Walking the Night Land: A Detour (The Wind From a Burning Woman)

No, I haven’t abandoned The Night Land series yet.

The subtitle of this blog is “Literary Reconnaissance into the World of Books”. Think of this as following the Greg Bear river downstream to see deposits of Hodgson. I’m told that, at the end of the Thistledown aka the Way series, Hodgson’s influence shows up. That series begins with the title story of this collection.

Essay: The Wind from a Burning Woman, Greg Bear, 1983.

Wind From a Burning Woman
Cover by Jim Burns

The very memorable title of Bear’s eponymous story comes not from him but a Michael Bishop poem.

Bear’s “Introduction” to this, his first collection, talks about how science fiction served as a gateway for much later reading in philosophy, history, and literature. It also talks some about how each story came to be. Bear, at this point in his career, doesn’t seem to plot his stories out much in advance.

The Wind from a Burning Woman” comes from an intellectual exercise. Bear, appalled by the idea of terrorism, decided to confront its morality by giving his terrorist a motive dear to his heart, space exploration.

Even if I hadn’t looked at the copyright page, I would have guessed this is an Analog story from the 1970s or 1980s. Its villains are Naderites, followers of the “good man” Ralph Nader. He along with, as I recall, Senator William Proxmire and Jeremy Rivkin were occasional real-life villains in the technophilic pages of Analog.

In the wake of a nuclear war, Earth and the Moon are under the rule of the Hexamon, a government dominated by Naderites. The minority party in this state are the Geshels (a name Bear says has no great significance). It’s the party of engineers and scientists.

One of the projects the Geshels were allowed to pursue was the hollowing out of the asteroid Psyche to turn it into generation starship. However, the project was shut down because allegedly the workers suffered psychological problems, proof that humanity isn’t cut out for living in space.

Well, one Giani Turco knows better. And she’s very angry. She gets inside the asteroid, fires up the installed engines, and puts it on a collision course with Earth unless the government makes a very public confession that they sabotaged the Psyche project. And the confession better come with a mass distribution of supporting documents. Will she give into the blandishments of the government and sympathetic spacers and the voice of her dead grandfather in her head? Or is she going to wipe out most of humanity? As a rumination on the morality and efficacy of terrorism, Bear rigs the game a bit by making the stakes so large. Rigs it so much, I would argue, that it moves beyond the questions about terrorism we usually encounter. Still, I liked the story.

It was better than what might, these days, be termed a humblebrag: “The White Horse Child”. It is a fantasy, perhaps set in my home state of South Dakota given some internal hints, of a young farm boy who meets a strange man and woman. They tell him some mighty interesting stories and invite him to make up his own. This makes mom nervous. Are these the same old coots, really old coots, who convinced her worthless brother to become a writer. There’s also the bit of cliched Midwestern provincialism in Aunt Sybil who thinks that stories just distract from the hard and real business of living. And never-you-mind that the Bible is full of stories. This is one of those it’s-horrible-to-be-a-writer-cursed-with-the-creative-urge stories. My teeth gnashed.

A bit on the dull side was “Petra” despite an interesting fantasy setup based on theological speculation. It postulates, a la St. Augustine, that if the Christian God dies, you’ll know it. That’s happened here. The main character, a self-described historian, is the product of sex between a stone gargoyle, which came to life along with other figures in the cathedral when God died, and a nun. He gets involved in a sort of revolution triggered by the romance between a bishop’s daughter and another product of lithic-homo pairing. God’s death created great chaos and a general decoupling of cause and effect. The cathedral’s windows are covered to block visions of the outside world, visions whose novelties can influence reality. A line,

Where human thought was strong, reality’s sudden quaking was reduced to a tremor

prefigures a notion, the importance of libraries, in Bear’s City at the End of Time where observers shape reality.

Scattershot” is one of those disorienting stories that throws you into a confusing situation and then gradually explains things as time goes on. However, writing this review four months later, I can’t say it was a memorable story. The plot involves the narrator, Francis Geneva, a linguist on a spaceship that has been disrupted, in this story’s version of hyperspace, High-space, by the alien Aighor with whom humanity is fighting a war with. Said disruption has broken the ship, and it has somehow become attached to other human spaceships from other timelines.

The story involves Geneva’s encounters and conflicts with the survivors of those other ships. One is an Indian from the American Northwest (though America does not exist as a political entity in his world) and his wives and his snake-like biological tools. Others are engineered humans of infant like appearance. Geneva’s main ally is some kind of genetically engineered bear, a “mascot” of a ship. He, Sonok, appears to come from a Russian dominated Earth. At first, he speaks in rather archaic English as he learns the language. The story ends on a sort of pleasing mythic note.

The timescale of the human-alien war in “Hardfought” is even longer than in “Scattershot”. I don’t have much more to add to my earlier review of this very well done tale. The combat sequences still impress on re-reading. The idea of history being killed is shown through the successful personality types being replicated through time and the refusal of each side to understand the other, just hate it. I had forgotten that the humans cast the war with the Senexi as the old supplanting the new. The Senexi evolved earlier in the history of the universe (and the war continues as the universe grows old) on light element worlds. It is only when human technology finds uses for such worlds that the war develops.

Mandala”, the first third of what would become Bear’s The Strength of Stones was more entertaining than I expected with some novel ideas. On the world of God-Does-Battle, mobile, autonomous cities roam the land. They have cast out humans long ago. The humans, members of all the Abrahamic faiths lived in cities designed by architect Robert Kahn. The cities were designed to expel any citizens, dubbed expolitans, who didn’t live up to the moral standards of the religious community. However, in a backstory we only find out towards the end, the cities’ programming went bad and expelled all humans.

Our hero is Jeshua who is not being allowed to marry Kisa despite the fact they have been long betrothed. The problems? Jeshua has functioning testicles and is an adult male, but his penis is small, and he’s judged incapable of fathering children. He strikes the man who is chosen to marry Kisa and goes on the run. He wants to get inside one of the cities where he has heard his medical condition can be healed. He encounters the duplicitous Thinner who eventually reveals he can get Jeshua into one of the moving cities. (Like Sonok in “Scattershot, Thinner introduces himself with hard to understand dialogue.)

Inside the city, Jeshua finds a young girl. You can see Bear sort of playing with the Garden of Eden and Exodus stories with an expelling from Paradise and an isolated community of just a man and woman. There’s also a brief, but interesting theological debate as to whether scientists and engineers are the spiritual decedents of Cain and corrupted by abandoning the pastoral life.

Based on this story, I am interested in reading The Strength of Stones.

In the next post, we continue down the Way.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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