by Geoff Ryman

Way back somewhen, there used to be a magazine called "The Saturday Review", where they had a Games column, where the more playful aspects of language and literature were discussed: puns, acrostics, odd turns of phrase…one entry discussed recent trends in titles for trashy paperbacks. Since Sex and Polar Adventure both sold, one reader suggested that "I Made Love to a Polar Bear" would be the perfect title to reel in a prospective reader. This was soon upped by a SD staffer who improved on it: "I Made Love to a Polar Bear For the FBI." The topper, however came when a reader improved even on this "I Made Love to a Polar Bear For the FBI…and Found Romance!"

Milena Shibush in this story, is in love with a polar bear. A female polar bear/human named Rolfa. (I don't know if that makes it better or worse.) She lives in a future London where cancer has been cured (at the cost of a dramatically shortened lifespan) viruses (called Candy) teach infants to talk and do arithmetic in the cradle, and people are purple with rhodopsin, in order that they might photosynthesize some of their own food.  There's very little metal, paper is at a premium, and nearly everything is made of bamboo, coral or other living things. Men get pregnant -- it's icky. Because of a series of mishaps, she's never been Read, which would have uploaded her personality into  the Consensus (a cloud of childrens' consciousnesses that rule everything) while ironing out a few flaws (lesbianism, for one) along the way. Also, despite being Placed in a Plum Career (like much SF, the future is Capitalized), actress in the National Theatre ("the Zoo"), she really has little talent or interest, being rather better as a director…except that she was never trained for it. (She also reads books, instead of having them spoon-fed to her through viruses.) Her ursine friend, who is barred, despite her considerable talents, from performing publicly, has written an opera, a fifty-hour (!) extravaganza based on The Divine Comedy.

The problem with post-Disastrian versions of London is that they invariably seem almost longing: as if to say, We should have quit while we were ahead. We just had to have electricity, motor cars, indoor plumbing, and modernity, and that screwed it all up. If only we could have street markets and cart-horses, the old picturesque London we used to have, where the poor died of disfiguring, yet somehow poignant illnesses at thirty-five, and the rich and powerful weren't so…um, apologetic about it all! New York, like all other cities in the nineteenth century, wanted to be London. London in the postwar twentieth century wanted to be New York, and now we're all playing catch-up with China and Korea.

And then there's the problem of time. The book is replete with every sort of flashback, flash forward and flash around that I began to feel queasy. She can remember her birth, she spends some time out in space, all the while I'm trying furiously to figure out: hey, does the bear show up again? Will her problematical lighting tech ever shut up and calm down? Could you just spit out what you're trying to say? During the last couple of chapters she hallucinates while dying of cancer, which means we're totally without any moorings whatsoever, and I can't say that I finished the book, since it didn't seem to end, but just stops.

Well, there's a great deal of what the author has to say. Part of why this book is so nigh-unreadable is because it's not aged well. It's about AIDS, and Jacques Derrida, and Medieval Italy, and a passel of Eighties obsessions which sounded important then, but aren't so much now. (OK, AIDS is still important, but HIV+ isn't a death sentence anymore.) On one hand, I'm trying to keep an open mind, but it's like trying to watch Max Headroom and pretend that "the future" isn't going to include the Internet or a revival of mid-20th century modernism. (Or for that matter, A Clockwork Orange and pretend it never went away.)

I can't say that I hate this book: it had an interesting beginning, and it won a lot of awards, so it looks like someone else liked it. It's not bad, but I can't say that it's as great as people say it is. And, does she ever make it with that damn bear?

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