Novella Review: “Hardfought” by Greg Bear

(Cover by Don Brautigam. Asimov’s, February 1983.)

Who Goes There?

Greg Bear was an author and illustrator who got started very young, first being published when he was only a teenager, but he wouldn’t start writing in earnest until he was in his twenties, during the post-New Wave burnout period of the ’70s. You can find Bear in the pages of Ben Bova’s Analog and Jim Baen’s Galaxy, but still we have not reached the point of Bear as an “important” author. It’s only in the ’80s that Bear, along with the other so-called Killer B’s (Gregory Benford and David Brin bring the others), dusted off the disco glitter and helped reintroduce unadulterated hard SF to the field at a time when much of the fiction had gone soft. 1985 especially proved a fruitful year for Bear with the publication of not one but two of his most famous novels, those being Eon and Blood Music, the latter a greatly expanded version of what is probably his most famous short story. The former very much takes after Arthur C. Clarke while the latter is one of the earliest forays into nanotechnology.

Bear is one of the few authors to win the Nebula in more than one fiction category in the same year, winning Best Novelette with “Blood Music” and Best Novella with the subject of today’s review, “Hardfought.” Having read “Blood Music” several times before, I thought I knew what to expect with the longer work, but the truth is that “Hardfought” and “Blood Music” almost feel like they were written by different authors—both highly intelligent but also clearly working on different levels of literary sophistication. Whereas “Blood Music” is at heart an old-fashioned problem story in which a scientist goes one step too far in his quest for enlightenment, “Hardfought” is of a different breed, and much harder to describe. These, like the best of his fiction, show Bear as someone who was, despite his appearance as a hard-headed devotee of science, a considerably more morally and philosophically serious artist than his fellows.

Unfortunately, Bear passed away in November 2022 following heart surgery. His death shook the field, and while he was long past producing his best work, it was as if a door had been closed on an era of SF writing. Tackling “Hardfought” is my way of paying tribute to this late giant.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the February 1983 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Since this is a Nebula-winning novella it has been reprinted a fair number of times; it was even included, apparently as a last-minute addition, in Bear’s first short story collection, The Wind from a Burning Woman. It appeared, alongside “Blood Music,” in Gardner Dozois’s first annual The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Another anthology appearance from the ’80s would be The Mammoth Book of Modern Science Fiction: Short Novels of the 1980s (which is not as long as it sounds), edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. If you’re looking for more recent collections there’s The Collected Stories of Greg Bear from Orb, and if you hate yourself and wanna waste your money there’s the three-volume Complete Short Fiction of Greg Bear from Open Road Media. Finally, “Hardfought” became one half of a Tor double, the other half being Timothy Zahn’s “Cascade Point,” which won the Hugo for Best Novella the same year “Hardfought” won the Nebula.

Enhancing Image

Normally when reviewing stories, regardless of length, I try to do a point-by-point outline of the plot without going overboard with it. I write these reviews with the intention that some reader might actually pick up a copy of what I’m reviewing and follow along, or might get a good enough of an idea about what the thing is that they might pick it up afterwards, assuming I recommend it. I will not do that with “Hardfought,” because while I’ve gotten to the point where I think I understand what happens in broad strokes, I’m not confident enough to give a point-by-point outline. For better or worse (ultimately I’d say for the better), “Hardfought” seems designed to not be understood entirely—at least not on a first reading; it is almost unreasonably difficult, which was a shock to the system for me. I did not think Bear was capable of writing a 60-page story that is this dense and elusive, with enough material to fill a 400-page novel.

I took six pages of notes for this. Not unusual for a complete novel, but for a novella it’s a bit much, and you’re gonna need those notes.

What’s befuddling is that if taken in broad strokes, the plot is actually not that complicated; it’s an enemies-stuck-together narrative not too unlike Barry B. Longyear’s “Enemy Mine” (also a Nebula winner, coincidence), although past that basic premise the two are literally worlds apart. It’s like if you forced Gene Wolfe to write a space opera. You have a forever war between two spacefaring races: mankind and the Senexi. You might assume that the humans are the more relatable characters, but you might wanna put a pin in that one. The Senexi are an unspeakably ancient race—so old that they live around gas giants due to the minimal chemistry of those planets. Despite their collective age, the Senexi are, at least on the individual level, not as advanced as humans, and indeed one of the key themes of the novella is a new race overtaking the old.

We then have two protagonists whose viewpoints alternate and who occasionally are hard to tell apart: this is deliberate. In one corner we have Aryz, a “branch ind,” which is to say an underling, little more than an extension of the brood mind, which is like but not quite the Senexi equivalent of a queen bee. A brood mind would be big game from the humans’ perspective while the branch inds are expendable, even from the perspective of the branch inds themselves. A branch ind will gladly sacrifice itself to protect its brood mind, and it might even choose suicide over dishonor. In the other corner we have Prufrax, a girl who thinks she has been trained to fight the Senexi, yet who is unaware that she is currently being held prisoner by them.

The ship Aryz is on had captured half a dozen human embryos, plus a mandate, a “memory storage device” that doesn’t function just to back up memories but to store as much past human experience as possible. A brood mind serves a similar function to a mandate in that it stores the memories of past Senexi, not just the past ten years of Senexi experience but entire generations, hence why they’re so valuable. Another theme “Hardfought” plays with is the notion of collective memory, which we see practiced on both sides of the conflict but with different methods. The Senexi have an organic creature which is all mind and no action, supported by others who are supposed to be all action and no mind; meanwhile the humans use machines for seemingly everything, from tracing their history to raising their young. The captured mandate serves partly as a teacher for Prufrax and her fellow prisoners.

Aryz is deemed too individualistic to function as a branch ind; the good news is that rather than dying he’s granted a different and arguably better job by his brood mind, which is to watch over the “human shapes” and try to learn about them. Why would Senexi want to capture some humans and a mandate? Why would human want to capture a brood mind? Why would we want to capture a general or a scientist who’s working for the other side? Information, naturally. Not really to “understand” the other side but to find out their weaknesses, what makes them tick, where they’re doing research, what resources they’re after. The problem for Aryz is that he may be learning too much about the humans under his watch, to the point where he almost understands them better than his fellow brand inds. Quite a feat too, considering Prufrax and her fellow humans are more than a little hard to parse, and honestly at first I wasn’t even sure they were human.

A lot of far-future SF has the problem of a supposedly far-future mankind sounding too much like the mankind that the writer knew in whatever time period they were writing. The people of Heinlein’s Future History sound like affluent white Americans from the ’40s and ’50s. “Hardfought” does not have such a problem, though. The people of the far future (we’re talking several centuries from now) sound really fucking weird, and Bear plays some elaborate word games both to misdirect the reader and to reinforce the sheer alienness of people who are supposedly our ancestors. Aryz is the most relatable character and this is not an accident or a mistake; we actually understand his mindset better than Prufrax’s, despite him being the literal alien in the equation.

He had long since guessed the general outlines of the brood mind’s plans. Communication with the human shapes was for one purpose only, to use them as decoys, insurgents. They were weapons. Knowledge of human activity and behavior was not an end in itself; seeing what was happening to him, Aryz fully understood why the brood mind wanted such study to proceed no further.

He would lose them soon, he thought, and his work would be over. He would be much too human-tainted. He would end, and his replacement would start a new existence, very little different from Aryz’s—but, he reasoned, adjusted. The replacement would not have Aryz’s peculiarity.

“Hardfought” should come with its glossary, but it doesn’t so you’ll just have to learn what certain words mean as you go along. For starters, the word used for the title is not an adjective like hard-won, it’s a noun; from what I can tell a “hardfought” in-story is a battle or a skirmish. “Eyes-open” is awake, “eyes-close” is asleep, “biologic” is short for biological or organic, “the overness of the real” is objective reality, a “fib” is something fictitious rather than factual, and the list keeps going. Far-future humanity has its own vocabulary, and while it would be unthinkable to do something like this for a short story, it is quite possible at the novella length, which Bear takes full advantage of. It’s confusing, but I’m positive that’s by design: if we understood these brainwashed cyborgs of the future right away then the theme of understanding your enemy would be for naught.

Speaking of which, to call “Hardfought” anti-war would be a bit of an understatement. The lack of communication between mankind and the Senexi is what drives the conflict, with neither side wanting to give the other the chance to coexist or even explain itself. The war has apparently been going on for generations with no end in sight, although it’s implied that mankind will eventually drive out the older race. But at what cost? Prufrax and her comrades are born and raised for battle, and it’s unclear as to what would be done with them if they served their sentence and had to live during peacetime. Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, posits that militarism breeds individuality, and that in order to retain its freedom mankind must fight the bugs, who after all they do not share any words with. I like Starship Troopers, but I think it goes without saying that Heinlein’s hypothesis is disagreeable, and even though Bear strikes me as on the conservative side, his disagreement with said hypothesis is evident.

One more thing…

On Prufrax’s side of the plot we read what seem to be flashbacks, which cannot be since Prufrax could not have experienced the things she’s remembering; she has spent her current (important word there) life on the Senexi ship. What we’re actually doing is we’re seeing these “flashbacks” via the mandate, which lets us look into not only Prufrax’s memories but those of others as well, although the exact nature of these memories is saved for the climax. I was confused at first, because I was wondering how we could be reading the memories of someone who who by all accounts has not experienced those memories, but Bear uses these flashbacks, much like the invented vocabulary, to distance us from mankind of the distant future. But still, mankind would presumably be the “good” side in this conflict, as that’s kind of an unspoken rule with military SF, right? Right…?

It’s like Greg Bear took my brain and blasted it with a shotgun. You have to rework your thinking when reading “Hardfought” if you want to understand, which is a very “this won a Nebula” thing to say. Having more in common with the early works of Samuel R. Delany (and, this may sound blasphemous, being more sophisticated than most of early Delany) than the hard SF being pumped out by his peers, Bear’s novella is packed to the gills with invention, big ideas, big moral statements, many of which are hidden behind a veil of language, and perhaps most unexpectedly of all, character. Aryz is one of the best alien characters I’ve read as of late—an alien who looks radically different from mankind (Senexi physiology is quite weird) but who through personality comes off as more human than the actual in-story humans, what with their bloodlust and their cybernetic implants.

Again, a reminder that this is somehow a novella and not a full novel; you could read it in an afternoon, but you really should take your time with it.

There Be Spoilers Here

Get fucked, I’m not spoiling the back end of this thing.

Just saying right now it’s stellar, and made me reconsider what I had been reading. Bear uses these “flashbacks” like he’s about to break the very notion of spacetime in half, AND HE MAKES IT WORK.

A Step Farther Out

If there was ever a novella that deserves a reread, it’s this one. “Hardfought” is undoubtedly the most challenging thing I’ve had to review for this site thus far, which was not something I was expecting. I really should’ve, though, because Shawn McCarthy (I assume McCarthy wrote it) tells us in the opening blurb that this is not your grandpa’s military SF. McCarthy had recently taken over as editor of Asimov’s and I’m pretty sure this is how “Hardfought” got published when it did; it would’ve been too literary for Analog and too hard SF for F&SF, but McCarthy quickly showed herself to be a daring editor and her bet on this one paid off.

Before we tell you about the author, let us first warn you that the story you’re about to read Is like nothing else you’ve ever seen in these pages. It’s a difficult story—not one you can skim before going to bed at night. But it is also, we think, a very rewarding story. Give it your time and attention, and we don’t think you’ll regret it.

Bears plops us in the deep end from the start and by the end we’ve come to understand what he’s doing. If you’re along for the ride then you might be incentivized to reread the whole thing; for myself I ended up rereading whole passages for the sake of this review, because I needed to but also because I had become entranced. Bear is hunting extraordinarily big game here, all in the space of sixty pages, no doubt compressed pages but by no means rushed. The thematic and linguistic weaving prevalent throughout “Hardfought” have given me much to think about these past few days, never mind the thinking it made me do while in the act of reading it. Calling it “military SF” almost doesn’t feel right, despite the cybernetics and space war, because it’s such an intricately constructed work, both in its writing and its morals, which is more than can be said for most of the subgenre.

See you next time.


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