Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Owl of Bear Island - Jon Bing

As some of you may know, my girlfriend is from Norway. I must to my shame admit that beyond Sophie's World my knowledge of Norwegian literature is sorely lacking. Much to my surprise I spotted a Norwegian story in The Big Book of Science Fiction when looking for more stories this weekend. Naturally, I included this in the list. Jon Bing passed away in 2014, but from what little I know of him, he was a big name in the Norwegian science fiction community. He produced quite a few novels and collections but not all that much appears to be available in English. This particular story originally appeared in 1986, both in English and Norwegian. Curiously enough, the name of the translator isn't mentioned.

On Bear Island, a remote place halfway between the North Cape and the Svalbard archipelago, a geologist is wintering on a scientific station. His sole colleague has fallen ill, and has died on the way back to the  mainland. It soon becomes apparent to the scientist this was no coincidence. An alien entity takes over his mind and uses him to conduct research. The Owl, as the scientist calls the alien, has weaknesses however. The scientist develops a plan to free himself of the alien.

The story is more about the atmosphere than the plot really. There is something claustrophobic about Arctic research stations, especially in winter. They are almost as bad as possessed space ships really. John W. Campbell realized this when he wrote Who Goes There? Bing captures the loneliness of such a place very well but not so much the paranoia that sometimes comes with these kinds of stories. The main character knows what is going on, even if he is unable to stop it.

The Arctic setting also shows up in the theme of light and darkness in this story. The alien is dubbed the owl, a creature of darkness, who takes over the main character during the long polar night. It implies, at least that is how the main character sees it, the alien is evil and must be fought. Only by staying in the Arctic during the long days of summer can he regain a measure of self-control and freedom. The main character is, as it were, rescued by the light.

The plot itself is very minimalistic though .One character, no dialogue, lots of atmospheric descriptions and the main character explaining what is going on does not leave much for the reader to wonder about. How reliable the narrator is, perhaps. We never get to see if his plan works out. The main character might well have been doing what the alien wanted.  Maybe that was what the author was going for. I ended up liking the story more for the setting and the language than for the plot.

Story Details
Title: The Owl of Bear Island
Author: Jon Bing
Language: English
Translation: Unknown
Originally published: Norwegian: Hadata? (1986), English: Tales from the Planet Earth edited by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull (1986)
Read in: The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)
Story length: Short Story
Awards: None
Available online: Not that I am aware of

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