Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear
Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear (Prime Books, 2012) is one of these pleasingly eclectic collections. It contrives to run from straight SF to fantasy and back again without pausing for breath. One of the essential problems in putting together any collection is that it can show a certain repetitiveness in the author. Some tend to be preoccupied with the same themes, others write in essentially the same way even though the subject matter changes. Elizabeth Bear is one of those authors who manages to be original every time and, in this collection, we have a rare collection of different stories, each different but with the same standard of excellence.
“Tideline” is a rather sentimental post-war story of an automated fighting machine that mothers a young human until its batteries run out and it can no longer survive. I suppose the “ain’t going to war no more” but carry the memory of the honour of those who served is a good message. I could write a lot about “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” but, in these racially charged times, I’ll leave it that this is quite a brave effort to address an issue many people find difficult. “Sounding” is more-or-less straight fiction about the social and economic distress caused by the slow failure of the fishing industry. It’s a wonder anyone keeps going out to fish. “The Something-Dreaming Game” is a rather beautiful story about a young girl who gets an experimental implant and finds an unexpected friend to talk to. Fortunately, even her mother and the doctor involved turn out to be sensible so everything works out in a way that protects the innocent. “The Cold Blacksmith” says something about love lost. Some live on without it. Others look for ways to mend a broken heart. “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns”* is an SF police procedural which uses a murder mystery as an excuse to wander round a future society. At its heart, there’s no real mystery to solve. I thought it was obvious what was happening about halfway through, but the end result is quite pleasing because of the inventiveness surrounding the lifestyles and technologies being described. It works well at novelette length. “Orm the Beautiful” is a fantasy that, in a few pages, captures the sadness when a species dies although, in this instance, there’s a kind of phoenix ending that offers a chance to avoid being lost, to preserve the memory of the songs that made them so powerful. “The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe” is a different way in which the universe may collapse in on itself and then press, “Reboot” and we get another big bang. “Love Among the Talus” is a pleasing fantasy tale in which a princess has to decide how best to manage affairs so she gets what she wants. In political terms, this is an example of expediency rather than emotion, although love does come into it somewhere.
“Cryptic Coloration” is a fast-paced urban fantasy where a sexy magus defends New York from supernatural beasties. It’s all going wonderfully well until he interests three of the female students in the class he teaches. They think he has some secret and, with the casual disregard for their own safety required of victims in stories like this, they decide to stalk him. Unfortunately, this means following him into danger. “The Ladies” is a short but intriguing “what if” from the alternate history shelves speculating on how the election results might have differed had a woman run for the office of president. As the title “Shoggoths in Bloom” suggests, we’re off into Lovecraftian territory with a rather pleasing one-man, scientific expedition to determine the nature of these beasts that not only comes up with the story of their origin but suggests a new use for them. If the last story was a “what if” this is definitely an “if only”! “The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder” is a nice story about the nature of creativity and the role of integrity. The question we have to answer is how we should react if offered the chance to recover the physical abilities we had when younger. Which is better: for our fans to remember us as we were or an opportunity to make new fans? In the real world “Dolly” was the name given to the first cloned sheep. This is an android “who” may also be on a cusp where important decisions have to be made. This is another interesting future police procedural which takes us a little further forward down a well-trodden road. It succeeds because of the character of the lead detective and her willingness to see beyond simple companionship and find a little hope for the future. “Gods of the Forge” also deals with decisions and values, with the need to confront fear, with the desire to be a better person. In technical terms, this is a classic example of how to switch narrative formats to achieve the right emotional balance in the story. At every level, this is something of a triumph.
“Annie Webber” is one of these short, short stories that punches above its weight. This is just a wonderful idea, perfectly executed and nicely made (rather like a good cup of coffee where the barista really cares). “The Horrid Glory of its Wings” offers another choice. When a child is born with an incurable disease and has nothing to look forward to, living is not the only option. The only question, then, is whether dying is the only other option. This is an elegant fantasy answer to the question that manages to balance the pitilessness of reality against the rank smell of a process to recover precious metals from rubbish. “Confessor” continues with another future police investigation, this time of genetic manipulations in a mountain retreat. It takes dedicated professionals to infiltrate a camp like that and then there’s the question of what you do with all the evidence you find. “The Leavings of the Wolf” considers how a woman should deal with the death of her marriage. Grieving is a complicated process but with a little help and encouragement, the vestiges of the past can be cast aside and a brighter future embraced. Finally, “The Death of Terrestrial Radio”reminds us of the problems in long-distance telephone calls when you have to wait for your voice to be received before the other party can reply. Overall Shoggoths in Bloom is excellent and well worth reading.
For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City
This collection won the 2013 Locus Award.
* “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” is anthologised in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois.