What I like most about Bear is that she has such a grasp of whatever historical context she’s using, that when she does deviate from it you know that it’s intentional, and it has meaning. I also like that she is such has such a wide range; she writes historical fantasy, mythology-based altworld fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction–and these are just her novels. Elizabeth Bear is also a prodigious short story and novella writer. Check out her bibliography here.
While she has written a number of novels/series that are placed within a specific historical context, much of what Elizabeth Bear writes imagines worlds that might resemble ours, or are set in a future/present that could have happened had the past gone another way. This means that in order for Bear to imagine an alternate version of the present or future, she has to have done some serious, actual research into actual history. Being a trained anthropologist helps. Many of her series approach the story from a culture point of view, looking at the intricacies of how religions and cultural systems have developed, and how people react to them and work within them.
Her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy takes place in the mid-to-far future on a generation ship, full of the last remnants of humanity trying to escape Earth and find a new home. The ship’s population is divided into two basic classes–the officers and the workers. But Bear has taken these basic divisions and created two different types of humans–the basic, unaugmented workers and the officers who have been both genetically modified and who use nanotech to become more than human–whose differences are startlingly offset by their aching similarity. More than practically any pseudo-medieval fantasy novel, this series really explores ideas of nobility and right to rule, why some are thrown down while others are lifted up, and doesn’t take the easy way out. I like to contrast this series with Jordan’s ridiculous optimism when dealing with the Perrin story line in The Wheel of Time, how Perrin has a string of other guys come in and explain how every noble once came from humble origins, and nobility is earned by taking responsibility and all that. Bear plays with this happy origin story, asking the reader to really consider where the right to rule comes from, and whether meeting the responsibility is enough to balance things out.
All of Bear’s novels are experiments in some aspect of human culture or sociology. She doesn’t just assume that the future will or the past did look a certain way, and work from there. She asks, “what if this happened?” and then asks the reader to go on a trip with her. Whether it’s Elizabethan England, the Central-Asian steppe, an alt-world dystopian future city in which the Norse gods are alive and well, a universe traversed by the Jacob’s Ladder, or any other of her great settings, Bear is in control of how fantasy and “history” blend in the right proportions to build the story she wants to tell.
This may explain why I found Karen Memory somewhat less exciting than most of her novels. Though it is Steampunk, Karen Memory is quite firmly set in a historical period (if not place), and focuses most on action. The first-person narrator–Karen herself–has very definite opinions about the world, and the plot of the novel is more a detective, Holmes-ian affair than spec fic. Nevertheless, Bear’s sense of historical accuracy still reflects that known fact that SFF with stated roots in history often leaves out the marginalized, the non-white, the non-male, and she includes a range of characters who feel rooted in the world of Karen Memory not because they are “believable,” based on some ahistorical definition of the word, but because Bear has written them convincingly.
To wrap up Pt 2 before it gets too much longer, Bear has taught me how important it is that we not take history and adherence to it as a given. That we accept that a writer may be writing to a version that may or may not actually have existed, and that an author’s willingness to engage with those questions not only says a lot about the quality of their writing, but about their actual engagement with the idea of historical accuracy.
Go read Bear!
And stay tuned for Part 3 of ….