"Bears Discover Fire," published fifteen years ago, won more awards than perhaps any other SF story (the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and a couple of others). I could never quite understand why; although it is clearly a finely written piece with memorable lines and characterization, I couldn't understand why my American (and even Canadian) friends thought it hilariously funny. Perhaps, I concluded, Terry Bisson's humour just doesn't travel.
Well, everyone's mileage varies, and it's interesting that the only other write-up I've found for Numbers Don't Lie, by a distinguished reviewer on my side of the Atlantic, concludes that it's funny if you like this sort of thing, which he personally doesn't. I personally did like Numbers Don't Lie. I'll go further—I thought it was hilarious.
It is, quite simply, a series of three linked Tall Tales, set first in Brooklyn, then in Huntsville, Alabama, and finally in both, all originally published in Asimov's. Each story features an extraordinary breach in the fabric of the universe, investigated, resolved, and/or exploited by our narrator, Irv, and his genius friend, Wilson Wu. Each is illustrated with bizarrely complex mathematical formulae (we are told that they have been checked by Rudy Rucker for accuracy and elegance, with the proviso that one of those qualities is more important than the other). Each is told in the droll, dry tone we are used to from Bisson, combined with his powerful sense of place, be it Brooklyn or Huntsville; there is a term used in Celtic studies, dinnseanchas, meaning the connection with the spirit of a particular locality, and it's a quality Bisson demonstrates well here despite the distinctly non-Celtic setting.
On the other hand, there's not a lot of character development; but you don't expect much of that in a Tall Tale in any case. Wilson Wu, the hero, seems to have been everywhere and done everything, to the point of being able to shape the very universe to suit his needs of the moment. Anyway, he is offscreen entirely in the second story and for most of the third. Our narrator falls in love with a minor character in the first story, moves to Alabama to court her in the second, and marries her in the third. These are merely events; there is no sense that Irv grows or changes between the story's beginning and end.
Of the three stories, the first is probably the best. A Brooklyn scrapyard turns out to have a direct link with the surface of the moon, and our heroes attempt to salvage remnants of one of the Apollo missions, amid much magic and nostalgia. Both the second and third stories deal in some way with the reversal of entropy; I found the middle section worked least well for me, perhaps because I've never been to Alabama, whereas the final tale, uniting childhood treehouses with a sinister ancient savant (in this case, a Nobel laureate in Real Estate) is pretty satisfying—and was nominated for a Hugo in 1999. It adds up to a decent, witty collection which conveys neatly both a vision of the real America and Bisson's surrealist glimpses into the deepest workings of the universe.
An old friend of mine is a New York-based criminal lawyer, just like Bisson's narrator; I'm buying him this book as a Christmas present. (Though—ow!—$14.95 for 160 pages? Other publishers sell paperbacks five times that length for a similar price.) He's not especially an SF reader these days, but he'll enjoy it, and so (probably) will you. And finally, nobody writing about this book can be unmoved by the dedication: "To my reviewers: Smart, good-looking and generous, every one"!
Nicholas Whyte works in international politics in Brussels, Belgium, and reads SF unashamedly.
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