(Vaguely)SCIENCE FICTION BOOK REVIEW: “The Fourth Bear” by Jasper Fforde (2006)

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It is a little-known fact about Cucumbers that as they grow they can filter Deuterium and Tritium from groundwater and store it in themselves in ever-greater concentrations. This isn’t a problem ordinarily as Deuterium is harmless to people and cucumbers are, on the whole, pretty small. However, if a cucumber were grown to a weight of exactly fifty pounds, it would have reached critical mass and would explode like an atomic bomb. A thermo-Cucular Bomb.

This has been one of those nightmarish facts of life since World War II that we’ve been afraid to talk about - the fact that Armageddon lies in our salad bowls - and I have to take my hat off to Jasper Fforde for finally addressing this taboo in print, even if it is utter nonsense.

“The Fourth Bear” is the second book in Jasper Fforde’s “Nursery Crime Division” series. The premise is similar to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, to wit: Characters from Nursery Tales are real - well, real-ish anyway - and are running around modern day England, mostly in Berkshire. The problem is that “Persons of Dubious Reality” as they’re called tend to present lots of problems for a modern egalitarian society: they tend to live a loooooooooooooong time, they’re frequently violent as hell, and they have a delicate relationship with free will. They tend to go through their potentially-endless lives repeating the same sequence of events over and over again in slight variations that they’re generally oblivious to. Also, let’s face it, there’s a lot of dark, disturbing characters in these nursery rhymes and fairy tales - you can’t have giants Fe-Fi-Fumming their way around England, eating people, or Wolves running around eating little girls, or the Red-Legg’d Scissor-man chopping off children’s thumbs.

Thus, Her Majesties’ Government created the “Nursery Crimes Division” of the Redding police force, given jurisdiction over these sorts of crimes. The head of the division is Detective Jack Spratt who is, himself, a Person of Dubious Reality, though in the previous book and the early parts of this one he’s so far in the closet that he’s pretty much forgotten this is the case, and no one around him seems to suspect. His Girl Friday is Detective Mary Mary, who is herself probably a PDR, but they haven’t touched on that in either book so far. There’s also an alien named “Ashely.” Together they get embroiled in a murder mystery involving an escaped psychopath, a dead reporter, the anthropomorphic bear population of Redding, and the aforementioned cucumber situation. It’s a pretty good story, a fun read, and there are several belly laughs in it, though none are quite at the level of the one in the previous book where the mob was paying actors to throw the fight scenes in various Shakespearian plays.

“What the hell does any of this have to do with Science Fiction,” you ask?

There’s aliens in it, as I said. That’s the most specific thing, though there’s a few more subtle nods in the story to the SF genre as well.

Rambosians, specifically. The aliens knew we existed, and had been watching our TV for years. They came from a world about twenty-five light years away to find out why the BBC never got around to making a third season of “Fawlty Towers,” and then they just hung out and attempted to assimilate in to modern life. They’re described in one point as looking like human-shaped water balloons with three fingers and two thumbs on both hands. Elsewhere they’re described as basically that, but with jellyfish stuffed inside them. I’m not sure which is more correct, frankly, but they are an interesting alien race in that their memories are stored as molecules floating in a liquid solution within their bodies, and not as a set of electrochemical impulses in a brain. As such they can think much faster and *better* than we do, and they can store their memories externally for backup if they need to. Any jelly jar will do.

While they’re rather basically just background characters in the first book in this series (“The Big Over-Easy”), they’re more fleshed out here and as hokey-jokey as they are, I find I like them enough to take them semi-seriously. It’s hard not to get a kick out of it when we meet Ashley’s parents and discover that all mammals look alike to them. They’re not racist of speciesist, they just get all hung up on the whole concept of a “Spine” and it’s hard to distinguish details beyond that level, so they frequently mistake people for sheep and vice versa. This is all played for laughs, but it’s consistent.

There is also a plot element that was set up in the previous book and pays off here (Though you don’t need to have read that book to enjoy this one) that turns in to an extended homage/parody of Blade Runner, and an entirely-intentional “Wrath of Khan/Search For Spock”-styled “Needs of the man” solution/death quickly followed by a flag-on-the-play undoing that death. And of course the entire novel revolves around a conceit taken directly from Gulliver’s Third Travel - the one where he goes to Laputa. (And if you think Gulliver’s Travels don’t qualify as at least proto-science fiction, you really need to re-read them. Or at least the third one.)

It’s funny, fast, and strangely endearing, and while it’s all played for laughs and clearly not meant to be taken seriously there’s a slight bittersweet taste that makes it all the more enjoyable: all these characters are trying to figure out who the hell they are, and why they are, same as the rest of us. The window on truly exceptional beings trying to integrate in to a pluralistic society is occasionally hilarious, but avoids belaboring the point to the point that I’m not entirely sure there is a point there to belabor. There’s also some moments where the author could easily slide in to pathos, but instead goes for an unexpected clarity of vision that really ends up being funnier than it has any right to. Most of these scenes involve Punch and Judy, by the way.

Not high art, nor is it pretending to be, but a very entertaining way to blast through a boring weekend. Check it out!

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Other books I'm Reading:
* The Persian Book of Kings
* Soon I Will Be Invincible
* The Grapes of Wrath
* Atlas Shrugged

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