections that haven’t been made.)

I don’t like “Ponies” either. It isn’t likeable. But I don’t think that’s a shortcoming or a failure. I see no evidence that it was aiming to be likeable. I admire it quite a lot for the focus and efficiency with which it delivers its single punch. I also admire it for employing a style of narrative that is not currently in vogue.

Comment from SF Strangelove
Time June 1, 2011 at 3:04 am

Martin: the female genital mutilation reading of the story occurred to me when I read “Ponies”, just as the early childhood (pre-verbal) sexual abuse reading of Johnson’s “Spar” occurred to me. Both of these are valid readings, I think, while neither would be my preferred reading.

I read “Ponies” as a story about racial subjugation. The human race (“foreign barbarian” Susan helpfully points out is the derivation of the name “Barbara”) are in a position of power over the unicorn race. In childhood you may embrace a member of this native unicorn race as your best friend. In order to fit in with your own race you must ask that your best friend sacrifice everything that makes them unique and powerful, even their language. To those who see Barbara as unsympathetic: Exactly. She is acting out the role of the oppressor.

The story is heavy-handed, as everyone appears to agree. For me, reading it as a story about race made it more relevant and bite more deeply than many of the comments here seem to allow.

Comment from Matt Denault
Time June 1, 2011 at 4:01 am

@Susan: I don’t see any specific textual evidence to support either your assertion that Barbara would, of course, have been accepted into the group if Sunny had not rebelled

Hmm, in the first section of the story I when read (emphasis added) “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” it seems implicit to me that this is a rite of passage that all girls go through, rather than an exercise of privileged clique-formation. After all, all TheOtherGirls’s ponies have scars on their throats: they’re not in fact asking Barbara to go through anything they didn’t go through themselves. Likewise TheOtherGirls’s shocked reaction to the events at the end of the story suggests that they weren’t looking for an excuse to reject Barbara, didn’t pre-judge her as unworthy; it’s simply that she can’t fit in with them now, because she doesn’t have a pony.

@SF Strangelove: In childhood you may embrace a member of this native unicorn race as your best friend. In order to fit in with your own race you must ask that your best friend sacrifice everything that makes them unique and powerful, even their language.

Except that it’s the ponies who demand the sacrifice of language. Starblossom pushes the knife to Barbara to make the final cut; the ponies kill Sunny whe she refuses. Racial self-loathing perhaps–complicity out of an unwillingness to tolerate others resisting something they themselves acquiesced to? But it’s seldom that widespread; if this is a story about race, then is it also a story that denies the colonized race any measure of resistance?

Comment from SF Strangelove
Time June 1, 2011 at 4:31 am

Matt: Aside from Sunny, all the unicorns we meet are subjugated natives. They are complicit, as you say. They can never go back. They can’t even speak to their own kind. They have given up everything for the benefits of being subjects of the human race. Refusal invalidates their subjugated existence; refusal must be stamped out. Perhaps there are “wild” unicorns who would rebel? The story doesn’t address it.

Comment from DTS
Time June 1, 2011 at 9:06 am

After reading Abigail Nussbaum’s comments, I shudder to think of how she might’ve greeted fiction by say, Borges or Raymond Carver, when it was first published. And her comments that things already written about don’t need to be restated belies a huge lack of understanding when it comes to the human condition, and the gestalt memory. Likewise, comments by Martin stating that “most kids have a happy childhood” also reveals a lack of understanding when it comes to the human condition and the average human being’s life. Whether it involves enduring teasing or harrassment at school, witnessing or experiencing domestic strife at home, horrible encounters on a date (or at a party) or even a place of work (these days), MOST adolescents and teenagers have experienced some sort of trauma (mild or, usually, worse). Having endured my own problems (teasing, fights, worse) at regular schools and at least one really tough public school, and having lived through issues with a dysfunctional family at the same time, I simply assumed that everyone else I knew while growing up was relatively happy. Imagine my surprise in learning (decades later) that two of the girls in our neighborhood gang experienced rape at the hands of their stepfather, two others were only half sisters (and one of them was labeled slut after getting pregnant in highschool), and one of the boys I knew put up with a physically abusive father. Those were the things going on behind closed doors. I witnessed plenty of kids being teased, picked on, ostracized, etc., while making my way through childhood and public schools. “Ponies” is a short, sharp, jab — a reminder that the human condition hasn’t changed all that much, and that no amount of politically correct cartoons — as Ms. Nussbaum pointed out — will whitewash the cruel truth.

Comment from Abigail
Time June 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm

So, your argument is that because there is cruelty in the world, any story that describes any kind of cruelty, no matter how simplistic or overwrought its terms, is of merit? Because “Ponies” isn’t about rape, physical abuse, ostracism over teenage pregnancy, or any of the other horrible things that can and do happen to children. It’s about being ignored by the popular girls. One of the reasons that Martin and I are so down on SF fandom’s determination to fetishize its own outsider status is that it tends to treat bullying and teasing as the very worst things that can happen to a child when, as you yourself point out, there are much, much worse things. “Ponies,” and even more so the fannish reaction to it, are a perfect expression of that tendency.

Comment from Lois Tilton
Time June 1, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I note that while TheOtherGirls don’t have names of their own, their ponies do.

Comment from DTS
Time June 2, 2011 at 3:50 am

Abigail: speaking of simplistic. No, my “argument” — comment, actually, since a paragraph isn’t room for much more — regarding what _you_ wrote — “Haven’t we reached the stage where pointing out that female hierarchies encourage a destructive conformity is simply stating the obvious?” — an argument/comment written in the Queen’s English, was that because someone wrote about such a topic doesn’t mean writing about it again isn’t a worthwhile pursuit. In fact, making an argument against that, as you did, reveals a stunningly simplistic view of the world. To put it more succinctly: “Everything’s already been said, but since nobody was listening, we have to start again.” — Andre Gide. In fact, other parts of _your_ original argument — “Haven’t we reached the stage where pointing out that female hierarchies encourage a destructive conformity is simply stating the obvious?” — are likewise simplistic. You obviously (pun intended) didn’t realize this, Ms. Nussbaum, the raison de ‘etre for any artists (whether they work with words, paint, music or on sculptures) is, in fact, to point out the obvious — mainly to the mass of men (and women) who continue to lead lives of noisy desperation (quiet fell by the wayside decades ago) while screaming inanities and seriously uninformed opinions at the top of their lungs. Or keyboards. (As for you preference, and/or interpetation of the story “Ponies”, that is, by all means, your right: different strokes, for different folks. It’s that uninformed part that gets my goat). Here’s hoping someone out there is listening (and paying attention) this time.

Comment from DTS
Time June 2, 2011 at 3:52 am

Apologies for the typos above, but I was in hurry. Work to do and all that (heigh-ho).

Comment from DTS
Time June 2, 2011 at 3:57 am

P.S. I understand the unsubtle argument (by Tilton and Nussbaum, etc.), but that wasn’t what I was originaly commenting on…when commenting about comments. LOL While the lack of subtlety in Johnson’s story (or even the works of Charles Dickens, not comparing the two, just a familiar complaint) might not bother me — or lots of others — and while it might rankle you two women (and a handful of others), that doesn’t explain the silliness of Nussbaums other literary “arguments” in her original column, nor the obviously tunnel-visioned view of the world put forth by Martin.
Now I REALLY DO have to leave (I know, sadness), but I’ll check in again later today to see if any salient points have cropped up. Cheers.

Comment from Radu Romaniuc
Time June 2, 2011 at 6:51 am

My main problem with this story was that it didn’t go beyond things that were already said too many times and by better artists.
I actually think we, as an audience/readership, understand already the point about conformity and hierarchies this story tries to make. There were really competent artists who took care of that since a long time ago. So now artists must create with the knowledge of what their audience already knows, and build from there.
No artist’s raison d’etre is to say in an unsubtle and simplistic way something that is already known by their audience.
Was there more in Ponies than that? I didn’t find it. What was it?

Comment from dts
Time June 2, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Radu: no argument with your perception (and/or dislike) of the story and any parts of it. Each to his or her own, right? But, geez, Radu: can’t believe — after all of that long-winded explanation — that you would try to twist my exceptionally clear words (just above). The artist’s job is to point out the obvious. Period. Whether they do it in a way you (or others of your ilk) believe is simple or unsubtle isn’t the point. As for “something that is already known” by the masses and your belief such knowledge — if actually gained — will be retained (beyond a month, a year, a decade, if lucky), well…as those who came before, you display a lack of understanding about the human condition that is biblical. Either you’re very young or you haven’t been paying attention over the years.

Comment from Karen Burnham
Time June 2, 2011 at 1:33 pm

dts – if you could focus more on the story and the arguments (“The artist’s job is to point out the obvious.”) and less on ad hominems (“you display a lack of understanding about the human condition that is biblical.”) I’d really appreciate it.

Comment from Radu Romaniuc
Time June 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm

dts, I wasn’t twisting your words. I’m sorry if you think I tried to ruin their exceptional clarity. I only used an expression picked up from you – I am lazy, you see, because I am Romanian and writing here in a comprehensible way is a struggle for me, so I pick up whatever I can.

Comment from dts
Time June 2, 2011 at 11:23 pm

Radu: in that case, apologies for twisting what I percieved as your…twists LOL thereby creating a pretzel of a different color.

Karen: if a hard-edged (but perfectly true) comment or statement is made regarding someone else’s “argument” regarding what artists do (point out the obvious, help others see the forest behind the trees) when plying their trade…is said statement/comment actually ad hominem? Or simply a hard (but unpleasant) truth? (Which, by the way, is yet another thing artists do for the hoy polloy, the mass of men and women, the maddening crowds…ah, you get my drift). Perhaps a new subject for an “argument” is in place.

Comment from Susan Loyal
Time June 3, 2011 at 12:04 am

@Matt: As it turns out, there is textual evidence for my position. It’s in the phrasing of the invitation. “If we like you, and if your Pony does okay, we’ll let you hang out with us.” If we like you . . .The management reserves the right to deny service to anyone at any time for any reason. Somone “letting” you hang out with them also strongly suggests that they have the upper hand. Addtionally, if rebellion on the part of ponies is so shocking and unheard of, why allude to the possibility in the invitation?

Grant you, the passage you point to exists. Rhetorically it’s a little odd, however. It switches to a very remote third person from one that has stuck fairly close to Barbara’s pov. It’s phrased almost like an origin myth, and then it slides right back into Barbara’s perspective. So it’s not fully clear whether these assertions are “known by all” or “believed by Barbara to be known by all.” And it turns out to be flat wrong, because it doesn’t account for the loss of the third faculty.

I don’t think you’re correct that TheOtherGirls are shocked when the Ponies take down Sunny. The story says: “TheOtherGirls stand, frozen. Their blind faces are turned toward the Ponies.” They are without response, without action and without seeing. The reason for the lack of response has to be inferred.

@SF Strangelove. I certainly agree that the story is about oppression and subjugation, perhaps not only racial oppression, but certainly including it.

Comment from Matt Denault
Time June 3, 2011 at 5:12 pm

As it turns out, there is textual evidence for my position. It’s in the phrasing of the invitation.

Susan, fair enough: I noticed that about the invitation, too, but it seemed to contradict the bits I quoted. It comes down again to which parts we want to focus on, how willing we are to invent reasons for the contradictions. Considering that I’ve at times preferred my readings of stories to an author’s own intended reading, I have no desire to try to convince you away from a defensible reading of the story that gives you satisfaction. Indeed while I can’t quite believe your reading myself, I can see its appeal and its defensibility, and that has broadened my appreciation for the story somewhat; so thank you for that.

Comment from Susan Loyal
Time June 3, 2011 at 9:39 pm

@Matt. And if a text that has been critcized for its simplicity can support more than one defensible reading, perhaps it isn’t as simple as it seems.

Comment from Lois Tilton
Time June 3, 2011 at 10:41 pm

This has been an interesting discussion, but I wouldn’t say that the more interesting interpretations are well supported by the text.

Comment from SF Strangelove
Time June 4, 2011 at 6:46 am

@Lois Tilton: It’s hubris I’m sure that leads me to think that mine is among “the more interesting interpretations” not supported by the text. For brevity, let’s call it the racial subjugation interpretation.
1. Humans and ponies are different races (or species).
2. Humans are in a position of power or authority over ponies.
3. Humans oppress ponies by stripping them of anything powerful or potentially threatening to humans: wings, horn, and language.
4. The story revolves on Barbara, a human, acting out the role given her by other humans, to strip Sunny, the pony she has befriended, of her powerful attributes. When Sunny revolts, previously stripped ponies, human collaborators, kill Sunny.
Just wondering which of those points isn’t supported by the text.

Comment from Radu Romaniuc
Time June 4, 2011 at 7:52 am

@SF Strangelove

I like your interpretation very much, and it does make the story suddenly interesting to me. But when I reread the story with your points in mind, the story doesn’t seem enough. Two different races, one oppresses other, and there’s collaborators, and… ? This amounts to what? I understand it as a premise, but it doesn’t go further, right?
There is also the question of “why.” With animal fables, the “why” is always obvious – it sort of needs to be. In this story’s setup, I don’t get why are the ponies oppressed (you mentioned that they have attributes potentially threatening to humans but I don’t find textual evidence of humans being threatened or menaced or afraid of the ponies), or why do the ponies relent (especially considering they can talk, fly, and, uh, horn).
Anyway, I wanted to say I liked the interpretation but it didn’t make the story better for me :)

Comment from Matt Denault
Time June 4, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Susan, I don’t think a story supporting multiple interpretations makes the story complex if all the interpretations are themselves simple stories. The various interpretations of the story seem to be people focusing on different elements of group dynamics–race, class, gender, age, individual thought versus groupthink, etc.–but the essential simplicity of the story’s take on each of those dynamics remains.

There’s also a difference between “supporting” and “facilitating.”

Comment from SF Strangelove
Time June 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm

@Radu: Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. No, as you say, the story doesn’t really go anywhere. I agree there is no direct evidence in the text of violence by ponies on humans. We see violence by the subjugated ponies on a pony that will not submit. How much more dangerous are ponies with their horns intact? Might they turn on their oppressors? It’s pure speculation on my part.

Why do humans oppress the ponies? Why do the ponies submit? I would like to know, too. There isn’t a lot of evidence to work with. The story is very slight. As Abigail has pointed out, it’s more of a vignette than a short story.

My reader’s manifesto: My responsibility as a reader is to find the most powerful reading of a text that is supported by the text.

Comment from Lois Tilton
Time June 4, 2011 at 8:07 pm

SFStrangelove:

1 – The ponies actually appear to be animated toys, not any kind of natural species. There is no suggestion that they have any kind of existence outside their relationship with the girls.

2 – It could equally be said that the ponies are in a position of power over the girls.

3 – The oppression more clearly goes from girls to girl, from ponies to pony. Nothing about the ponies is shown as threatening the girls.

4 – Nothing in the text suggests that the ponies aren’t acting as free agents when they kill Sunny.

This stuff seems to be what you have brought to the text, not what is found there.

I think the genital cutting interpretation is stronger. For one thing, it’s supported in the text by the term “cutting.” For another, it takes from the girls/ponies an important source of pleasure; it’s a crippling thing. Also, it’s part of an initiation ceremony. And in this respect, it’s also significant that in many cultures that practice genital cutting, it’s a thing done by women to girls – as if the older women would be jealous of the girls if they were not cut.

In this respect, I have to wonder what kind of toy the boys have, and whether it takes place in any initiation ceremony.

Comment from SF Strangelove
Time June 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm

@Lois Tilton

1. If the ponies are sentient beings then calling them robots, aliens, or “animated toys” makes little difference.

2. The humans have homes, video games, drinks, and cookies, and adults have jobs like pediatrician and cardiologist. The ponies have a barn, a pasture, and a bale of hay. Not sure I see the evidence for the ponies being in a position of power over the humans.

3. Sure there is social pressure from the other girls for Barbara to conform. I don’t see how that rises to the level of oppression. Especially compared to using a knife to cut the ponies and strip them of all their powerful attributes.

4. Are they free agents if they have already chosen sides? The collaborator ponies have already made their choice to submit and Sunny’s decision to rebel is an affront to them.

Sure, I understand the genital cutting interpretation. I think it shines less light on the story than the racial subjugation interpretation.

Comment from Jeff VanderMeer
Time June 6, 2011 at 1:20 am

I’m thinking perhaps there ought to be a short-short category in the Nebulas, although that’s hardly the most pressing problem with the award or its processes. No offense, but there’s not much room for this story to *do* anything, and I think it was a huge mistake to privilege it over the many worthy stories at a full-on short story length. – JeffV

Comment from Rachel Swirsky
Time June 7, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I was actually surprised in Kij’s acceptance speech when she said that the story was about bullying.

I had read it as a very dark allegory for the process of acculturation into compulsory femininity. With that subtext, the story did make me sick while I was reading it. It felt very much like “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” in terms of the way that it repackaged gender essentialism with a visceral punch.

It’s much less interesting to me if it’s about bullying… that makes it a great deal more straightforward than my initial reading.

Pingback from What’s The Opposite Of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes? « Everything Is Nice
Time June 17, 2011 at 11:46 am

[...] club had already been lowered by ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard and ‘Ponies’ by Kij Johnson, I was confident that ‘Leviathan’ would be much worse. And it [...]

Comment from Frank
Time September 23, 2011 at 9:10 am

You guys are killing me. This is the line that really makes it hit home for me: “Sunny’s tiny wings are a blur as she hops into the air, loops, and then hovers, legs curled under her.” This is the little girl’s soul (or whatever you want to label it) that’s childish and carefree and magical and precious. To fit in and have friends, she willingly parts with parts of it, and then when she wants to keep the best of it, it’s trampled by the others. You don’t need a doctorate or Venn diagrams to see this, and if your heart doesn’t break from this, then you need to really try to stop reading with your head and start reading with a better part of you.

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