Bears Discover Fire, Terry Bisson

Tor, 1993, 254 pages, C$27.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-85411-0

Bears discover fire. A huge magma “bubble” raises the Adirondacks outside the atmosphere. A blind painter is asked to draw the afterlife. A writer quits before the story is over. A toxic donut is consumed. A retired astronaut goes back to the moon.

Welcome to the short stories of Terry Bisson.

Bisson’s been known for a few things, some of them faintly ridiculous (He novelized JOHNNY MNEMONIC, finished Walter M. Miller’s posthumous Saint Lebowitz and wrote back-cover blurbs for HarperCollins) but always somehow evading becoming a big-time SF star. Some authors are like that.

Fortunately, Bisson managed to convince Tor books to publish an anthology of his stories, and the book stands alone in introducing a pretty good author to the world-at-large, or at least those who can get their hands on the collection.

As always, some stories are better than others, so here’s a quick recap of the book in not particular order.

I found Bisson to be at his best when writing very short humorous vignettes with satiric bite. “By Permit Only” will amuse and knock you out with its I-give-up ending. “Next” shows bureaucracy gone mad with red tape nightmares. It might be fun to read “Are There Any Questions?” out loud, just to get the feel of the huckster narration. I’m still not sure if “The Toxic Donut” is supposed to be funny, but I liked the dark comedy and the pyrrhic choice offered within.

Of course, Bisson points out in his afterword that he can also write some non-funny stuff, and “Necronauts” is a good example of that, a none-too-jolly story that nevertheless reads very well.

Other highlights include “They’re made out of Meat”, a widely-reprinted true little classic that you might have read by accident somewhere else. (Even, in my case, as being attributed to L. Ron Hubbard!) and “Two Guys From the Future” (Bisson outdoes Connie Willis at the fluffy time-travel romance game)

Some of the longer stories are interesting, but wounded by their insufficient bang-to-length ratio. “Over Flat Mountain” struggles with its world-building and eventually loses. It’s a fate shared by “The Shadow Knows”, which adds to it an underwhelming conclusion best left in depressing New-Wave-era anthologies.

Then there are the weird stories I’m not sure I liked. “The Two Janets” looked like a fun concept in search of a plot. “England Underway” still seemed as whimsically inconsequential as the first time I read it in Omni. “Press Ann” reads like a draft for a shorter, funnier sketch. “Carl’s Lawn & Garden” was jammed by an extra-large dose of heavy-duty symbolism in its last sentence.

Of course, there are misfires. The title story didn’t bowl me over as much as it convinced the various award juries. “George” seemed pointless. “The Message”, even at five pages, seemed long and laborious. And then there are the pieces I just couldn’t get into: “The Coon Suit” (Oh, so that’s the conclusion.) and “Canción Auténtica De Old Earth” (Rzzz).

In most cases, Bisson’s writing is brisk, smooth, funny with a good dose of truth thrown in. Even with the boring stories, he delivers the goods and entertain the reader. It might not lead anywhere, but at least you’ll enjoy the trip.

Of course, that’s the risk with any short story collection. Savor the good, take the okay and try the bad. In any case, you’ll be able to form a good picture of Terry Bisson as a writer, and he needs the attention.

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