Tangents

TangentsTangents by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s one simple instruction for the person who imagines she might want to be a writer: read. Marilynn Robinson said it. Steven King said it. I’m saying it too. Are there other careers like that? Probably. Do you want to be a famous composer? Listen. Do you want to be a painter? Learn to see. Do you want to be a writer? Read.

This means it’s going to be important what books are on your shelves, particularly what books are on your “to read” shelf. I know some writers collect books impulsively, simply for the love of books, and they live in wonderful houses bricked up with shelves of books they have no intention of ever reading or that they imagine they one day might get around to reading. There is a certain freedom of genius there. I’m far too rigid for something like that though. The books on my diminutive “to read” shelf I have every intention of (some day) reading. Otherwise why would they be sitting there?

It’s not a very big shelf. (My house isn’t big enough—or at least lacks the shelving—for the other sort of approach.) Which means that when I wander into a huge annual used book sale in the basement of the public library of my home town and can come home with a large bag of books for something like three dollars total, I have to be very careful. I pick. I chose. I collect a large pile of titles that catch my eye, and then I whittle it down to half that.

What do I want to read that might conceivably help me improve my craft? Someone who had donated to this particular book sale had a collection of book club editions of important science fiction authors—most interestingly, anthologies of short stories, including several authors I’ve been meaning to explore: Phillip Jose Farmer, Samuel Delany, Fritz Leiber. And this one, a slim volume of eight or nine of Greg Bear’s short fiction.

I was ill when I was reading most of it, recovering from a stomach flu. I’m glad I had already gotten through the first part of the work when the bug hit, otherwise reading the first story in the volume, “Blood Music,” might have hit too close to home: a scientist engineers super-intelligent microbes based on his own cellular structure, and then introduces him into his bloodstream. What happens when a human becomes host to trillions of intelligent beings, when he becomes a galaxy unto himself? What if the galaxy were alive, and we were spreading to fill it, learning to communicate with it? What would it mean when it was time to start colonizing others? I saw glimmers of some of the darker bits of Leviathan’s Wake and its proto-molecule here.

But Bear can also do quite excellent literary fantasy, as the second work—a novella, really—in the volume shows. I had an interesting experience sitting in my yard (this was also before the stomach bug), distracted, trying to read, when one of my older sons stopped in his bike riding abruptly to ask me about the book. What’s it about? It’s a book of stories. About what? And I remember doing the exact same thing to my dad when I was a kid and he was reading some random scifi anthology and then being fascinated with the ideas that unfolded in each summary he gave. But I wonder now how distracted he was in the telling and how many details he had to gloss over, as I did explaining “Sleepside Story,” which is about a young man who has to go live in a witch’s house.

Bear here has created a gritty, magical precursor to Mieville’s New Crobuzon in which a boy is traded as a servant into a haunted, enchanted brothel. The details and dreamlike quality of the story are in wonderful contrast to the exacting concepts of Bear’s hard science fiction (though the language remains sharp in this piece as well—focusing on certain surreal details with almost scientific exactitude). Even more haunting than the setting though are the ideas of what it means to be a prostitute, even a very good one, and what kind of love might it take to free someone of the bonds of the past.

Each piece in this collection is excellent, with the most famous being Bear’s award-winning short story about an Alan Turing-like character who fled Britain secretly instead of undergoing hormone treatment for his homosexuality and his unlikely friendship with a young boy who can see in the fourth dimension. I had read this story before, but this time (and maybe because I was ill and running on very little sleep) I wept like a baby when I finished it.

If I was more thoughtful I’d end this review by tying it back to the beginning and noting some of the things that Bear teaches about the craft of writing through this collection. I’d talk maybe about the way he plays with hard science in his piece on a surprisingly inhabited Mars, “A Martian Ricorso,” or the terrifying implications of quantum mechanics in “Schrodinger’s Plague” or something about the way he creates characters who feel true to life even in Hell in “Dead Run” or in the near-future “Sisters.” But that would be too much work, and beside the point if the point is simply to be absorbing good fiction. Because in this respect, Bear’s short stories are an ideal place to begin.

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