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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"Bears Discover Smut" by Michael Bishop: An Appreciation by Elizabeth Bear

Michael Bishop's "Bears Discover Smut" is a farce, a fantasy, a fable, a story of social and personal change that, not incidentally, also happens to be a sort of responsorial to Terry Bisson's award-winning 1991 farce, fantasy, fable, and story of social and personal change, "Bears Discover Fire." (The Bishop story is dedicated to Bisson.) But it also stands on its own quite beautifully as a tail of loss and failure and unrecognized hypocrisy--both a parable of tolerance, and a dissection of false faces.

"Bears Discover Fire" is the story of Uncle Bobby, a 60-year-old man concerned with his dying mother, in a world where bears have, as the title suggests, discovered fire. The bears of the title are mostly backgrounded, irrelevant to the narrator's life except in terms of a background curiosity, a type example of the manner in which the true marvels of the world are lost in daily concerns and the everyday need to get the children fed and the dishes washed.

Use of fire is perhaps the strongest Western symbol of civilization--even of intelligence. Our classical gods of home are gods of the hearth and the forge, and we speak popularly of the mastery of fire as the defining moment that separates humans from the animal kingdoms. (Coyotes will reportedly put out small fires, in the obvious coyote-approved fashion, but their mastery of Kipling's Red Flower is generally considered to be of a different order--more practical in the short run, perhaps, but less visionary.) H. Beam Piper gives us the "talk-and-build-a-fire" rule of thumb for determining the intelligence of alien species; Prometheus gives us fire from the gods.

Fire is humanity, on a deep cultural level.

As the bears evolve a sort of civilization and community, Uncle Bobby attempts to protect his mother, accept her going, and ease her passage from the world--while simultaneously struggling to civilize his nephew, to teach him practicality and logic--and morality, as well. As the human culture seems to be slipping inexorably into barbarism, the bears are founding a society. "Looks like bears have discovered fire," Bobby's brother Wallace drawls at the end of Bisson's story, a dry anticlimax that condenses the story's many complex ironies into a final, crowning indictment of the willful blindness of so many of its characters. Bears have discovered fire. And people have lost it.

"Bears Discover Smut," on the other hand, offers the revelatory sentence in the first scene:

"Well," said Snooky, "looks like bears have discovered cheesecake."

"Smut, you mean."

"Call it what you like. It keeps me in beans and grits." Snooky shook his head. "I just never thought a dumb beast would stoop so low."


And by contrast to Uncle Bobby and his domestic concerns, Tommy Kyle, the narrator of "Bears Discover Smut," is a self-described hypocrite. A Testifier--a conservative preacher--with an illicit smut habit and a tendency to minister to the waitresses at girlie-themed restaurants in preference to the poor or misguided, a father and husband who avoids his wife and two children while mouthing platitudes about "sacrifice." He is as unlike Uncle Bobby in as many ways as it is possible to be, while still remaining a white, Southern, socially conservative male. Additionally, the Eponymous Bears of "Smut" are far more central to the plot than those of "Fire," and they are genetically engineered--a created, even imposed social change rather than an organic and natural evolution.

That contrast is helpful, I think, to a rounded understanding of the story. Because while the evolution--and I choose that term advisedly--of "Fire" is elegiac and inexorable, the process by which the protagonist of "Smut" is forced to adapt to change is a sort of personal and political catastrophism--deeply appropriate to a fire and brimstone preacher.

The Smut Bears are portrayed as animalistic, grunting, licking and chewing on the centerfolds of girlie magazines. Where the Fire Bears are noble savages, the Smut Bears are nasty and brutish, a despised slave class facing intense legal and personal discrimination. They move through human society, but they are not protected, and Tommy Kyle doesn't think that they have souls. "Bears die forever," he says, "and probably deserve to."

He has no evidence for this conclusion, however, beyond rhetoric, and for this reader, it's suspicious that his justifications serve to assuage whatever scraps of conscience he maintains. He refuses responsibility for his own failings--"I love my wife. I love my children. But Satan and our fun-worshipping society-—deviltry and greed in evil cahoots-—have conspired to drag me sinward, and that summer I often stumbled toward it."--and places the blame instead on anyone and anything he can locate. Bishop provides in the character of Tommy Kyle a powerful portrayal of hypocrisy and sanctimony, and he doesn't stint in bringing it to its inevitable conclusion, as he slowly alienates (in all senses of the word) his family and his ministry. It's significant in the symbolic structure of this story that Tommy Kyle at one point speaks of men and women as separate species. In this metaphorical scaffolding, his comments on the bears as "animalistic," his refusal to admit that they could have souls (even when his freshly unemployed brother-in-law appears at his church with the bear who took his job in tow, seeking his ministry), and his addiction to smut (like the titular bears) coupled with his comparison of his wife to a different species make it very plain that Tommy Kyle considers himself a sort of elite, and he's comfortable using the rhetoric of racism, sexism, and oppression to enforce that position.

Other characters see him more clearly, however. Minerva, a hostess at one of the strip clubs Tommy Kyle attends services at, points out his likeness to the grubby male bear who seems to follow him through the story, from blue newstand to smutty bar, until, in the end, proving the catalyst of Tommy Kyle's self-provided ruin... and his eventual salvation, in reduced but far more honest circumstances.

Like "Fire," "Smut" is a story that works because of its layered ironies and deft symbolism. Tommy Kyle the liar and hypocrite finds himself, eventually, reborn into a bearish existence, and in that existence--where he, fallen, finds himself living on the same level as the animals whose humanity he has so consistently denied--he comes to an understanding of himself as human. It's a lingering image, and a powerful one; a story of redemption through loss without sugary overtones.

And when Tommy Kyle finds a sort of tattered decency by accepting and transcending the truths he sought to deny, he also becomes sympathetic, a transformation of a more evolutionary sort.

Bears Discover Smut

1 Comments:

Anonymous Michael Bishop said...

I just wanted to thank Elizabeth Bear for a thoughtful reading of my story. I would have done so sooner, but this morning -- May 17, 2006 -- marks the first time that I've seen Ms. Bear's appreciation, and I might not have seen it all but for my friend Michael Hutchins's heads-up to its appearance here. In any event, it is in fact gratifying to find that a thoughtful reader has encountered one's story and commented on it. Thank you.

4:41 AM  

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