The Best Science Fiction Stories Ever Written: “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson

WHO WROTE IT:

Terry Bisson, one of the greatest sci-fi writers you’ve probably never heard of.

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According to his Wikipedia page, Bisson was born in 1942 in Kentucky. While in college, he was on the forefront of the student peace movement in the 1960s, and even met with President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Bisson graduated from the University of Louisville in 1964 and lived “off-and-on” in New York City for the next 40 years. He became a full-time writer in 1981, then moved to Oakland, California in 2002, the poor sap. He frequently dabbles in comic books, including comic book adaptations of Roger Zelazny’s Amber series in the 90s. He’s definitely one of the coolest sci-fi writers you’ve never heard of.

WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED:

Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (which would later become Asimov’s Science Fiction) in 1990. Which, apparently, contained Harlan Ellison’s most controversial essay EVER.

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Exactly what it says on the tin! Bears, for some unexplained reason, suddenly discover how to use fire. So suddenly the national parks and backwoods and highway medians of America are filled with bears carrying torches or sitting around campfires.

Okay, obviously there’s more to it than that. Stories need protagonists, and those protagonists need real problems. It’s about a man, his nephew, and his dying mother. And bears that can use fire. I can’t say more than that due to fear of spoilers. But it’s a beautiful story, short and sweet and well worth a read.

BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS:

“What if bears discovered fire?”

No, no, I’m kidding. Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

No, really the question is, “What if your dying mother escapes the home you put her in and goes and sits around a campfire with a bunch of silent, contemplative bears, and you take your little nephew and go after her and sit there with her as the bears poke the fire and pass around a hubcap full of berries which may or may not have been what granted them the intelligence to master fire in the first place?” 

Make of that what you will.

WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT:

Effing bears, man. Discovering fire. Ain’t that the bee’s knees?

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Just kidding, just kidding. Seriously: “Bears Discover Fire” is a short, hard, unpretentious look at personal loss and the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. I like to imagine that, in some subtle way, the bears learning to use fire (but not learning to use it particularly well…they don’t put the right sort of wood on, so the fire doesn’t give off much heat or light, just smoke) is a metaphor for the younger generation clumsily learning to do things that the older generation has mastered.

Tire repair, funnily enough, plays a recurring them in the story. At one point, the narrator, “Uncle Bobby” as his nephew calls him, bemoans that tire repair is a “lost art.” It’s also implied that bears may once have known how to use fire, but forgot at some point, and (either because they eat “newberries” or due to the great Yellowstone wildfires) have only just remembered. The two “lost arts” seem interrelated somehow. Anyway, how often do you see a story about dealing with the loss of a parent and educating the younger generation on the finer points of grammar and tire repair couched in a story about bears discovering fire?

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT:

I repeat, how often do you see a story about dealing with the loss of a parent and educating the younger generation on the finer points of grammar and tire repair couched in a story about bears discovering fire?

And if that’s not enough to convince you, consider that “Bears Discover Fire” also won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1991, the two most prestigious awards in the science fiction world. It also won a raft of other awards that same year: the Asimov Reader’s Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, and the SF Chronicle Award. This is a story that both readers, reviewers, and sci-fi writers adored to bits. If you’re like me, and you’re trying to learn how to read good science fiction, and are on a quest to read some of the best science fiction that was ever written, you could do worse than read “Bears Discover Fire.”

WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT:

Besides being anthologized, you can also read “Bears Discover Fire” for free online at Lightspeed Magazine’s site.

That’s it for this week! Now get the heck off the internet and get writing.

POSTSCRIPT:

One more thing. You may have noticed that I didn’t blog last weekend. Sorry. I got kind of busy. I’m doing every single writing exercise in Brian Kiteley’s excellent book The 3 A.M. Epiphany and it’s a hell of a trip. I think I’m going to start blogging every two weeks, if you don’t mind, dear readers. Hope I don’t lose you all. It’s just easier for my writing schedule if I break things up a little.

Author: Andrew T. Post

Andrew T. Post is a science fiction writer, journalist, traveler, thinker, and blogger based in the Central Valley of California.

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