I don’t think early Greg Bear and I are a good match. I did not finish The Wind From a Burning Woman, a collection of short stories from the late 1970s and early 1980s. That may be part of the problem. Maybe these stories are just dated.
Bear seems to be a “writer of ideas,” and several of these tales feature fascinating “what-ifs” or technological wonders, like an asteroid shaped into a deep-space vessel, a surrealistic cathedral in a world where God has definitively Died, or a walking city. Unfortunately, problems with characters and prose undercut the gadgets or the thought exercises.
There are six stories in the book. I read five:
- In “The Wind From a Burning Woman,” a desperate woman threatens Earth’s draconian nanny-government with an act of global terrorism in order to force out the truth.
- “White Horse Child” is a sweet and familiar story about imagination, and those who fear it.
- “Petra” explores life after God has died, through the eyes of a half human gargoyle.
- “Scattershot” follows a woman and her teddy bear companion through a starship that exists in multiple realities.
- In “Mandala,” on a distant planet a thousand years in the future, Jeshua, exiled from his village, tries to find his way into a walking city, in order to get a bigger penis. I’m not making a socio-political comment or speaking symbolically. This does seem to be his mission.
“White Horse Child” is a traditional tale. A young boy, growing up on a farm that is having financial trouble, meets some strange people, a man and then a woman, who want to trade stories with him. The boy is intrigued, but his parents are frightened. They know these two people. The people came to the boy’s uncle years ago, and now he is “living in sin, writing for those hell-spawned girlie magazines!” The boy’s mother calls in the big guns: Great-Aunt Sibyl, a fundamentalist whose proudest achievement was getting books removed from a local library shelves. The battle is on. The story is not new, but the writing is grounded and crisp; it gives us a good sense of country life and life with a lot of siblings.
“Petra”: After the Death of God, the thoughts of humanity were without control and imaginings became real. Stone and metal statues came to life; cities morphed into forests. In a crowded cathedral in an unnamed place, humans exist uneasily alongside stone-flesh, like our first-person narrator, half-human and half-gargoyle. What works well here is the conception of the cathedral; cavernous and claustrophobic at once; filled with echoing space and cramped hidden passages. What works nearly as well is the cohesive, convincing narrative voice. The narrator, advised by a living statue, defies the human “bishop” and changes history. “Petra” is the best story of the bunch.
Bear explains in the preface that he used “The Wind From a Burning Woman” to explore the motivations of terrorism. I do not think this story succeeds. Giani Turco has a score to settle with Earth’s over-controlling government, who sabotaged her grandfather’s project to take the asteroid-shop Psyche into deep space. Turco has landed on the abandoned ship and gathered evidence of the sabotage, but instead of going public, she threatens to crash the chunk of space-rock into Earth unless the bureaucrats admit their sabotage. As a terrorist, Turco is not compelling. She cries a lot, clambers in and out of the Psyche ship and manages once to lock herself outside. Surprisingly, the plot does not depend on her incompetence; things just go wrong by themselves. Because Turco’s act is so extreme, her motivations have to be powerful and believable, and that’s just not shown here. I do know that I am writing this across the vast and devastating historical divide of the attack on the World Trade Towers. Perhaps because we have thought so much more about terrorism since then, the need for Turco to be real is even more critical.
Characterization is not the only problem with this story. It skitters among point-of-view shifts like an anxious Yorkshire terrier. In a 33 page story I counted 20 POV shifts, and I’m giving Bear the benefit of the doubt on at least two. In a novel, I’ll commit to POV shifts because I’m in it for the long haul, so to speak — but in 33 pages? Forcing me to “reset” every page and a half is jarring and distracting. The lack of POV control leads to some cringe-inducing passages such as: “She was a tough one. How would he outwit her? He smiled grimly at his chutzpah for even thinking he could.”
“The teddy bear spoke excellent Mandarin.” That is a great opening sentence, and it starts off “Scattershot.” The story has some fine humor as we follow Geneva and her teddy bear companion Sonok through a ship that has been struck by a dimensional disrupter. Despite the constant chaotic changes to the ship, Geneva never seems to be moving away from danger or toward reward. By the end, when all is revealed, I discovered I didn’t care very much.
“Mandala,” like Psyche in the title story, is a marvelous invention, a city that might be sentient, but is definitely ambulatory. All of the cities on the planet of God-in-Battle move around, and they all evicted humans about a thousand years ago. Jeshua is young, strong and smart, but his genitals never developed correctly, so he is cast out of his village because he can’t father children. He decides that one of the cities can help him and sets out on a quest. Soon he hooks up with a “city chaser” named Thinner, who says he can get Jeshua into the city of Mandala. Thinner tells him that there is a human girl already there. Jeshua soon figures out that Thinner is not what he claims, and that the human eviction from the cities was not what he was raised to believe. Jeshua does find easy entrance into the city and the descriptions, if rather sterile, are pretty. Jeshua does get a new penis, and he does meet “the girl,” but the story does not go exactly as expected. Honestly, “Mandala” might have been a breathtakingly original story that has been overtaken by four decades and the whole sub-genre of the New Weird. Still, anachronisms and comparisons of “the girl” to prey animals tripped me up. In one instance, she “darted to one side like a deer.” I wasn’t aware there were deer on God-in-Battle, but maybe I missed it. At another point she “freezes like a jacklighted animal.” Really? They sneak up on animals at night on God-in-Battle, and blind them with flashlights? Why isn’t this character compared to a native species? For someone whose strength is his original ideas, Bear stints on his world-building here.
I did not read “Hardfought.” I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm.
In 1983, I might have struggled through this collection and rejoiced that two of the stories had female main characters. In 1983, I also wore leg warmers when I wasn’t working out. Things do go out of fashion. I think The Wind from a Burning Woman would be a valuable item in a 1980s time capsule, next to the Flock of Seagulls eight-track and the tiny disco-ball.