The Best of Elizabeth Bear by Elizabeth Bear
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From the start of her career, Elizabeth Bear has been one of the most distinctive voices in modern speculative fiction. Her debut novel, Hammered, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2005, the same year she received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. In the years since, she has produced an impressive array of standalone novels (Undertow) and multi-volume series (The Eternal Sky Trilogy, The New Amsterdam Series), along with a steady stream of stories and novellas, the best of which are gathered in this generous, absolutely necessary volume.
The Best of Elizabeth Bear contains 27 stories and novellas, many never before collected, that encompass an astonishing range of themes, settings, ideas and emotions. The collection opens with “Covenant,” a tale of serial murder unlike any you have ever read, and closes with the extraordinary “Erase, Erase, Erase.” The latter is a surrealist tour de force in which the unnamed narrator, a former cult member, reflects on her life, her nebulous but guilty past, and her constantly diminishing sense of self. In between these bookends are more than two dozen carefully crafted tales that never fail to resonate beyond the final page.
“Tideline,” winner of both the Hugo and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards, tells the surprisingly moving story of Chalcedony, a former “war machine” determined to preserve the memories of her dead human companions. “Shoggoths in Bloom,” another Hugo winner, offers a fresh take on H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos, setting the action in a pre-WWII II world marked by racism and virulent anti-Semitism. “Faster Gun” is a tale of the Old West in which Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo encounter an impossible alien artefact. The long novella “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” takes place in Bangalore, India fifty years from now and tells the story of a murder in which the victim’s body is literally turned inside out. In the affecting “Sonny Liston Takes a Fall,” we are brought to an entirely new understanding of one of the iconic moments of boxing history.
These are just a few of the complex pleasures contained in this singular collection. Each of the remaining stories is a fully realized gem. Each one offers something new and unexpected. Whether you choose to read this book from end to end, or to parcel the stories out in a more leisurely way, The Best of Elizabeth Bear will provide you with endless hours of provocative, deeply intelligent entertainment. This is imaginative fiction in its purest, most highly developed form. It doesn’t get better than this.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
EXPECTED JANUARY 31ST, 2020
From Earth to Venus to interstellar space and more…
The Best of Elizabeth Bear is a collection of 27 short stories that cover an entire universe, shifting through time and space with remarkable ease. Some carry over constant themes, like Bear’s exploration of “rightminding,” in which people can chemically alter their brains to no longer produce undesired emotional responses. Others introduce new worlds and new stakes with surprising fluidity and ease. All, however, imagine a world that could have been, or might still be. Bear is a speculative fiction master, and these 27 short stories show that to the fullest in their arrangement.
“You have known many monsters. Many of them have been civilized. Most have been human.”
Bear’s work commonly explores the condition of humanity, especially in relation to the non-human. Her stories regularly explore who deserves human kindness and compassion, who deserves to be considered as a living, thinking, rational being. Whether it’s a rightminded ex-serial killer faced with familiar perils, or a sentient ship trapped on a salt-drenched beach with no hope of scaling the nearby cliffs, there’s always a question of what these characters need, what they deserve.
There’s often a look at who the real monsters are, too. Humans? The machines they create? The thirst for power, money, knowledge? Drawing the line between right and wrong can sometimes be difficult. Other times, however, it’s crystal clear.
And yet I have my reservations about the collection as a whole.
For one, this collection drives home the fact that…short stories often aren’t for me. As often as I was impressed by Bear’s command of language and her willingness to dive deep into questions big and small, I found myself frustrated by the endings of stories, which felt open-ended. Some folks love this, and it does seem more common in short stories. I simply dislike it on a personal level. I prefer endings that feel by and large fixed, and any openness has to be extraordinarily well-crafted.
My other reservation, however, is a more important one. For all of Bear’s phenomenal work exploring time and space and the beings inhabiting it, there were two stories in particular that had me a little wary. Both “Shoggoths in Bloom” and “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” center Black men, and I found it disconcerting to read these coming from a white woman. “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” was especially jarring, in that there was a single use of the n-word, and I don’t care for that coming from a white author.
At this time, I’ve yet to find any Black reviewers of these two stories. I’m going to continue searching, however, because I think their input on Bear’s work is more valuable than my own in this case.
Ultimately, we reach a 3.5 star rating, caught between impressive talent and boundaries overstepped.
On the one hand, Bear’s work is truly impressive from a craft standpoint, and she builds diverse worlds in which to stage her big questions. Her character casts are not overwhelming white cishet men, but instead people of varied races, genders, and sexualities (plus some non-human cast members, like the devoted Chalcedony in “Tideline,” or Chairman Miaow in “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns”). My favorite stories were “The Bone War,” featuring a creative approach to necromancy and a healthy dose of professional interference, “Love Among the Talus,” starring a princess who lets no one interfere with the destiny she desires, and “Faster Gun,” in which the famous Doc Holliday crosses paths with aliens in the Old West.
And yet I cannot set aside what I observed in “Shoggoths in Bloom” and “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall,” well-written as they are. While I think Bear tries to handle issues of race with respect, I’m not convinced this was her place to do so. It remains a lingering hesitation, refusing to be brushed aside, and I have to honor that, have to bring it up at the very least.
The Best of Elizabeth Bear releases on January 31st from Subterranean Press, if you find yourself considering it for purchase.
CW: violence, kidnapping, graphic injury, nudity, child death, loss of a loved one, body horror, gore, racism, anti-Semitism, drug use, alcoholism, disordered eating, smoking, transphobia, animal death, child abuse, police brutality, sexual assault, suicide