I will always remember where I was when I finished Forge of God, Greg Bear's
masterpiece of apocalyptic science fiction. I was sitting in the lunch room at
a high school in New Hampshire. The bell rang moments after I finished the final
pages and, for an awful moment, I was still trapped in the book. The sound meant
the world was ending and the "bad news" had been delivered. Of course, in reality
it just meant it was time to go back to class.
Few books have had such an impact on me, so it is little wonder I have been a
fan of Bear's work ever since. It was with eagerness that I awaited the arrival
of The Collected Stories of Greg Bear, and I can say that I was not disappointed
in the volume. Its twenty-four stories cover a career spanning over thirty years
and numerous awards.
One would expect a collection of this kind to go in chronological order by the
date of publication, allowing the reader to get an overview of Bear's style and
voice as it developed. Instead they are grouped into chapters based on the time
period of the stories themselves, from the near future stories in "Soon, Now"
to Bear's wildest speculations about humanity's "Faraway" futures. Each becomes
a sort of miniature anthology, and this technique works very well.
Bear also contributes an introduction and, in some cases, an afterword for each
of the stories. Although I enjoy author's notes in most anthologies, they proved
especially insightful here. For example, I had already realized that the Logologists,
the antagonistic religious cult from "Heads," were based on the Church of Scientology.
Without the notes, however, I would never have known that the divisive and hypocritical
Martian politicians were based on Bear's experiences as president of the Science
Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In the introduction to "Scattershot,"
the author explains the influence of James Tiptree, Jr., on the story, first published
in 1978: "Many writers, perhaps most, adopt likely quirks to work to the market.
In 'Scattershot,' the quirk I acquired from Tiptree is so small hardly anyone
will notice it. But I give the strong male in this story a very hard time, and
promote the women characters to almost mythic stature. It seemed right at the
time." This level of candor will increase the enjoyment of these stories, even
for people like me who have read many or all of them before. There is even an
appendix which contains previously published introductions to two older anthologies
and further commentary on the story "Sisters."
Of course, the meat of the collection is the stories themselves and in most we
see Greg Bear at his best—disturbing, original, and memorable.
In "Dead Run," we ride along with a trucker who ferries the souls of the dead
to hell and witness his misgivings about the fate of his cargo. "Sleepside Story"
is a sensual, richly textured retelling of "Beauty and the Beast," where an innocent
young man is sent to live with an aging whore in her haunted mansion in exchange
for his mother's freedom. The story takes place in a strange fantasy city of weird
and terrible creatures who would be equally at home on the streets of Charles
de Lint's Newford.
The science fiction in the volume is just as satisfying. "Judgment Engine," for
example, concerns a far future in which human technology has accelerated the death
of the universe. The characters are actually human consciousnesses in electronic
form who share in various collective minds. One mind resurrects an ancient self,
in effect a normal human mind. This bewildered hero becomes our window onto the
final hours; Bear seems to love this kind of character, the everyman or everywoman
trapped in a future they are ill-equipped to fully comprehend yet struggling to
In attempting to show us the breadth of the author's career, some misfires are
included. One story, "Plague of Conscience," is actually Bear's contribution to
the shared world anthology Murasaki. Sadly, it does not stand alone well
and as someone who has not read the complete story cycle I found it fairly incomprehensible.
"Richie by the Sea," is Greg Bear's attempt to write Stephen King-style horror,
and the volume marks its first publication since it appeared in the Night Terrors
2 anthology. It probably could have remained in
obscurity to be hunted down only by the Greg Bear-completist.
I have never been sure what to make of his 1990 novella "Heads." Bear attempts
to weave together a number of divergent plot threads including politics and the
aforementioned religious cult, the ethics of cryogenic suspension, quantum computers,
and the attempt to achieve absolute zero under laboratory conditions. I think
he tried to do too much in too little space; he handles this trick much more ably
in his full-length novel Queen of Angels , published
in the same year.
Perhaps my largest criticism with the volume lies not with the author but with
the designer of the book's atrociously ugly cover. The cover depicts an anthology
of the same title only the book on the cover is open to show that inside is actually
a star field rather than pages. Given all the imaginative visions inside the actual
volume, it is a shame that the publisher could not choose a more evocative image
to grace the dust jacket than a picture of the book itself. Fortunately, with
the jacket discarded, the book will be quite attractive on your shelf in simple
black with shiny silver lettering on the spine.
Don't let these faults dissuade you from picking up The Collected Stories of
Greg Bear because overall this book really delivers. It even ends on a high
note with the novella "Hardfought." In it we follow the lives and cloned reincarnations
of a number of hapless soldiers on both sides of a centuries-old conflict between
humanity and the alien Senexi. Its themes of endless war seem especially prescient
today and, of the author's two Nebula-winning stories, it seems the most deserving.
The other, "Blood Music," is also included; I encourage you to read all 24 stories
and see for yourself. These are tales you will never forget.