There are a number of things to recommend the new collection of Greg Bear's short fiction, Just Over the Horizon—even beyond the fact that Bear is a writer that can be both meticulous and fanciful in the best, opposing ways within a single story, and make it work. It is a collection of some of Bear's best work, all provided with short but insightful introductions. It is the first in a three-volume collection, which allows it to be a reasonably priced overview of a writer who is one of the best working. And on top of that, it includes a script for "Genius", an unproduced episode of Outer Limits that Bear wrote in 2000 which, as far as I can tell, is brand new to this book.
The shame, of course, is that all of these stories have been collected before in one place ("Genius" excluded), and even their introductions seem identical to Tor's The Collected Stories of Greg Bear from 2002. For a series billing itself as the The Complete Short Fiction of Greg Bear, Open Road Media has spared every expense: the collection has almost no commentary other than what Tor got out of Bear a decade ago, which means no introduction or foreword or conclusion or even an acknowledgements page. There isn't even an editor named, which I suppose means that Bear himself collected them? He has certainly represented the collections positively on his website, which at least indicates that it likely isn't unlicensed. Glowing reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly double down on that.
Then again, I have a distinct memory of being assigned the novel version of one of Bear's best known stories in a class on International Cyberpunk years ago, and thinking the same thing. The E-Reads (which always sounded to me like a fly by night operation, though it clearly was not) edition of Blood Music had a beautiful cover and so many typos I was convinced it had been OCR'd for digital publishing and then spit back onto the page with nary a copy editor in sight. It was affordable and (probably) official, though—the art is still the first that comes up when you google the book, albeit in the form of marketplace ads—so I bear E-Reads no ill will. (All of this is especially pertinent to this review, as Open Road Media bought the rights to E-Reads' library a couple of years back.)
That all said, any excuse to read or reread Bear's short fiction—especially the 70s and 80s stuff represented here—is a good one. Bear's novels primarily (though with some notable exceptions) operate under the Hard SF subgenre, his themes pulled from mathematics and biology and physics. He is, in addition to being very good at conveying these ideas in a compelling way, an occasional writer of horror and fantasy that has the authorial signature (and style) that comes with an intensity of rigor, making his excursions into other genres that much more interesting.
In his short fiction, Bear is even more willing to mix his genre allegiances. While still prioritizing the Hard SF element, he tells mathematical puzzles about a world-killing plague or shadow creatures from another dimension, and horror stories about children who are semi self-conscious puppet-bait for some tide pool shellfish monstrosity that feel strangely serious about biology. To a reader who enjoys most of Bear's work but particularly loves his rare explorations of horror—especially his novels Dead Lines and Psychlone—this willingness to be a little looser with his definitions is always a pleasure.
The stories in Just Over the Horizon satisfy that in spades, and make it a collection of stories worth reading (caveats aside) for both someone invested in Bear as a writer, and someone new to his fiction. The stories collected include some of his most famous and celebrated ("Blood Music" and "Tangents") alongside minor gems like "Warm Sea," the bucolic story of a kiss between a dying man and a kraken, and "Webster," about a man summoned to life from a dictionary, which as a story is of mostly historical interest due to its uncharacteristically purple prose.
The collection also, by virtue of collecting much of Bear's work from the 80s (along with a handful of stories from the 70s and "Genius," from 2000) brings out certain themes in his work. Most surprisingly, perhaps, is how interested in religion Bear was at the time. Only three of the fifteen stories (fourteen excluding "Genius," which is technically a screenplay) (from the back cover of the print version: "Just Over the Horizon offers thirteen mind-bending explorations of the near future … ") are explicitly on the topic—"Dead Run," about a trucker who takes the damned to hell, "The White Horse Child," about a child's learning to tell stories and his family's religious opposition, and "The Visitation," an allegorical visit by the Holy Trinity in the form of a lamb, a dove, and a lion—but they are so direct and so imagery-heavy that they become a kind of centerpiece of the collection.
It might be better to say that these three stories are more concerned with fundamentalism or evangelicalism than religion as such. There's something almost quaint about Bear's near (Stephen) Kingian levels of distrust—even outright disdain—for the televangelist style of Christianity. He notes in the introduction to "Dead Run" that he's more or less directly modeling the villain after Jerry Falwell, and the introduction to "The Visitation" similarly positions it as written in opposition to viewpoints like those of Falwell and others. The most concerted and effective of these, however, is Bear's self-professed Bradbury pastiche "The White Horse Child," which develops a complicated, contradictory relationship to learning to tell stories as a child only to have that burgeoning skill summarily rejected and (at least temporarily) annihilated in a fit of religious zealotry. It feels somewhat strange to read these polemics in the current political environment; not because the politicization that they represent has been overturned or become irrelevant, but because that alliance of reactionary politics and Christian social structures has mutated into so many different forms—from reactionary, Islamophobic atheism to outright fascism—that feel more immediately pressing.
Other themes and motifs arise from putting these stories together that are not necessarily clear, even for those who might have read the bulk of Bear's work. For instance: Bear's protagonists are nearly universally either STEM freelancers on the verge of a breakthrough or union boys. In some ways it is a hilarious failure to comprehend the future; in all of Bear's timelines, the precarious workers are scientists and engineers, and those with some stability drive trucks. In another light, though, it is a kind of (liberal) utopianism: no matter how far into the future he projects the 80s, that garbage decade of neoliberal destruction, public schools remain funded. A beautiful dream.
Greg Bear's claim to fame is his ability to wrap a story around a couple of crystal clear ideas, and to use anything from fairy tales to quantum physics to elucidate them. Stories of this sort don't make up the bulk of those included here, but where they do pop up they are well chosen.
"Schrödinger's Plague," for instance, is basically an attempt to create a testable scenario for a macroscopic experiment to prove or disprove the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. "A Martian Ricoroso"—surprisingly, this collection's only outer space story—features an astronaut who catalogs the last few days of a Mars exploration where organic life (with the fantastic name the "Winter Troops") has been found and looms large. There's also, of course, "Blood Music." Whether they're simple explorations of a concept like the first, more complicated discussions of individuality against team/collective intelligence like the second, or both and more like the third, they function both as great examples of the genuine exciting possibility of science fiction, they work incredibly well.
While it is as hard to recommend this particular collection as it is to warn against it, the writing it contains is absolutely worth your time. Greg Bear is in some ways the rarest of his kind: a hard SF author whose liberalism is expressed not through technocracy, but through a fundamental compassion. That he takes his compassion to the extremes of science and math, to fantastical worlds and horror plots, only reinforces the ways that hard science fiction is capable of so much more than the technocratic liberalism and the libertarian fetishism that it so often seems synonymous with. Bear's futures with public funding and union protections may seem more and more anachronistic, but only if we don't catch the utopian spark in them that even he almost certainly didn't intend. In much the same way, Bear himself is increasingly an anachronism in the political space of speculative fiction. Reading him, though, is to remember that not only is another world possible, it is still here. It only needs to be worked toward.