Visions of Paradise

Friday, February 17, 2006

Brighten to Incandescence

For thirty years Michael Bishop has been one of my very favorite science fiction writers, perhaps only equaled by Robert Silverberg in my personal pantheon. I have 23 of his books, including all his collections, and although I first fell in love with his science fiction of the 70s and 80s, my feelings survived his transformation into a writer of mostly contemporary fantasy in the 90s.

His recent collection Brighten to Incandescence contains stories ranging from the 70s to recently, although the majority were published in the past decade. As usual for Bishop, they came from a wide variety of sources, including original anthologies, small presses and major prozines. I have always felt that Bishop cares more for his “art” than he does for financial success, although possibly he made enough money from his movie sale for Brittle Inning–which was never actually made into a film–not to have any financial worries. In any case, while his choice of markets can be a bit frustrating since it makes the stories difficult to find, it always makes the release of a new Bishop collection a pleasant occasion.

Needless to say, I enjoyed all the stories in the book because of a combination of Bishop’s wonderful writing, his feel for characters, and his thoughtfulness. Not surprisingly, some stories moved me more than others. “The Unexpected Visit of a Reanimated Englishwoman” was his introduction to a collection of Mary Shelley’s fantasy stories, written as a spectral visit from Shelley herself while Bishop is trying to write the introduction. It takes the form of a discussion between the two of them about her fantastic writing. Not a story per se, it taught me things I never knew about Shelley’s writings, and was very interesting.

“Chihuahua Flats” is the story of a drifter who falls in love with the owner of a chihuahua kennel owner in spite of the fact that her beloved chihuahua despises him. They marry and persevere in spite of that, until the wife develops cancer and the husband faces the prospect of living alone with the spiteful chihuahua. Many pet owners could likely relate to the story’s premise, and Bishop pulls off a surprisingly moving story.

“Herding With the Hadrosaurs” tells the story of a family of four which relocates to a Late Cretaceous region which exists slightly west of the Mississippi. The family learns how dangerous such a region is almost immediately upon arrival when the parents are both killed by a rampaging t-rex, and the two youngsters survive by adopting a family of duckbills who protect them from most prehistoric life, but not necessarily from other migrant humans who live by hunting creatures such as the duckbills. This story is unusual in that it is Bishop as the not-so-common storyteller.

“Simply Indispensable” has a premise which seems ludicrous, and would likely have failed totally in lesser hands. It begins as a conversation between four near-future religious leaders on a televised talk show set in the Middle East, but it turns into a visit from an alien entity apparently recruiting mankind into a higher cause. Joe Way, the alien entity, is the most intriguing character in this entire book, and provides much grist for thought in what over the years has been Bishop’s periodic obsession with religious exploration.

Perhaps the book’s finest story, and one of the finest of Bishop’s career, is “With A Little Help From Her Friends,” a story which successfully combines political torture with nostalgia in the guise of a living saint who spent her life tending the sick, was tortured brutally as a result, and now is dying in a home for former torturees run by Amnesty International. I was amazed at how Bishop made me feel both outraged and warm-hearted, sad yet hopeful, and even threw in a reunion of the three-surviving Beatles in 2013 (when the story was written, George Harrison was still alive). Anybody who could write a story this powerful and caring is certainly a great writer.

Which is why I love Michael Bishop’s fiction, and recommend this book–and all his collections–as highly as possible.


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