Breaking the Chains
Elizabeth Bear’s first collection of short fiction, The Chains That You Refuse, amply showcases her flair for literate genre-hopping. From post-apocalyptic Faustian bargaining ("And the Deep Blue Sea") to a sparkling Irish fairytale ("The Company of Four"), via Victorian-era colonial horror ("Tiger! Tiger!"), and a genetically-engineered future ("Gone to Flowers"), Bear creates compelling, thoughtful and often moving stories in a diverse range of settings.
"Ice" takes us to the aftermath of Ragnarok, a vivid red and white vista of bone-freezing cold and bloody despair. For narrator Muire, however, the more difficult task is only just beginning. She must learn to cope with the guilt of having survived, when so many of her brethren fell. And, moreover, she must find a new purpose now that her world is shattered. Muire is a strong but believably conflicted character, and her sad predicament is conveyed economically.
In the end it was complete, and the snow stopped falling, and clouds broke, and I stood over the grave and watched the sunrise paint the grey granite boulders with lichens of blood and time.
"The Devil You Don’t" — one of the most effective stories in the collection — picks up Muire’s story many centuries and half a world later. She is living as a teacher and doctor in the Wild West. Bear conjures the Western resonance — mores, manners, liquor and dust — effortlessly. Yet the shootouts-and-bodies setting is not merely a backdrop for her semi-mortal heroine. Rather, Bear is interested in the genre’s themes, implicit and explicit, and how they may illuminate her premise — and combine to tell a gripping story in their own right. The trope of the outsider appears in literal form as the mysterious stranger Stagolee, but is also reflected in Muire herself, an eternal outsider since Ragnarok. The position of women in frontier society, meanwhile, is neatly explored, providing the pivot of the action.
If there is a unifying theme to The Chains That You Refuse, it is — as the title suggests, and the titular story makes explicit — the exercise of free will and self-determination. Specifically, it is about people making brave choices in the most dire of circumstances, even contrary to apparent sense and the interests of their welfare. Bear’s characters repeatedly elect to step into an unknown future. Often they do this for the very fact that it is unknown, as in the Hugo-nominated "Two Dreams on Trains", an expertly-rendered image of a caste-ridden near-future society, and the shimmering beauty that is possible even in an industrial nightmare, given sufficient inspiration — and will.
This point is underlined by the fact that several of stories end with such a choice, leaving the reader facing a future literally unknown — a tale that continues beyond the page. "And the Deep Blue Sea" follows a motorcycle courier on assignment through the post-apocalyptic landscape of the South-Western US. The urgency and the precariousness of her day-to-day life come through strongly as she dodges crumbling freeways and radiation hotspots. Her Faustian bargain fits the world brilliantly, although her personality is a tad underwritten when set alongside the vividness of her surroundings.
Another ellipsis ending comes in "This Tragic Glass", in which Kit Marlowe is rescued from premature sixteenth-century death by time-traveling, tenure-hunting academics from the twenty-third. The premise of "Glass" — effectively time-napping unfulfilled talents from history to give them a chance to shine in the future — is a fascinating but disturbing one. Marlowe’s dislocation over the whole business is quietly but effectively drawn, and the questionable do-gooding of the academics is — particularly in the area of gender perceptions — examined and critiqued without any strident polemic. The intercutting of Marlowe’s would-be fatal duel and the academics’ decision-making is nicely done. Ultimately, however, the story perhaps does not go quite as far as it could have done with the concept — partly as a consequence of the format’s constrictions, which do not allow us to see Marlowe experience much of the world beyond the lab. This reader, at least, also struggled somewhat with the "Forsooth"s. While the point about language difference is well made, the clichéd dimension that such phrasings have taken on in modern writing means that the dialogue sounds unwontedly awkward.
Two other entries stand out. "Tiger! Tiger!" takes steampunk horror to the Raj in ebullient fashion, as an engaging assortment of characters venture into the Indian wilderness in search of a reputed man-eating tiger. The narrative voice nicely pastiches Victorian literary mannerisms without going overboard, and the ending leaves plenty of tantalizingly unanswered questions. "Botticelli", meanwhile, plays with time and structure to excellent effect, flicking back and forth between the troubled pasts of its protagonists — a pair of post-Cold War spies, who are also lovers — and the dangerous present of their mission. Impressionistic glimpses of tender interaction offset vivid streaks of brutal violence. It all adds up to an intriguing, devastating picture, in which the story lives as much in the reader’s inferences as in the words on the page.
Maybe there’s a war, and maybe you’re a boy, and maybe you’re a soldier. In any case, you see things — you are things — that no human being should ever have to see, should ever have to become.
The collection is not without its misfires. The opening — and previously unpublished — "L’espirit d’escalier" is a curiously-uninvolving exercise in post-modern structuring that never quite gels, its main purpose seeming to be referencing as many iconic writers as possible. "High Iron" (miners in space) and "Sleeping Dogs Lie" (about an ill-treated dog) both seem lightweight and unadventurous compared with the muscular prose and unflinching thematics found elsewhere.
Overall, however, this is a clever, accomplished, versatile and thoroughly entertaining assembly of stories. Mood, theme and setting sometimes win out over characterization, but it is tough to begrudge writing this distinctive and memorable.