The Chains That You Refuse

by Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Publisher: Night Shade Books
Copyright: 2006
ISBN: 1-59780-048-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 219

Buy at Powell's Books

Elizabeth Bear's first short fiction collection is a slim volume, only a touch over 200 pages, but it's full of memorable gems. This is a great collection to read between other things; the longest story is 26 pages and most of the stories are 10 pages long or shorter. Bear covers a wide range of topics: fantasy (generally with a fae edge, a concern with rules, history, honor, and hidden worlds and identities), historical fiction, science fiction, and two poems.

Regular readers of SCIFICTION will have already seen three of these stories, including the best, but there are 22, many from rather obscure publications and three original to this collection. This is not a rehash of stories that you're likely to have seen before. I read all of F&SF and Asimov's and hadn't seen any of these before; the one F&SF publication predates when I started reading the magazine regularly.

Thematically, there are exceptions, but the general trend is towards stories about people making hard choices for difficult reasons and living with the consequences. One of the things I liked about Bear's novels is that she shows the consequences and writes her characters living through them. That's even more pronounced here.

This is one of the better short fiction collections I've read. Not every story worked for me, but most of them did, and I never felt like the collection fell into a rut or kept repeating the same story. I particularly recommend it to people who like a fae-like edge of ambiguous danger and unsafe choices.

"L'esprit d'escalier": This was one of the weaker stories for me, probably because I don't know enough about the writers conversing in the Afterlife and missed a lot of the dynamic. There are many references to Ginsberg's Howl (and Ginsberg shows up as a character), and there's a subplot related to Richard Brautigan that I didn't understand. I also never understood (but quite liked) the giant koi named General. Despite that, the storyline about changing the past carries emotional weight and I enjoyed some of the bar banter. (6)

"Gone to Flowers": For those who have read the Jenny Casey trilogy, starting with Hammered, this short story tells the backstory behind Jenny's legal testimony and the guilt of past betrayal that she deals with in the trilogy. It's good to read about Jenny again, but I'm not sure that this story really worked at a structural level. One of the best features of the Jenny Casey trilogy is the weight of the past that affects all of the characters, the feeling of a complex history that the characters have difficulty talking about and that the reader gets glimpses of around the edges. I preferred that technique to seeing what happened directly. Even though "Gone to Flowers" plays some strong emotional chords, I thought the same chords were played better by the trilogy in the echoes these events left behind.

Going back to my comment about Bear's willingness to write the consequences, this story is the event, and the later trilogy is the consequences. The consequences are a more effective story, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend reading this story first. (6)

"The Company of Four": This is a good, solid fairy story. Bear has a wonderful touch for the emotions of spells, loss, and hidden pain. I love the way an emotional context shines through the enforced amnesia of the characters, gaining more poignancy because of it, but also changes with the amnesia in subtle ways. My only complaint is that I thought the ending was abrupt and a bit weak; I wanted more punch and fallout. (7)

"Ice": What do you do when you're the last survivor of Ragnarok, with your family and companions lying dead on the fields of ice around you? This is an archetypal example of a type of story Bear does so well. It starts with the end of a story and tackles the emotional fallout, shame at living where one's fellows have died and at what one did to survive, loss and purposelessness, and determination to find a way to survive afterwards. This is a story of raw emotion rather than plot twists, and the emotion worked very well for me. (8)

"High Iron": This has one of the better characterizations of a space miner I've read, but the plot felt stock to me. The story is short and straightforward: prejudice is proven wrong, the old hand and the outsider make up after a dramatic bonding experience, etc. Good characterization didn't defeat the sense of deja vu. (6)

"ee 'doc' cummings": This was awesome. It's a one page parody of e.e. cummings and E.E. "Doc" Smith, it's brilliant, and I can't read it without laughing. (9)

"The Devil You Don't": A sequel of sorts to "Ice," there's something irresistible about a Norse survivor of Ragnarok hiding out in a Wild West town. It sets up a good western, with a gun fight, a corrupt sheriff, town secrets, and a nice bit of revenge, all layered with loss, memory, and the alienating viewpoint of someone originally from a far different culture who was trying to mind her own business. Quite enjoyable. (7)

"Tiger! Tiger!": I liked the idea of writing a Lovecraftish story about a tiger hunt where Blake's poem comes literally true. The story itself, though, didn't do a lot for me. It's an adventure story told in the classic mode of European travellers into a remote jungle, the narrator is long-winded, and I never warmed to the characters. (5)

"The Dying of the Light" by Elizabeth Bear & Amber van Dyk: The second poem of the collection, this one I had to read several times before I really followed it. It's told in two threads, one justified left and one justified right, and they both entwine and tell somewhat separate stories. I got the most out of it by reading both threads separately and then reading them again together, but after piecing that together, this take on inspiration and writing is memorable and haunting. And "the necrophilia makes it seem dirtier than it really is" is a great line. (7)

"And the Deep Blue Sea": Post-apocalyptic deal-with-the-devil stories featuring motorcycle couriers just can't go far wrong. The descriptions of driving through the blasted western US remind me a lot of the photographs and narrative of biking through the Chernobyl restricted area that circulated on the Internet a while back. The scenario, setting, main character, and ending came together quite satisfactorily, complete with a nice bit of tension over just how a contract will be interpreted. (8)

"Schrödinger's Cat Chases the Super String": This is one of the handful of stories in this collection that tell the imagined life of historical figures, this one a meeting between Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, the Curies, and Einstein. I'm afraid it never made much sense to me. (4)

"One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King": Another story based on a great idea, this time a struggle between Las Vegas and Los Angeles for control of a dam and its water, but cast as a conflict between city archetypes. It's a nice bit of symbolism, with characters that worked for me as embodiments and as characters in their own right and a great emotional undertone of fighting just because one can, to prove your own independence and ability to make choices. (7)

"Sleeping Dogs Lie": This is the most sentimental story of the collection, a very short story about an abused dog with a happy ending. But it also has a survival ending, and the dog is not helpless even when he appears to be externally. I found it very touching and an effective bit of characterization of a dog. (8)

"Two Dreams on Trains": Another sort of hard choice story, this one with a science fiction setting in a world with very sharp class distinctions. This one has a quite ambiguous ending; the mother's hopes for her son make perfect objective sense, but the son's defiant act rings emotionally true, and I found it hard to take sides. There's a good insight into the appeal of tagging here. (7)

"Stella Nova": The story of the dying days of Tycho Brahe and his last interactions with Kepler and his vision of the future of astronomy. I was a bit surprised at how effective this was emotionally with an inevitable outcome from the start. The story gains structure from a Latin saying that's woven into each part and reiterated at the end, and I liked the thematic resonance between a supernova and Brahe's death. (7)

"This Tragic Glass": This is the best story of the collection, the longest, and worth buying the collection for it alone in my opinion. It's the story of Christopher Marlowe's death, a future theorist working on literary analysis, and time travel that can snatch Marlowe out of the past. The time travel environment reminded me of Connie Willis's historians, but the story doesn't read like Willis at all. Instead, it's built around a twist of sex and gender roles and identity that's awe-inspiringly audacious and that Bear carries out brilliantly in all its emotional implications. Marlowe is a wonderful viewpoint character, and the interactions between Marlowe and Keats are one of those touches that only time travel stories can provide. Great story, well worth seeking out. (9)

"Botticelli": This one felt quite different than the other stories in the collection. It's a slice in the life of an American and a Russian agent working together during détente, told in an mix of viewpoints switching between third person tight on the American and the Russian with interludes in a philosophical second person. I liked both the structure and the banter, but I felt like I missed the overall point of the story. In fact, I'm rather certain I did, since I never worked out what the title had to do with the story. (6)

"Seven Dragons Mountains": A rather odd story about China and dragons, during the days of British influence and the growing threat of Japan. There's again a touch of the supernatural in hidden and disguised things, a feeling of the supernatural walking alongside the natural but unseen, but in this story it didn't gel for me. (5)

"Old Leatherwings": This one, on the other hand, came together at the end, although it took a few times reading back and forth to work out how the intermixed fairy tale segments interact with and explain the story. I liked the way the mixing of several fairy tale structures together created the theme of choice and consequence and the odd but satisfying logic of fairy stories. There's a nice bit of subversion of normally heroic figures, too. (7)

"When You Visit the Magoebaskloof Hotel, Be Certain Not to Miss the Samango Monkeys": A more traditional SF story, this is a first contact scenario where the key realization about the aliens comes from the strange behavior of a monkey adopting a monkey of another species. Somewhat interesting, but I wasn't very satisfied with the reveal. (5)

"Follow Me Light": A traditional fairy tale structure featuring the uncanny trying to join and pass in the normal world, with overtones of The Little Mermaid come at from a rather different angle. Most of the story is a slow explanation of what's really going on. The plot arc is predictable, but I liked the atmosphere. (6)

"The Chains That You Refuse": This is a lovely bit of untraditional writing, a short story written in the second person future perfect. I had no idea how that could work before I read this, but it turns out to be an effective voice to use to explore destiny, fate, and free will. It's a story about making the decisions that you can make, even if you have few choices, and I found it surprisingly moving. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-09-30

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