Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson


You can read this story for free courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine. 

So once again I am faced with the question, what is science fiction. This time around I can feel my convictions beginning to crumble – if I think that everything that gets published under the label ‘science fiction’ isn’t the real deal, then maybe it’s me that should be revising his opinion instead of hoping that the world will fall into step with my views.

Well, screw that.

It’s not that I think stories like this aren’t at all science fiction, it’s just they’re only partly science fiction. Long-time readers (hi to you both) may be familiar with my three-tier view of genre: a shared audience, particular setting elements and a type of a story you can tell. A story can have, I think, any two of these and still be considered part of the genre, but to really be considered a great science fiction story rather than a great story that uses some science fiction elements then it must have all three.

Most sci fi, particularly in TV, comics and movies, has aspects of the first two: a dedicated fandom and the kind of surface elements we expect from science fiction stories – time travel, space ships, aliens, galactic empires and numerous other futuristic elements. These stories often borrow their story types from other genres – thrillers, war stories, westerns or detective stories, for example. A science fiction story is something else.

I can see why this story won accolades as it’s written with great skill. It’s a rather deliciously subtle portrait of family life at one of life’s crisis points, as a man faces the death of his mother. The perfect unpretentious folksy tone is matched by a clever eye for detail and an endearingly laconic style and it all builds to a rather nice conjunction of the fantastic conceit (bears discover fire) and the emotional climax when the ailing mother passes away.

And of course, there’s the bears. Bisson does a great job of making it weirdly credible. Bears have a human quality about them that’s reflected in the circus tradition of performing bears and a century or more of anthropomorphism through the medium of the teddy bear. This helps make their mastery of fire believable, while the story steers clear of addressing the specifics.

So it’s a great story. At has a change in the world that’s based – superficially at least – on scientific ideas and of course it was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, so it’s definitely embedded in the science fiction audience.

This is certainly enough for it to qualify as science fiction in the broader sense, but I’m not certain that it’s really a science fiction story in the very strictest sense. It doesn’t address the big issues introduced by the sudden appearance of sentience among bears. It focuses instead on the small family drama occurring within a world where that change is going on. We only see the affect this is having on the world in glimpses through the media – TV reports and snippets in the local news. It’s background against which a rather more everyday story plays out eventually joining up in a kind of metaphorical way, with the bears as a kind psychopomp for the dying mother.

Maybe we’re supposed to read larger social messages into this, but if so then they’re so delicately alluded to that they’re probably personal to each reader. Again, that doesn’t feel like a very science fictiony approach.

Traditionally, science fiction has been more nakedly didactic, and that’s perhaps one of the reasons it’s lost it’s potency in our post-certainty world. In this story, we prefer the practical scepticism of the narrator to the focused religiosity of his brother; the former just deals with what life throws up day-to-day which makes him appealingly pragmatic, while the latter thinks there’s some grand scheme and is a bit of an arse because of it.

If science fiction has lost faith in the future (obligatory link to Paul Kincaid’s ‘The Widening Gyre’) then it’s because we’ve all lost faith in the idea of having an over-arching belief system that seeks to change or improve the world (obligatory link to John Gray’s The War of the Words). The sort of story that I consider to be the real sticky heart of the genre has been driven out by post-modern doubt. While I’m a big fan of post-modern doubt, I’m sorry to see that it seems to have crippled our ability to imagination real change in the world around us. Under these circumstances, if science fiction isn’t dead it’s at least lost the political urgency that made it different to other forms of literature in years gone by and all we have left are a handful of lifeless metaphors.

Themes: family, practical versus theoretical wisdom, man versus nature, bears.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, short stories, The Best of the Best
2 comments on “Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson
  1. Tom says:

    I was very confused by the opening section of this story until I remembered that when Americans say torch they mean a particular kind of torch and when they mean the other kind they say flashlight.

    (This sentence’s punctuation brought to you by Cormac McCarthy.)

    I liked this story. But then I generally like bears. There are lots of SF things going on in the background, but like you say it doesn’t tell you which of them you’re supposed to be thinking about. I liked the idea that maybe the bears knew how to make fire before. What if they always did but we just hadn’t noticed?

    You know, like when you find the remains of a fire in a clearing, and you say “ah, someone must have have camped here”. But actually it was bears.

  2. Patrick says:

    Hey Tom. not sure how or why I missed this comment, as I seem to have approved it! I’ve been hellaciously busy for a while and as you can probably tell, I’ve neglected the blog for a few months.

    Anyway, I liked this story too, quite a lot, in fact, and that’s why it confused me. If it’s not SF I’m not supposed to like it, that’s the point of this blog theme!

    It’s a good example of SF being dead, though: SF has shrivelled and died and this type of story has inhabited the empty shell like a hermit crab. But I like hermit crabs, so why not?

    Hopefully I’m going to get back to these stories soon. I’ve got a whole half an anthology to read!

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