I seem to be running across a number of writers for whom the idea of “genre” is as fluid as the idea of a “short story.” Stories are like a painter’s drawings or a composer’s piano studies: they can range from sketches, bare hints of ideas working themselves out, to polished, elegant miniatures, fully realized. Take, for example, the stories presented in Elizabeth Bear’s The Chains That You Refuse.
Bear made her reputation as a writer of science fiction, and then produced one of the most engaging and substantial fantasies I’ve read in a long time. Even more recently she brought out another science fiction story — at least, it has the trappings of science fiction, and it is about ideas, but it’s not anywhere close to classic “science fiction,” at least in my opinion. And now I’m sitting here contemplating this collection. Frankly, it would be ludicrous to try to fit these stories into a category. I suspect they would simply refuse to cooperate. I’m sure of it.
The first story in the book, “L’Esprit d’Escalier,” bills itself as “Not A Play In One Act,” so, if it is to be believed at all, it’s not a play. It could be science fiction — there are time paradoxes, of a sort. It could be fantasy — it’s inhabited by an ancient koi, a group of dead poets, and a bartender, plus the owner of the bar, who may be the devil himself, or at least a minion. “The Devil You Don’t,” on the other hand, is a straightforward Western, a riff on the ballad “Stagger Lee.” Well, not really so straightforward. There seems to be an echo of Ragnarok here, too, in the character of Maura MacAydan (and also an echo of another story in this collection, “Ice”). That is not her name, and, while a spinster, she’s much older than anyone has reason to believe. Come to think of it, Stagolee, who may be her brother, is not what he appears to be, either.
There is a lot of power in this collection. The two stories that I found most affecting appear just over halfway through, back to back, and are among the shortest. “Sleeping Dogs Lie” plays on both meanings of “lie” in a story told from the point of view of a dog who has, at the least, learned to prevaricate. In barely two and a half pages, Bear weaves a potent tale of patience, deception, the freedom of the soul, and ultimate rescue. (It reminded me a great deal of Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Monologue of a Dog,” the same kind of impact with a much happier ending.) “Two Dreams on Trains,” which follows, is the story of a mother and her son, both of whom dream about the great freight haulers that land on what was once Lake Pontchartrain in an eerily prophetic vision of a drowned New Orleans. Ringing variations on the idea of “vehicle,” it’s about dreams, practical and impractical, about need and desire, the material and the spiritual, carried out in a brilliant little etude.
There are lots of reasons to get this book. I could go on about every story — there is that much in each of them — but I’d rather talk about the surprises, the little twists to character and circumstance, the way diction changes from narrator to narrator — not just speech patterns, but vocabulary, pacing, even the sound you hear in your mind changes. I could note Bear’s refusal to explain the little universes she’s created while giving us the clues we need to figure it out (a trend in recent fantasy and science fiction, and one I applaud heartily). Or, I could just mention the strength of her prose, that keeps you reading and reading just because you’re enjoying it so much.
Any one of those is reason enough for me.
(Night Shade Books, 2006)