Flash review: Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson

Bears Discover Fire is one of the most decorated science fiction short stories.  It has won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Sturgeon awards, among others, and has been nominated for even more.  It is a wonderful bittersweet piece of writing, which may or may not be science fiction at all.  In my case, I read it late at night, and it left behind a warm, fuzzy feeling that returns whenever I think of this story.

The narrator travels with his brother and nephew in his truck when he gets a puncture.  As he changes the tire, his flashlight goes off, but fortunately two nearby bears shine their torches at him.  He is able to finish his work and drives away.  This is his first encounter with bears who use fire.  As time progresses, news stations begin reporting on bears that sit around campfires they started on highway medians.  Against this background, the narrator keeps living his life, including paying frequent visits to his elderly mother who lives in a retirement home, and who had expected to die some years back.  He is often accompanied by his nephew.

One day, when they visit the retirement home, they learn that their mother and grandmother had disappeared.  On a hunch, the narrator visits the bear campfire nearest to his house and finds his mother sitting in a circle of bears, wrapped in a blanked.  He and the nephew join her and spend the night huddled together, watching the fire.  When they wake up the next morning, they find the bears gone and the mother dead.

If I were to classify this short story within its genre, I’d call is pastoral science fiction.  There are many definitions of this niche, but I like to think of it as depicting a simpler, hassle-free setting.  The protagonist may lead a harsh life full of danger and stress, but at the point of the story, life is routine, almost mundane, and the protagonist is content with it.  That’s the case with Simak’s Way Station, and this story is similar in this regard.  The narrator seems to live a life of contentment and self-sufficiency, and this is further expanded to his mother and nephew.  His brother provides the contrast: a high-strung businessman who works hard and lives hard, and never enjoys either.

However, if I were to classify this story in general, I’d be lost.  Bisson’s greatest genius was to convince everyone that this was a science fiction story when it was not.  The bears and their fires are just a background.  An oddity that colors a very mundane story, which may not even be fiction at all.  And yet, they are placed within the story so skillfully that despite being no more than static backdrop, the reader can’t stop thinking about them.  Their mere presence added much emotion to the otherwise ordinary story that could have easily been just a snippet from someone’s life.  They are absolutely passive when they sit around their campfire, with three humans in their midst, sharing one last night together.  And yet, there is an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia, belonging and family.  The bears’ placement at the beginning of the story was also perfectly executed.  They are just standing there, with torches in their paws, and yet nothing piques the reader’s interest more than that.

The author doesn’t waste time to explain the bears’ motives or methods to light a fire.  Nor does he dwell on their changed behavior when they become passive towards humans.  He doesn’t introduce any conflict between the species, either.  He depicts the bears as a given, and soon the reader begins to view them as such as well.  The story is then told in a matter-of-factly way, without any surprises or twists, and it leaves the reader just as content as the narrator, his nephew, and the bears.

I love Bears on two levels.  On an intellectual level, I see it as an absolutely superb piece of writing, which combines a banal plot with deliberately mundane characters, with a very outlandish premise that hangs like a tapestry in the background, and yet manages to infuse the story with emotion.  In this regard, I feel the need to keep studying the writing line by line, to see how the author managed to put the bears in exactly the right place every time.  On an emotional level, this was a deeply bittersweet story of family and loss.  And yet, at the end I felt as contented as the narrator.  In a few pages, I managed to self-identify with him at a level where we shared our emotions.  This is a story about death.  But death is inevitable, and given the choice, death after a well-lived life, surrounded by family, may not be so bad.

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