Saturday, September 22, 2018

Birthday Review: Elizabeth Bear stories

In honor of Sarah Wishnevsky aka Elizabeth Bear's birthday, here is a compilation of many of the reviews I've done in Locus of her work.

(Locus, January 2006)

Andy Cox’s Interzone is increasingly a home for colorful adventure SF, it seems to me -- and I don’t disapprove. My two top choices from December are both a bit old-fashioned (though not dated) in setting and plot, with very up-to-now heroines. One is Elizabeth Bear’s "Wax", set in an alternate history reminiscent of Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories: the protagonist, after all, is a middle-aged sorcerer who is a detective. But she’s also a woman, and the real interest here is her political and personal entanglements: with another (private) detective, with the Mayor of New Amsterdam, and with her lover, the married Duke, governor of the still-English colonies.

(Locus, December 2006)

Elizabeth Bear’s "Love Among the Talus" is a traditionally shaped yet still surprising tale of a young woman, Nilufer, the princess of a mostly subjugated land, caught between the schemes of her mother, of a romantic bandit prince, and of the Khagan who has mostly conquered her province. How Nilufer finds her own path is a very satisfying.

(Locus, February 2007)

I’m increasingly impressed with the new small press magazine Subterranean. The fifth issue is dominated by a long novella from Elizabeth Bear, part of her Abigail Irene Garrett series, though Abby Irene is mentioned by name only once. Instead, "Lucifugous" is about Sebastien de Ulloa, who (we know from other stories) will become a close friend of Abby’s. In this story he is taking a zeppelin from Europe to America, leaving his reputation as a Great Detective, and also his "court" -- excepting his young friend and lover Jack Priest. Explanation is required -- it is supplied slowly by the story: Sebastien, a "wampyr", has found it necessary, for personal reasons, to move to the New World.  The story itself is a classical constrained situation murder mystery, well-executed -- but the compelling interest arises from the depiction of Sebastien.

(Locus, February 2008)

In March Elizabeth Bear offers "Shoggoths in Bloom", a thoughtful (and quite straight-faced, despite the title) piece about a black scientist in the late ‘30s, investigating the reproductive habits of shoggoths off the coast of Maine. He learns a bit more than be expected -- about shoggoths, their nature, their temptations -- all of which is nicely put in the context of the times -- his own heritage, as a black man; and the state of the world as Hitler threatens.

(Locus, December 2008)

The other highlight in Fast Ships, Black Sails, for me, is Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s "Boojum", which is SF -- speculative pirate collections seem usually to manage to sneak in a couple of SF stories. And I admit I am a sucker for them. Here, a boojum is a living spaceship, bred in the atmosphere of a gas giant, and Black Alice Bradley is a crewmember forced to make a dangerous choice when aliens attack. The ending reaches for good old SFnal wonder, and makes it.

(Locus, December 2009)

One story in particular in Lovecraft Unbound is outstanding: "Mongoose", by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. This is set in the same future as their 2008 story "Boojum". So we already know there’s Lewis Carroll lurking in the background, and the title of the new story points at Kipling. But Lovecraft is here too, as one Israel Irizzary is summoned to Kadath Station (other stations also have Lovecraftian names: Providence, Leng, Dunwich, etc.), to deal with an infestation of toves and raths. Carroll again -- but if the creatures are named out of Carroll, they come from a Lovecraftian source -- they are horrors out of space and time, that is. Monette and Bear nicely suggest that horror, and also suggest that bureaucratic screwups are a horror too, as they let Irizzary, with an unexpected ally, and with his partner Mongoose, deal with the infestation while learning some surprising facts about their universe.

(Locus, April 2010)

To finish I will mention an excellent new novella from Elizabeth Bear, Bone and Jewel Creatures, about Bijou, an aging Wizard and artificer of the desert city Messaline, and the jackal-raised child she perforce adopts, and a confrontation with another wizard, a necromancer, with whom she has a particular history that is only slowly revealed. I liked the intricate creatures Bijou creates, and the inner life of the silent child she adopts, and of course Bear’s fine writing. 

(Locus, January 2012)

And Asimov's opens the year with rather a bang, as Elizabeth Bear's cover story for the January issue, "In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns", is a brilliant piece. It's a murder mystery, set in India in a future marked by global warming -- so that intercontinental travel is exceedingly rare, for one thing, by low employment and other economic hardships (though the general standard of living, by some measurements, seems quite high -- a detail I found plausible), and by some radical genetic engineering, including hybrids like nearly intelligent parrot-cats. Which is to say, most of all, that this is a densely imagined, finished-seeming, future. The murder mystery is in fact a locked room murder, of a rather unpleasant American physicist, who is found killed in a strikingly unpleasant fashion (linked to some future tech). The main character is a classic-flavored much put upon Police Sub-Inspector, who has issues with her mother (fled to VR), with her job security, and with her partner. And hovering behind all this is the specter of a message received from aliens in the Andromeda Galaxy, who, echoing Clarke's "The Star", may be facing death at the hands of a supernova. It's a busy story, in a very good way, and all the parts work together very well -- the future tech is intriguing (and impacts the plot), the mystery itself is nicely and believably resolved, the characters breath, and the wraparound theme is honest and moving. Only January, and we've seen, I think, one of the year's best stories already.

(Locus, April 2014)

All fine work. But the prize here (in The Book of Silverberg) is Elizabeth Bear's "The Hand is Quicker", one of the best 2014 stories I've seen to date. Perhaps significantly, it's not a direct sequel to any Silverberg story, rather it's inspired by two of his best later pieces: "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another" and "Sailing to Byzantium", in dealing with virtuality and technological mediation with our perceptions. Charlie is dealing with the loss of a lover -- she must have blocked Charlie from her virtual existence -- this is a future where most everyone wears digital "skins" that choose how they appear to other people, and how they see the world. There's an economic aspect to this as well -- you have to pay for virtual access. Charlie's world falls apart for emotional reaons, and soon enough Charlie is shut of the the virtual experience. We are shown the "underclass" -- people who live in the "real" because they are too poor, or too principled. What will Charlie do? This is a moving story, a sad one, a very honest one. 

(Locus, May 2015)

My other favorite stories in Old Venus come from Elizabeth Bear and Ian McDonald. Bear's "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" is set in a jubilantly high-tech future, with radical gene therapy and super-advanced armor suits and fluid genders -- and also a lush Venus with a  mysterious vanished aboriginal race. Dharthi is a xenoarchaeologist obsessed with proving her theory of the origins of the aboriginals: and also obsessed with resolving her issues with her super-successful lover Kraken, who has always, Dharthi thinks, been better at everything than her. The story is non-stop adventure, encounters with the dangerous and interesting Cytherean animal life such as velociraptors and swamp-tigers, interspersed with mindlinked conversations with Kraken. It's tremendously fun, romantic and manages to evoke much of the sense of wonder I recall from reading old-fashioned "wet Venus" stories as a youngster.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I see some Bear stories I'll have to track down. And you'll notice I'm catching up on your birthday reviews, which if I've noticed before...

    Anyway, I think my faves remain her first two "Boojum" stories with Sarah Monette. I reread "The Wreck of the "Charles Dexter Ward" recently in Dozois #30, and don't like it quite so well. And suffered an immediate pang, realizing #35 is The End. Wow. A Giant has fallen.