Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #80 of 107: “The Owl of Bear Island” by Jon Bing
This 1986 tale by Norwegian writer Jon Bing makes me wonder if he intended it to be cyberpunk. Computers play a significant role in “The Owl of Bear Island,” a story about alien possession. To be honest, I thought the VanderMeers’ introduction to the story more interesting than the story itself. And within the story, I got distracted by wondering what kind of computers they might have had in 1986. I assume the scientists were using minicomputers. I began wondering about DEC, Data General, HP, and others from that era, and thinking of one of my favorite books, The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Bing also brings up programming (FORTRAN and SIMULA), AI, and Expert Systems. In fact, the narrator’s escape plans involve computers.
This plain story about two scientists at a research station on an island in the Arctic being taken over by an alien presence could have been much better. The unnamed first-person narrator thinks of the alien as an owl. He assumes it killed his partner, and he knows enough to struggle to free his mind. “The Owl of Bear Island” has neither suspense, atmosphere, or dread, but is its matter-of-fact style due to the style being lost in the translation, or was the original writing just that straightforward? I don’t know.
Also, I began to think of the problem of remotely operating another being over the distances of light-years. Is telepathy instantaneous? Or was Bing suggesting the alien was on the island with them? Either way, we might call this story horror cyberpunk. It would have been a creepier story if we learned about the possession as it unfolded. Think of the drama of slowly realizing that your choices aren’t your own, especially while living alone far from civilization, during the dark days of the arctic.
Bing’s narrator just comes out and tells us what happened, and then later, just tells us his plans for escape. Good storytelling involves leading us along as events unfold. This story should have been a chess game between a human and an alien. Instead, it’s a quick journal report.
James Wallace Harris, 1/27/22