Who Goes There?
Despite having read this story multiple times over the years, my experience with Terry Bisson remains minimal, which is not to say he hasn’t written much. Bisson began his SFF career in earnest in the ’80s, and unlike most authors he started out as a novelist before dipping his toes in short fiction; he already had a few novels to his credit by the time “Bears Discover Fire” was published. You may also recognize him as the man who finished Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman on Walter M. Miller Jr.’s behalf, after the latter had committed suicide.
Bisson turned 80 this year.
“Bears Discover Fire” has to be one of the most decorated short stories in SFF history. Where do I even start? It won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for Best Short Story. It also placed #1 in the 1991 Asimov’s Short Story poll. Really the only major award this thing didn’t win was the World Fantasy, and I have to assume it was a close call.
First published in the August 1990 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, which can found on the Archive here. If you want a slightly more “legitimate” method then know that it’s also been reprinted digitally in Lightspeed Magazine. Even if we’re to ignore those, “Bears Discover Fire” is one of the most reprinted SFF tales of the past few decades, and you won’t struggle to find it in some anthology, not least of these being Gardner Dozois’s The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century. You have no excuse is what I’m saying.
This is the kind of story that could’ve easily have been published in F&SF, and even half a decade earlier it probably would’ve been, but for better or worse, Dozois had a very loose definition of “science fiction.”
A man, his brother, and the brother’s son stop just off the highway when they catch a flat. Bobby, Wallace, and Wallace Jr. For the longest time I thought of the narrator as being nameless, but Wallace Jr. calls him “Uncle Bobby” at one point, so what do I know. Anyway, Bobby is really good with cars, and he gives Wallace Jr. a flashflight before replacing the flat tire. The flashlight keeps going dead (one of those things where you have to keep shaking the battery), but Bobby’s able to get the job done. There is just one problem, though: not all the light is coming from the flashlight.
Our characters find some local bears, which is strange in itself because apparently there are few bears in Kentucky, but what’s stranger is that these bears are carrying torches. Now, given the premise of bears becoming intelligent enough to use fire, this sounds like it may turn into a horror story—only it’s not. Something I’ve appreciated about this story with each reread is the dry humor which borders on the absurd. Take the ending of this opening scene for instance, which, rather than having a melodramatic moment of revelation about the bears, has this:
Opening three doors at once, we got into the car and drove off. Wallace was the first to speak. “Looks like bears have discovered fire,” he said.
So bears have discovered fire. Not just in Kentucky but in several other states, perhaps not coincidentally all Southern states—with the exception of Illinois, although Bobby notes it specifically happening in southern Illinois. Bears have begun making bonfires near the highways, but aside from that they’re not doing much that’s unusual for a bear, other than the fact that they’re not going into hibernation once winter approaches.
To this day I’ve not encountered many uniquely Southern works of SFF. A lot from the Northeastern region, of course, and a good deal from the Midwest, but things get more scarce once we get near the Southeast. But then how much regional SFF is there anyway. Regardless, “Bears Discover Fire” is definitely a Southern SFF story, complete with Wallace Jr. knowing how to use a gun despite being in his teens yet. I would also say this is pastoral, and I guess it is, except that this not a story that exactly yearns for pastoralism; maybe not a yearning, but a passing of the torch between old and new, or maybe rural and urban.
More important than Wallace (who basically disappears early on), we get Wallace and Bobby’s mother, who’s very old, to the point of being kept in a nursing home. An aside, but nursing homes may be the most depressing places humans have ever conceived. A day in prison will not break your spirit like a day in an old folks’ home. The mother is pretty funny. There’s a gentle cynicism that permeates the narrative, from the mother’s hungering for death to Wallace not only being a minister at what sounds like one of those made-up Protestant churches (“House of the Righteous Way, Reformed,” it’s called) but making most of his money through real estate.
Once again, the bears discovering fire sounds like it could lead to horrific consequences for the humans, but any damage we hear about is played for laughs. Consider this little episode, while Bobby and Wallace Jr. are at the nursing home and watching TV:
The TV interviewed a hunter and his wife whose $117,500 Shenandoah Valley home had burned. She blamed the bears. He didn’t blame the bears, but he was suing for compensation from the state since he had a valid hunting license. The state hunting commissioner came on and said that possession of a hunting license didn’t prohibit (enjoin, I think, was the word he used) the hunted from striking back. I thought that was a pretty liberal view for a state commissioner. Of course, he had a vested interest in not paying off.
Bobby’s a pretty chill guy about all of it.
What makes Bobby work so well as the narrator is that he’s not someone who’s trying to be funny. A problem often encountered with first-person narrators is either they try too hard to be funny/endearing, and end up as obnoxious, or they serve such a distanced perspective that a third-person narrator would have done just as well or better. But Bobby is an unassuming fellow, and he does have a stake in the matter; he becomes curious, in his own way, about the bears, and because Wallace is away with his wife on some business trip, he takes Wallace Jr. with him for the ride.
There Be Spoilers Here
You may be wondering something. “How did the bears get like this?” We get an implied explanation, but it’s not confirmed, which is just as well, and it does after all serve a symbolic purpose:
Another scientist said the bears were attracted by the berries on a new bush that grew only in the medians of the interstates. He claimed this berry was the first new species in recent history, brought about by the mixing of seeds along the highway. He ate one on TV, making a face, and called it a “newberry.”
The so-called newberries are, according to Bobby, so sweet as to be sour. A human could theoretically eat a newberry, but it has simply too strong a taste.
Unless you’re a bear.
The bears love the newberries. Does it have anything to do with their increased intelligence? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just something nice for them to eat that happens to grow near highways. Another token of the new, urbanized South, yet not necessarily a bad thing.
One day Bobby gets a call from the nursing home and thinks at first that his mother has finally passed away, but this turns out to not be the case. No, it turns out that his mother has escaped, taking her beloved tobacco and a bedspread with her. It doesn’t take long for Bobby to get an idea as to where his mother could have gone.
When Bobby and Wallace Jr. find the old woman, she’s sitting with a bunch of bears, at a bonfire of their making. At first Bobby and the kid are nervous with the bears, but find that they’re not aggressive; indeed there seems to be a bit of humanness about the bears now—how they sit around the fire and stare into it, passing around a hubcap filled with newberries. They’re like a bunch of people, some friends, some family, maybe a few strangers, camping around a fire on a cool night.
Maybe a new human race is emerging.
The climax of “Bears Discover Fire” is deeply bittersweet. I remember doing a live reading of it with a good friend of mine some months ago, and the ending made him tear up a bit. Just a little bit. Even on a fifth (or maybe tenth) reading, I still find the mother’s death while among the bears to be powerful in an unspeakable way. Bisson defies our expectations one last time by having the mother die in the most peaceful way possible, surrounded by her son and grandson, the bears simply minding their own business. There’s even a bit of humor during this final scene with Bobby and his mom that doesn’t intrude on the sadness.
I was ready to go home, but not Mother. She pointed up toward the canopy of trees, where a light was spreading, and then pointed to herself. Did she think it was angels approaching from on high? It was only the high beams of some southbound truck, but she seemed mighty pleased.
She dies holding his hand, and that’s that.
The morning comes, and Wallace shows up with a couple state troopers backing him. His overnight stay with the bears has changed Bobby in almost a metaphysical way, one of those classic SF moments where a door has been opened. Bobby describes the state troopers in dehumanizing terms, or rather he describes them as being no more human than the bears with how stoic and seemingly isolated they act.
At the very end Bobby tries eating a newberry again, but he can’t do it; it’s a thing meant for bears, not people.
A Step Farther Out
“Bears Discover Fire” is the kind of short story you can easily teach in an English lit class, outside the confines of genre. Is it science fiction? Is it fantasy? It’s been anthologized as belonging to either, but I personally think of it as a speculative fable. It’s short, about a dozen pages (Lightspeed weighs it in at only 4,701 words), and you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time much even if, God forbid, you end up not liking it. What helps, of course, is that Bisson’s hand is sure and light, a prose style that’s not poetic per se but which nonetheless is rich in detail, from Bobby’s observations to everyday life of modern Kentucky.
I like “Bears Discover Fire” a lot, big surprise; it’s been a favorite of mine for the past few years, and I always go back to it when re-reading anthologies (which, ultimately, I tend to only re-read certain stories from anyway). It seemed like a good first pick for this site, as it’s pretty well-known, pretty easy to find, and it’s classroom discussion fodder without being overbearing—what with all the obvious but not obnoxious symbolism. Picking up the issue of Asimov’s it originally appeared in and re-reading it thoroughly once more, I’m struck by its gentle beauty and its soft-spoken sense of humor. I don’t laugh out loud exactly, but I always chuckle, and I always feel like I’m being transported to west Kentucky in the late ’80s, despite being solidly a Jersey boy.
I’m also reminded of Clifford D. Simak, who we’ll get to pretty soon. But whereas Simak clearly prefers the rural Midwestern utopia he remembers (or thinks he remembers) from his childhood over modernity, Bisson’s viewpoint seems more nuanced—at least in the case of the one story of his I vividly remember reading. The bears, as a sign of modernity, are taken not as good or bad, but simply as new things in a new era. An era of around-the-clock news and advertising which has its ups and downs.
Well, in a few days we’ll be tackling the first part of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, and after that we have Simak’s Hugo-winning novella “The Big Front Yard.” Hopefully you’ll look up a scan, or a book reprint of your choice, and read along with me. I’ll see you then.
I miss you already.