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The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy:
A Michael Bishop Retrospective

Michael Bishop, edited by Michael H. Hutchins
Subterranean Press, 528 pages

The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy: A Michael Bishop Retrospective
Michael Bishop
Michael Bishop was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1945. His early years were spent as an "air force brat." He attended the University of Georgia, where he received his B.A. in 1967 (with Phi Beta Kappa honours). He earned a master's degree in English with a thesis on the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He taught English at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School in Colorado Springs from 1968 to 1972, and later at the University of Georgia. He is married with 2 children.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Back in the mid-1970s, in the first volume of an original anthology series that never saw volume two, I came across a novella called "On the Street of the Serpents" by Michael Bishop. It was, along with fictions by Samuel R. Delany and James Tiptree, Jr. whose work I was also discovering at that time, a story that helped to change the way I read science fiction. I didn't realize how new Bishop was as a writer (his first story had been published only three years earlier), but he was doing something sophisticated, original, and challenging with the form, and it caught my imagination.

Actually, the full title of that novella was: "On the Street of the Serpents or, The Assassination of Chairman Mao as Effected by the Author in Seville, Spain, in the Spring of 1992, a Year of No Certain Historicity," but I'll come back to Bishop's titles later.

From Bishop's introduction to the story when it was collected in Blooded On Arachne, I gather that my enthusiasm for "On the Street of the Serpents" is not universally shared. Nevertheless, it is a disappointment not to find it included in this massive retrospective collection, particularly given that there are one or two stories gathered here that don't fully earn their place. This is, however, the only disappointment about the book. There are, inevitably, stories that I like more than others, stories that are included more, perhaps, because they are particular favourites of the author than because they represent him at his absolute best ("Storming the Bijou, Mon Amour," "Bears Discover Smut"); yet taken as a whole this volume is an essential conspectus of the career of one of the finer writers in the genre. Even at their weakest, these stories set out to challenge opinions, change perspectives, make us think and see afresh, and more often than not they succeed.

What we have, then, is a collection of 25 stories ranging from his very first, "Piñon Fall" which appeared in 1970, up to a collaboration with Steve Utley, "The City Quiet as Death" which came out in 2009. The eight most recent stories have not previously appeared in any of Bishop's half-dozen or so collections, but even the older and more familiar pieces have often been extensively re-worked, so there is a freshness about the book, or rather a sense that an older, more skilled writer has collaborated with his younger, more inventive self. This is less a best of collection (if it had been, Bishop might have been well advised not to revise the stories) than an attempt to show something of the range and variety of his work.

We learn a lot from seeing so much of an author's career brought together in one place like this. We learn, for instance, how often Bishop has used female viewpoint characters; not at all a common thing among male sf writers of his generation. (If I were to hazard a guess, I might wonder whether Tiptree was a formative influence on Bishop's work, certainly there are similarities of affect and tone in stories such as "Piñon Fall" or "The House of Compassionate Sharers.") We learn, also, that an even more obvious influence has been the cinema. Bishop makes much of this in the story notes he has written for this volume, though to be honest he hardly needed to point it out. Stories such as "Storming the Bijou, Mon Amour" and "Help Me, Rondo" are overtly about the movies, but it is there only slightly less overtly in stories like "A Gift from the GrayLanders," and any number of other stories include references to particular films or film stars.

The story notes also tell us that Bishop spent part of his childhood in Spain (which provides a setting for stories like "Alien Graffiti (A Personal History of Vagrant Intrusions)" and his Nebula winner, "The Quickening") and in Japan, whose culture and literature influence "The Samurai and the Willows" and "The Yukio Mishima Cultural Association of Kudzu Valley, Georgia." These last two, along with any number of other stories in this collection, are actually set in Georgia, but although he is strong on creating a sense of place, he is not really a regional writer, some of the strongest stories in here are set in places he has not directly experienced and yet still evoke the place strongly.

I could go on, drawing out threads that tie together the various stories gathered here. There are any number of themes and allusions that recur repeatedly, and that become all the more obvious when the stories are brought together like this. There is, for instance, a strong if unconventional religious thread that surfaces in stories like "Piñon Fall," "The Road Leads Back" and "Miriam." But for now what I want to pick up on is the role politics plays in his work. He rarely writes overtly about politics, though when he does it gives us what is easily the strongest story in the collection, "Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana." This is the story of an unreconstructed white supremacist who has a freak road accident out in the South African veldt. He is picked up by a bus taking black men from the townships into the city to work, and falls into rather unwelcome conversation with Mordecai Thubana who is teaching himself about superstring theory and, finding in arcane physics, a metaphor for the relationship between the races in apartheid South Africa. Then the police stop the bus, and our white supremacist, Myburgh, finds he has become invisible to the thuggish cops. When Thubana is arrested, the invisible Myburgh tags along to witness his new acquaintance's humiliation, torture and eventual murder. Structurally, and as an indictment of the apartheid regime, it seems very simple, yet it builds into an incredibly powerful story.

Other than this, Bishop doesn't really deal directly with politics (though there is "The Angst, I Kid You Not, of God," in which various alien dictators are forced to confront their abuses of power, though this mostly shows that Bishop shouldn't really try broad comedy). But politics infuses practically everything in the collection. We are consistently shown societies that are in the process of failing. "The Samurai and the Willows" is set in an underground arcology where culture, represented by the protagonist's bonsai trees, is being forgotten. "The Yukio Mishima Cultural Association of Kudzu Valley, Georgia" tells of a small, rural community facing extinction when a new dam is built, whose only recourse is to emulate the seppuku of the Japanese author. "Vinegar Peace; or, The Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage" starts as an act of mourning for Bishop's son, Jamie (killed in the Virginia Tech shootings), but turns into mourning for a society at war. The abuse of power is directly attacked in "Taccati's Tomorrow," while in "A Gift from the GrayLanders" a small child is abused by his uncle who locks him in a cellar as a punishment, only for the child to be the lone survivor of a nuclear attack.

Another of the best pieces in the collection is "The Quickening," in which the entire population of the Earth wakes one morning to find they have been transported to another part of the world. Our protagonist finds himself in Seville, Spain, where he must negotiate a new way of communal living with people of every race and language, all as displaced as he is, while a bunch of Americans try to restore some measure of racial purity. The personal and the political are inextricably bound, as they are in "Within the Walls of Tyre" in which a woman's private grief becomes a source of commercial gain. Lost and lonely people, disconnected from a society that is itself losing its way: these are the characters who populate the stories. In the end, we wonder that the suicides that provide the climax of "The Samurai and the Willows" and "The Yukio Mishima Cultural Association of Kudzu Valley, Georgia" aren't replicated in more of the stories. Even a story like "Blooded on Arachne," which seems like a tough coming-of-age tale of survival, exudes an air of guilt. And yet time and again, Bishop manages to wrestle something approaching a happy ending out of the sadness and dislocation, as he does in "The House of Compassionate Sharers" in which a person who has been completely remade learns to become human once more through community with other lost and mismade people.

Oh, and the titles: they are distinctive. True, there was something of a vogue for long titles in the 1970s when Bishop was beginning his career, but he seems to have sustained the practice: "Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats" appeared in the early 90s, "Vinegar Peace; or, The Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage" came out as recently as 2008. Yet the titles are oblique, allusive, much of the time you wouldn't be able to guess what the story will bring from the title alone. But you would be able to guess the mood of the piece; the titles seem part and parcel of the distinctive quality and tone that Michael Bishop brings to his fiction. And this retrospective is a perfect illustration of just how good he can be.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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