Bears Discover Fire by Bisson, Terry, 1990

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Bears Discover Fire seems to be one of the world's most favorite short SF stories, but it is one of those tales that leaves me scratching my head every time I read it. Properly categorized, this one to me seems to fit into the categories of "down home tall tale" and "weird." I am not sure what this story means, though I am pretty sure that it means something. Four out of five stars.

Bears Discover Fire is exactly what the title suggests the story is about. One year in Appalachia all of the bears started burning bonfires in the wide medians of highways. At night they would gather in circles and stare into the flames all night long. None of them talked, though they would occasionally get up from the fire to forage for firewood and search for berries. The news media made a festival of the strange phenomenon, so the police redoubled their efforts to keep ordinary folks away from the bear's encampments. The story is about one family who manages to come into close contact with a party of the bears after getting a flat tire near one particular bear camp.

The light went out again, then came back better than ever as I was fitting the spare over the lugs. "Much better," I said. There was a flood of dim orange flickery light. But when I turned to find the lug nuts, I was surprised to see that the flashlight the boy was holding was dead. The light was coming from two bears as the edge of the trees, holding torches. They were big, three-hundred pounders, standing about five feet tall. Wallace Jr. and his father had seen them and were standing perfectly still. It's best not to alarm bears...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.

That family lived on a hill near the camp, but frequently went to visit their grandmother who was in an old folk’s home nearby. One night grandmother, who usually showed disdain for the bears and their sudden jump in evolution, escaped from the home and made her way to the median strip. When the rest of the family found out that she was gone one of them decided to check the bear camp, and sure enough she was there, sitting around the camp fire chewing her tobacco as the bears ate their berries. She did not seem to want to leave, so they brought her blankets to keep her warm. She died of exposure that night.

That is all that there is to the story. To me it is as transparent as granite, though maybe some of you out there have a better idea what this one is about. If I had to guess I would say that it is a metaphor for the methods by which nature selects one species and gives them tools to master the environment. In the story it seemed to me that the bears and the humans were pretty much on the same ground anthropologically. The story was set in either modern day or a very near-future Appalachia, so there was no high-tech: Actually there was very little technology at all. The flashlight. A .22 rifle. The car that got the flat tire. That was pretty much it. The bears had their home and the humans had theirs, and even though one was an enclosed house and the other was an open campfire, they were essentially the same thing. When the humans visited the bear's home, one of them died. In other words, the bears are stronger, and thus will survive in situations that will kill human. I understand that there are probably innumerable points of contradiction in the story. Even though the story flows very well it reaches no illogical conclusions; it is virtually opaque to any critical interpretation. One conclusion is as good as (and as bad as) any other. At least as far as I can tell. This is one of those weird stories that needs to be read by everyone, just because it really makes you think.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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