The Sharp Edge: Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

Shoggoths in Bloom is the second collection of short fiction by award-winning author Elizabeth Bear, following 2006’s The Chains That You Refuse. The pieces included are predominantly reprints, from 2006 forward, spanning several of Bear’s recent stand-outs—such as Hugo-winning stories “Shoggoths in Bloom” and “Tideline”—as well as one piece original to the collection, “The Death of Terrestrial Radio.” There is also an introduction by Scott Lynch.

It is no grand secret that that I find Bear’s fiction provocative and engaging. Her work tends to speak to the things that I find most interesting in fiction: the sharp edges of people, situations, and issues as large (and small) as the problem of existence. The pieces collected in Shoggoths in Bloom are all in some way implicated in this exploration of the hard parts of living but in remarkably different ways. This collection is both a study in contrasts and a study in unity; the threads that run throughout Bear’s fiction are present, and so are the significant differences from story to story.

This is one of those rare collections that makes both an ideal introduction for a reader who’s fresh to a writer’s work and a delightful re-acquaintance for a familiar correspondent, someone who’s been here before. The arrangement of reprints here is careful, keeping a thematic thread going while giving enough subtlety and variety to make the old new again. For example, the juxtaposition of “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” and “Orm the Beautiful” is a rather stunning choice that manages to work despite the seemingly opposite nature of the stories in question. The idea of the message echoing into the future, in some ways, is present in both; so is a sense of isolation and great loneliness. But: one is a scifi mystery while the other tells a fantastical tale of dragons that turns to jewels when they die. These juxtaposition-intrigues flow throughout the collection.

If anything, Lynch’s introduction—cute and playful in tone, rather personally focused—provides the reader with the only thread that they truly need to grasp to see the connections between these tales: they’re all, in some way, about impossible decisions, necessity, and survival. Also, often, these stories are about what it means to be ethical and to do the right thing—no matter the cost. Difficulties span these stories: difficulties of place, of character, of situation, of time; difficulties of interpersonal tragedy, and intimate failures, and loss; difficulties of the mind and the body. Many of these pieces speak in quiet, powerful ways about surviving trauma, about living with damage, and about pushing through. The plots are good stuff—Bear can spin a mystery, let no one tell you otherwise—but the resonances, the thematic stuff, are where the stories hit home and linger long after the reader finishes.

Of particular interest to me, too, are the visible shifts occurring from year to year, story to story, in Shoggoths in Bloom that are indicative of developments in Bear’s overall body of work. Some of the weaker stories in the collection are also, coincidentally, the oldest; in particular, “Sounding” and “The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe” share a similar flaw—a certain sense of jumbled priorities, of a proverbial shaky landing. While both pieces share powerful imagery with the other stories throughout the collection, the restrained power and solid impacts that Bear’s later works impart isn’t quite developed yet, though hints shine through. (In comparison with older stories from the previous collection, this development becomes even clearer.)

I would argue, demonstrated by the stories here, that over the past six years or so Elizabeth Bear has developed from a damned good short fiction writer—even the weaker pieces are evocative and linger in the memory—to a short fiction writer with the kind of powerful, tight, effective prose and style that marks a mastery of the craft. That development, at once a settling-in to certain hallmarks of “the Bear story” (theme, as I’ve said, provides a uniting thread) and a branching off into new techniques, can sustain stories as diverse in content and focus as the mystery-driven “In The House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” and the genuine kicker of a closing story, “The Death of Terrestrial Radio.”

Single-author collections are one of the rare forms that allow for this sort of retrospective experiment in reading. There’s a reason I’m rather fond of them. Shoggoths in Bloom, in particular, is a well-made combination of the familiar and the strange, twisting and shifting from one story to the next without throwing the reader off balance while also keeping their interest—it’s a dance with variety and skill, but also an underlying pattern.

If I had one complaint about this volume, it would be directed at the publisher—there are, unfortunately, a handful of typographical errors lingering in the text. However, leaving that aside, I heartily recommend this book for readers who enjoy complicated stories that deal, often, with the personal and intersectional politics of survival—Bear frequently engages with issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality, among other things, and she does so with an attention to detail and a sympathy for other folks’ stories that I find moving. Shoggoths in Bloom showcases a handful of brilliant stories, and several great ones, to strong effect; I would, happily, read it again. And again.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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