Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer’s newest collection of short fiction, The Third Bear, is how the juxtaposition of these initially unrelated 14-plus stories creates a much larger narrative about a larger undiscovered country. Each narrative is like a textual postcard from a singular land, with each missive capturing a slightly different view.
The stories, including ‘‘The Quickening’’, which first sees print here, have more in common than they don’t. The harmonics between the stories cross all sorts of boundaries, reverberating across the agrarian-steampunk ‘‘Fixing Hanover’’ and the multiverse-ish slipstream of ‘‘The Goat Variations’’. Images of bears (of many forms), surgeons, and the sea keep drifting to the surface and, at times, reading sometimes becomes a game of whack-a-mole, with said mole being one of these favored images.
While that is a delightful game, what gives the stories weight are both the themes of alienation and madness and VanderMeer’s ability to find just the right words to capture his characters without weighing them down. Like this description from ‘‘Finding Sonoria’’: ‘‘He had gained a little weight since his retirement, but not much, and he still wore bright plaid shirts, the kind of clothing that might distinguish him from a deer.’’ With that brief sentence, VanderMeer need do no more to give the reader the picture of his protagonist and can carry on with weightier business.
Some of the stories don’t quite work, like ‘‘The Situation’’, which tells of a darkly fantastic office that will be familiar to anyone who has ever dwelled in a cubicle, takes a long strange trip in order to get to a ‘‘meh’’ punchline. Ditto ‘‘The Secret Life of Shane Hamill’’, which seems to have been written simply to mock rule-loving middle management.
But most of these pieces fire with accuracy and ease. And ‘‘Errata’’, first published online at Tor.com, is well worth The Third Bear’s cover price. When it comes to sheer storytelling prowess with more than a handful of meta, ‘‘Errata’’ starts with a bang – ‘‘I am surrounded by cavorting freshwater seals and have two pearl-handled revolvers in my lap, a bottle of vodka in my right hand, a human body in the freezer in the kitchens behind me, and a rather large displaced rockhopper penguin staring me in the face’’ – and never stops until the odd yet inescapable end. Which conveniently also describes this collection as a whole.