Reading a short story collection is a disorienting experience. There are too many endings and beginnings in too small a space, and they start to overstep each other. The names are the first thing you lose; then the plots elide, the characters blur, and the whole book becomes one oddly-shaped mass: an ungainly amalgam of the author's tics, fears, messages, and preoccupations.
This is true even when the stories are as eclectic as those in Elizabeth Bear's second collection, Shoggoths in Bloom. Bear is a prolific and wide-ranging author—since her novel debut in 2005, she has published 19 novels—and this volume collects stories from across the SF spectrum: police procedurals, urban fantasies, near and far future scenarios, contemporary fantasies, fairy tales, and unclassifiable slipstream fictions.
But, as I read through these very different stories, I was slowly drawn into a world that both repelled and fascinated me: an inaccurate, sugar-coated world that, despite my native proclivities, eventually managed to charm and delight me.
Over and over, Bear paints us a world that is fundamentally in balance—a world where Evil is weak and Authority is kind and Goodness is rewarded—and shows us a protagonist whose primary struggle is deciding whether or not to trust in the essential fairness of the universe.
In almost every case, they choose correctly. Time and again, Bear's stories end in the grand choice to sacrifice one's own desires in order to save others. Several times, the metaphor of ripping your own heart out is literalized. One story, "The Cold Blacksmith," revolves around a village blacksmith who struggles to rebuild the glass heart of a demanding customer. In "Orm the Beautiful," a dragon puts its heart on the line in order to save the rest of its people. In the Hugo and Sturgeon Award-winning "Tidelines," a decrepit combat robot uses the last of its battery power to nurture a young urchin.
And they sacrifice themselves in more subtle ways, too. Sonny Liston debates whether to risk his life to save a man he hates: Muhammad Ali ("Sonny Liston Takes the Fall"). A mother struggles to trust her daughter, who is asphyxiating herself in order to conjure up a hallucination of an silent, centipedal alien ("The Something-Dreaming Game"). Thomas Jefferson and John Adams come together, to the detriment of their own presidential ambitions, in order to persuade Abigail Adams to run against them in the nation's first real presidential election ("The Ladies").
Bear is no Dr. Pangloss: she allows terrible things to happen in these worlds. But those things are fixable, as long as the protagonist is willing to suffer. These are worlds where suffering ennobles and self-sacrifice means something.
In the stories that lack an exterior conflict—a person for the protagonist to save or help—the protagonist is usually presented with a choice between an easy, inhuman path or a difficult, more human one. When an aging rock star, the heroine of "The Girl Who Sang 'Rose Madder'," is diagnosed with cancer, she is offered an undeath whose only consequence is that it will sap her of the fire that fueled her music. Even though she gave up music long ago, the choice is still agonizing. Similarly, in "The Horrid Glory of Her Wings," a hunchbacked, HIV-positive orphan girl hesitates to eschew her pain-wrecked mortal body in favor of eternal life as a harpy.
These stories contain evil and cruelty and villainy, but in a way that makes them feel like the weather. Evil is omnipresent, and sometimes devastating, but fundamentally manageable.
The evil in these stories is often petty and easily vanquished. This is particularly noticeable in the police procedural stories, where the murderers are often caught in a rather perfunctory way. "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns" involves a police officer who chases an embezzler through a near-future Bangalore where personality modification and immersive virtual reality have created a world of shut-ins that is about to be broken open by a communication from the Andromeda Nebula. In this story, the plethora of setting details and the energetic subplots turn the police work into a perfunctory exercise: in the end, the capture of the criminal is literally overshadowed by the background.
In another of the police procedurals, "Confessor," catching a gang of murderers is as simple as espying their cabin and then calling in some police backup. In "Gods of the Forge," a corporation's malfeasance—they're researching ways to strip soldiers of their ability to disobey orders—is pretty much cleared up once the protagonist decides to blow the whistle. Evil is rarely organized, entrenched, or institutional. It's a serial killer, a gang of poachers, or a tiny bandit tribe.
The story in which the bandits appear—"Love Among the Talus"—is the one where I started to understand the odd role that Authority plays in Bear's worlds. I am used to stories in which Authority is inherently evil and corrupting. But, in this collection, Authority is usually benevolent.
In its setup, "Love Among the Talus" is superficially similar to a number of heroic fantasies (Star Wars comes to mind). The protagonist is the princess of a small kingdom that was recently conquered by a marauding Khagan. In return for an annual tribute, the Khagan has brought a victor's peace and has, in the process, whittled down the numbers of the local bandits. However, the bandits have regrouped under a new leader and are attempting to fight back. In most stories, the bandits would be plucky rebels and the Khagan would be an evil Emperor. But the story consciously subverts the trope. The bandits are savage and murderous (and their leader is, frankly, a bit creepy), while the Khagan isn't really that bad.
Meanwhile, the State provides the hunchbacked orphan of "The Horrid Glory of Its Wings" with a loving foster mother, a private school education, free medical care, and a college scholarship. The federally backed Museum of Natural History rides to the rescue of the dragons in "Orm the Beautiful." The spirit-essence of the city of Las Vegas intervenes—with no clear benefit to itself—in order to protect Muhammed Ali ("Sonny Liston Takes the Fall"). Thomas Jefferson (in reality, an opponent of female suffrage) includes women's voting rights in the Constitution ("The Ladies"). And even the evil corporation in "Gods of the Forge" is partially rehabilitated by the story's protagonist, who remains convinced that its "rightminding" technology will someday make people happier and more secure.
This feels very foreign to me. In my world (which I think of as "the real world"), suffering is meaningless and authority is amoral and the universe doesn't keep its promises: your self-sacrifice will probably be forgotten by next week. Of course, these are speculative stories—they're supposed to reflect our world in ersatz, metaphorical ways. But isn't there also supposed to be some kind of commentary? Isn't there supposed to be something that I can recognize? Even though Kafka's bureaucratic nightmares are more awful in their meaninglessness than anything reality has to offer, they serve to highlight, through exaggeration, some real tendencies in our world.
As I neared the end of Bear's collection, I kept asking myself, "What is this highlighting?"
It wasn't that reading these stories was unpleasant. Far from it. Bear is a very skilled storyteller, and her plots are usually impeccable. With her prolificity and her interest in urban fantasy and police procedurals, she's clearly from the more commercial end of the genre, which means she has the skills to carry you from page to page even when you're not totally on board with the themes of the stories themselves. My least favorite works in the collection were the four police procedurals: "In the House of Aryaman," "Cryptic Coloration," "Dolly," and "Confessor." Of these, only "Dolly" felt like it carried any thematic heft. But none of them, except possibly the first (whose characterization of Bangalore felt a bit off) were difficult to read: all had interesting characters and situations.
And there's a wonderful playfulness to the stories: they're written in such a savvy, knowing tone. About a quarter of these stories are narrated by that sly fairy-tale voice that's a part of our shared heritage as speakers of the English language. It's this voice that can say something like "[The floor was] immaculate and white, that is, except for the dead body of billionaire industrialist Clive Steele—and try to say that without sounding like a comic book—which lay at Dolly's feet, his viscera blossoming from him like macabre petals" ("Dolly") or "And then of course there was the Witch, who came and went and prophesied and slept and ate as she pleased, like any cat" ("Love Among the Talus").
I fell in love with that "of course."
These are stories that know they are stories: The Hugo Award-winning title story is an extended riff on the racism in Lovecraft. And, in many of them, even the protagonists know that there's a story-like element to their lives. The robot in "Tidelines" tells bedtime stories to the urchin that are a mixture of the medieval tales of knight-errantry and the modern-day exploits of the robot's now-dead squadmates. When the barista protagonist of "Annie Weber" guesses the secret identity of one of his customers, she wonderingly asks, "You read a lot of science fiction, Zach?"
Despite these pleasures, I continued to wonder whether there was anything deeper here. Were these just Disneyfied fairy tales? Were these just entertaining romps? Were these just sly winks to SF fans?
Eventually, either because Bear saved the best for last or because her collection had slowly taught me how it should be read, Shoggoths in Bloom started to open up for me. Not only were its last two stories—"Leavings of the Wolf" and "Death of Terrestrial Radio"—very moving, but they also made me see the whole collection in a new light.
The former story has one of those fabulous one-line conceits: a woman takes up running because, after gaining forty pounds in her divorce, she can no longer remove her wedding ring. Also, there's a Norse god. The stories in this collection often have these tacked-on speculative elements. Sometimes they overpower the character arc and make the internal conflict feel like it was only added because Bear is too skillful a writer to forgo any source of tension. But, in this story, the two elements synergized in thrilling ways. The woman is struggling to retain her sense of herself as someone who is in control: someone who can slip off her wedding ring and walk away from her marriage. If she has to cut it off, then she's failed; she's allowed the failed marriage to claim a part of herself. This heart-rending story ends with her on a deserted beach, confronting one of the gods of her ancestors.
The final story—the only one that is original to this collection—was, for me, the best. After reading "The Death of Terrestrial Radio," I shut off my Kindle and stared out the window for long moments and didn't think about anything at all. I would not be surprised if it appeared on this year's awards ballots.
The story is about a researcher who successfully interprets a message sent to Earth from an alien civilization that is some thirty or so light-years away. She spearheads a program to beam a signal back to the alien's planet and then follows the program for more than sixty years. It's a slow, quiet, monomaniacal story. At the end of a lifetime of reaching out to the aliens, she slowly comes to realize that the people around her have been trying to reach out to her, too.
This story has many of the elements that made me wince when I read them in previous stories. For instance, the protagonist says:
We really didn’t expect to hear from anybody.
Maybe it's like falling in love. You have to truly stop expecting something to happen before it will.
These lines struck me as pretty silly. The universe doesn't care whether you're expecting something to happen or not. But I didn't mind. "The Death of Terrestrial Radio" is about how even when the universe hands you the thing you want most in the world, it's sometimes not enough. And, to me, that rings true. These are the kinds of stories that can only be told against the backdrop of a kind world.
In Bear's stories, the kindness of the universe is an inversion of the troubled, self-destructive interiors of her characters. It's not that some worlds are kind and some worlds are cruel, it's that some people are so cruel to themselves that the world seems kind in comparison. Some people are so relentlessly focused on destroying themselves that the only way they can survive is if the universe reaches out and tries to save them.
There's an uplifting element to many of the stories in this book—particularly in their endings. And, when I started reading it, I thought that some of those endings were a bit corny.
Now I'm not so sure. If I've learned anything from this collection, it's that some kinds of stories deserve hopeful endings. If you already knew that, then I can recommend this collection without reservations. The stories are thought-provoking, well-written, and, above all, pretty fun.
But even if you're sadder and more cynical, I think this one is worth checking out. There's something here that's real.
Rahul Kanakia is a science fiction writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, The Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He currently lives in Baltimore, where he is enrolled in the Master of the Fine Arts program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He graduated from Stanford in 2008 with a B.A. in Economics and he used to work as an international development consultant. If you want to know more about him then please visit his blog or follow him on Twitter.