Visions of Paradise

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Michael Bishop

I fell in love with science fiction during the New Wave years of 1966-1969, particularly Roger Zelazny (Lord of Light is still one of my favorite all-time novels), Samuel R. Delany (who confused me mightily with Babel-17, but by Nova he and I achieved a fabulous common ground) and Robert Silverberg (particularly the beautiful poetry of Nightwings).

By 1970 the New Wave had faded away, but not without leaving behind a powerful legacy. It had not lost the supposed war with the Old Wave, but rather the two sub-genres had merged into a richer form of science fiction than had existed prior to1965. The best science fiction now combined traditional speculation and sense of wonder with rich characterization and superior writing style. My favorite writers of this new, improved version of science fiction included Ursula K. Le Guin, John Varley, George R.R. Martin and, most successfully at least in my opinion, Michael Bishop.

I first encountered Michael Bishop in a short story in Galaxy Magazine–my favorite SF magazine at the time, although fading rapidly under the heavy-handed direction of editor Ejler Jakobssen -- with a story entitled "Piňon Fall" in 1970. It was a warm, lyrical story about three brothers and an old woman who separately encounter aliens landed on Earth and how differently they react to it. It was an emotional story with an intentionally jarring ending, quite a successful debut story indeed.

Bishop burst into the frontline of science fiction writers two years later with the publication of two novellas which made both the Nebula and Hugo final ballot–"Death and Designation Among the Asadi" in Worlds of IF, and "The White Otters of Childhood" in F&SF. The former was a slow-paced anthropological study of a very inhuman alien race, and eventually became the basis of the even better novel Transfigurations, while the latter was a futuristic tale of love and vengeance amidst artificial mutation. For years I wished that only Otters had garnered the nominations so that it might have had a legitimate chance at winning the awards–a fact which was impossible with the young, mostly unknown Bishop competing against himself–but from hindsight I have seen the literary, sophisticated Bishop lose too many Hugo and Nebula Awards to believe he might have won that first year under any circumstances. In fact it was the combined double nominations that were responsible for earning him the reputation he achieved so swiftly in the SF field.

During the1970s Bishop published a series of superb short stories and novellas that earned him numerous award nominations. Best known perhaps were "Cathadonian Odyssey", a tribute to Stanley Weinbaum’s "A Martian Odyssey" that was nearly as fine as the original; "On the Street of the Serpents", a fantasy about an attempt to assassinate Mao Tse-tung, sparked no doubt by the Cultural Revolution taking place at that time; and "Rogue Tomato", another tribute, this time to Philip K. Dick by way of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (and what science fiction author other than Bishop would have the literary audaciousness and overall competence to do tributes to the likes of Dick, Weinbaum, and Kafka?)

The highpoint of the 1970s for Michael Bishop was his series of Domed Atlanta stories which were eventually published as the collection Catacomb Years and the accompanying novel A Little Knowledge. In some ways these stories were a forerunner of cyberpunk in their dark, often pessimistic look at near-future domed American cities populated by lowlives, immortals, and born-again aliens. These stories combined biting satire, traditional sfnal concepts, and high literature, at times revealing a very humorous side to Bishop’s writing (particularly in the novel A Little Knowledge which was also his first exploration into religious themes which became one of the continuing threads of his later fiction). The best stories in the series were the novellas "Old Folks at Home", "The Samurai and the Willows", and "Allegiances".

The early 1980s were the most acclaimed of Bishop’s career with several award nominations and, surprisingly, two winners. The fantasy "The Quickening" won a deserved Nebula Award for its exploration of human nature under the trauma of civilization being suddenly overthrown with every single living person abruptly placed in a new setting somewhere in the world. But the true masterpieces were the Nebula-winning novel No Enemy But Time and the Nebula-nominee novella "Her Habiline Husband". Both involved neanderthals, natural extensions of Bishop’s long interest in anthropology. The novel involved a time travel experiment in which scientific subjects were sent back (at least in spirit, although for all practical purposes they were sent back physically) thousands of years to study neanderthal society, while the novella told the story of the last surviving neanderthal suddenly surfacing in contemporary Atlanta. These were both very mature stories, the former a combination of character and sociology, the latter a very funny satire that was quite serious at its heart. The latter also earned a Nebula nomination but, just as a decade earlier, it was nominated for Best Novella along with Bishop’s "The Gospel According to Gameliel Crucis", splitting the vote and thus virtually assuring him yet another Nebula loss.

Near the end of the decade Bishop published two more outstanding novels, Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (originally published as The Secret Ascension), which was a clever and funny satire written as a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and Unicorn Mountain, a fantasy about AIDS and real unicorns appearing in the American midwest. While these novels did not receive the acclaim of earlier Bishop stories, together they showed his continuing growth as a writer of literature while still remaining firmly in the SF tradition.

Bishop became less visible in the science fiction firmament in the 1990s, but he was still writing and publishing, just in less obvious places. His 1996 collection At the City Limits of Fate was one of his best collections ever, filled with major stories from offbeat locations: "Among the Handlers", an examination of rural religious healing, appeared originally in the book Dante’s Disciples; "I, Iscariot", a superb study of the guilt or innocence of Judas Iscariot in the form of a modern day trial, was published in the semi-prozine Crank!. "Allegra’s Hands" was the most popular story in the book, not surprisingly since it originally appeared in Asimov’s.

Perhaps Bishop’s best novel ever appeared in 1994 and received a well-deserved Hugo nomination, his first novel to be so honored. Brittle Innings was a coming-of-age story set in the rural south during World War II as a young athlete struggles to succeed in minor league baseball. What made the story both SF and richer than it would have otherwise been, was that the novel was also a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, exploring what might have happened to the artificial man had he survived the conclusion of that classic novel and struggled to earn a normal life for himself in the 20th century. And what better life for a big, strong, introverted monster than baseball?

For somebody such as myself who has never outgrown my love of sense of wonder and futuristic speculation, yet has also acquired a corresponding love of great literature featuring rich characterization, eternal themes, and excellent writing, Michael Bishop is the answer to a dream, the writer who straddles both worlds better and more consistently than anybody. This does not mean I don’t love Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson greatly; I do. But my literary heart belongs most of all to the writings of Michael Bishop.

This article appeared originally in Twink.

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