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Introduction to A Reverie for Mr. Ray by Michael Bishop
Jeff VanderMeer
PS Publishing

A Reverie for Mr. Ray by Michael Bishop
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.

Michael Bishop Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Blue Kansas Sky

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jeff VanderMeer

I first had a chance to talk to Michael Bishop at the 1998 Slipstream Conference in La Grange, Georgia, but I had really met him years before through his fiction -- countless short stories and, in particular, the novel The Secret Ascension. What I loved about his fiction was its restless curiosity about the world, as well as its sharpness, often disguised under a disarmingly gentle veneer. I always felt, when reading a piece of fiction by Bishop, an underlying honesty, even in his most experimental or structurally complex works.

That Mike in person was unfailingly generous, polite, inquisitive, a good listener, and an excellent host may seem incidental to his writing, but what I took from that first meeting was a sense of balance -- here was a writer whose life and work were in harmony. The life and the work matched, to the benefit of both.

Now, it's certainly not true that this is always the case. Many an excellent writer turns out to be a bastard in person, or ridiculously eccentric, or a plain old bore -- which is why we have come up with the idea of the writer who "leaves the best part of him or herself on the page." This is a polite way of excusing the writer for being such poor company in the flesh.

With Mike, there is none of this nonsense. Likewise, the sense of balance and honesty not only extends from his person into his fiction, but into his nonfiction.

In his nonfiction, Mike finds the universal in the personal, displays a highly-developed sense of curiosity (which is one indication of a person's love for the world and those who inhabit it), weds an at times disarmingly informal style to incisive analysis, showcases the redemptive power of the imagination, remains defiantly un-cynical but also not naively optimistic, and manages to level criticisms in his book reviews in a way that gets the point across while removing any personal animus or heat from those comments. (When Mike writes of a character in Jonathan Carroll's The Wooden Sea that "You couldn't hate this guy if he handcuffed and booked you for a seatbelt violation," he could as well have been describing himself.)

Even when examining his own heroes, Mike maintains his sense of balance -- for example, in his essay "A Reverie for Mr. Ray," the title of which I have shameless ripped off for this introduction. Mike revels in the delight he received from Bradbury's classic works...

Reading these contents, I am fourteen again, and my life has been riven -- mined -- detonated -- blown spiraling outward in a kaleidoscope of gleaming shrapnel possibilities. Where am I going? How, fired by such language and vision, can I pull the centrifugally whirling pieces of my wonder back into a single, purposeful orbit of meditation and accomplishment?
...while examining later works with an unflinching honesty:
Bradbury the Lamentable crops up now and again with a dead-on parody of himself at his most lush and simplistic, making the deliberate parodies of other writers...redundant, if not altogether superfluous.
Another great strength of Mike's essays is the restless way they twist and turn, always on topic, but full of wonderful digressions that turn out to be central to his point. Not to harp on "Reverie," but it exemplifies so many of this collection's strengths, such as when Mike "digresses" about dandelions:
I have just come indoors from digging dandelions -- an activity suspiciously pertinent to the topic of this piece, but nevertheless true. Dandelion roots go deep. You can get them out only if the soil is moist and you plunge the tip of your spade into the earth to loosen the tenacious taproot. Then, with effort, you pull that skinny tuber free. I enjoy such work because I am not sentimental about dandelions. Although pretty to look at and fun to flick apart, their puffball heads bear aloft a gossamer-booted assault force fully capable of going airborne and taking over an entire yard. Dandelions are ravenous for conquest. I fight them to keep from becoming an anonymous morsel in an immense dandelion salad.

(And I have never tasted dandelion wine. Forgive me, Mister Ray, but it sounds terrible.)

By now Bradbury's stories, poems, plays, and nonfiction pieces are as numerous as the downy seeds on a dandelion's crown.

I love this passage because it also displays Mike's playfulness. His style in these essays and reviews is sure but light -- not so light as to float away across someone's summer lawn, but light enough to avoid the didactic, the overbearing, and, above all, the senselessness of the polemic.

One appreciates these attributes most keenly in such essays as "Children Who Survive: An Autobiographical Meditation on Horror Fiction," "Believers and Heretics: An Episcopal Bull," and "On Reviewers and Being Reviewed," all three of which, in lesser hands, would have read like ham-fisted nonfictions of righteousness.

"Children Who Survive" is a tour de force of analysis, delving into horror fiction through Freud, Bettelheim, and the observations of Ursula K. Le Guin to make a convincing case for horror stories as the equivalent of modern-day fairy tales. I also found quite compelling Mike's observations about the role of the imagination, especially

...reality isn't always what it appears to be. Wonder sometimes breaks in. Magic, black and white, can transform the two-dimensional outlines of life into dauntingly solid arabesques. Beneath the placid surfaces of habit, regimentation, and order, fearful krakens lurk. The world is both more exciting and more terrible than we think, and fantasy -- whether cinematic, literary, or dream-triggered -- is a surefire open-sesame to its secret awesomeness.
Perhaps even more impressive is "Believers and Heretics," which discusses and juxtaposes two opposing views of Science Fiction, as argued by Ian Wilson and Thomas Disch, the poetic theory versus the idea theory, to reduce the argument to its simplest component. The strength of Bishop's approach is, again, his balance. In essence, he mediates the argument between Wilson and Disch, trying to see both sides and analyze what appeals to him about both arguments, while stating his own opinion. It is a masterful essay, perfectly pitched to provoke thought and open closed minds. Reading it, I began to believe Mike might make the perfect hostage negotiator.

Other essays, like the insightful "On Reviewing and Being Reviewed," exhibit the aforementioned quality of unexpectedness. In addition to being an excellent discussion of reviewers, reviews, and writer feelings about reviews (using Bishop's own experiences), the essay also becomes an argument for experimentation and exercising of the imagination, including this wonderful paragraph:

Finally, my own loudest prejudice is that writers ought to write the most vivid, risk-taking books they can -- in whatever genre, style, mood, tone, mode, or fashion they find appropriate to their purposes. No approach gets outlawed, and no technique either. Existentialism. Transcendental utopianism. Satire. Tragedy. Farce. Doom and despair. Joy in a Stapledonian evolutionary Giant Step. The book's the thing, not the philosophy, and no writer deserves rebuke for sounding like the Prophet of Annihilation in one novel and the Angel of Annunciation in the next. The more voices the better, particularly if a talent proves commensurate with its ambition.
In all three of these long essays, Mike combines the analytical and the personal, not only producing unexpected but relevant observations, but also sharing anecdotes and relevant situations from his own personal experience.

Other essays in this collection reveal the research and impetus for his own major works of fiction, for example "Prospectus for a Novel of Human Prehistory" and "Lucy in the Mud with Footprints," which shed light on the genesis of his novel Ancient of Days. "First Novel, Seventh Novel: A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire" is an interesting journey into the evolution of an early novel, while in "Military Brat: A Memoir," the reader gets a fascinating look at Mike's formative years, including his first encounters with science fiction.

Shorter pieces, such as the book reviews -- covering J.G. Ballard to Samuel Delaney, John Crowley to James Triptree, Jr. -- are incisive, balanced, fair, and reveal a reader and writer constantly seeking out the new and the different, an inquisitive nature that delights in its discoveries.

That the author of this collection happens to be one of the most influential, talented, and hard-working writers of his generation just adds an extra layer of authenticity and interest to the proceedings.

But an introduction is an impoverished place to explain away what you are about to read. It too should be light, adroit, balanced, and, in all ways, brief.

Therefore, I think it is now time for you to embark on your own reverie with Mister Michael...

(This essay first appeared as the introduction to Michael Bishop's collection A Reverie for Mr. Ray.)

Copyright © 2005 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime will release his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in April 2003.

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