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A Reverie for Mister Ray: Reflections on Life, Death and Speculative Fiction

by Michael Bishop
edited by Michael H Hutchins
introduction by Jeff VanderMeer

(publisher, price, pagecount, format, date, isbn.)

Review by Keith Brooke

cover scanA Reverie for Mister Ray brings together -- depending on how you count them, for some pieces originally published separately have been intelligently recombined here -- something like seventy reviews, essays and other non-fiction oddments by Michael Bishop in a single, beautifully-produced volume. It's the final delivery on an aspiration the author had from early in his career, and one that had already stumbled on the vagaries of indie publishing once along the way. Some time after that first, less comprehensive attempt at the author's collected non-fictions, in stepped Michael Hutchins, bibliographer and compiler of michaelbishop-writer.com, as editor, and PS Publishing to do the business. Not to mention Robert Wexler, who gets Bishop's deserved thanks as the book's designer, and Jamie Bishop, who provided the splendidly eyecatching cover, as he did for Bishop's Golden Gryphon collection, Brighten to Incandescence (2003).

In the opening, and throughly charming, essay on Ray Bradbury, which gives this book its title, Bishop concludes that "Bradbury's Mars is far more real than the one NASA found". This book explores a whole range of fictional territories -- in books reviewed, in profiles of and tributes to Bishop's contemporaries and heroes, in Bishop's own work -- where each, in its way, is more real -- a magnified reality -- than the world around us. You couldn't hope for a more intelligent, engaging and downright companionable guide than Bishop.

One strand keeps recurring: writers are arrogant, writers are wracked with self-doubt. It takes a peculiar arrogance to think your own take on the world -- whether through non-fiction, or through the magnifying lens of story -- is such that it deserves setting down in words, and that other people, many thousands of other people, should devote significant amounts of their time in appreciating them. But that's what writers do, that's what it's about: this is what I see; share it with me. But that arrogance is nearly always tempered by doubt: am I good enough to justify your time? am I good enough to realise my own vision? am I exposing a fundamental human truth or do I just look stupid saying this? That a writer as unique, as good, as respected and admired, as Michael Bishop should be plagued by self-doubt is still a shock to me, even though I know that most writers are. The fear of not being able to deliver, not being able to do this thing, recurs -- most explicitly in "First Novel, Seventh Novel", where, upon receiving an invitation from Betty Ballantine to send her a first novel, an outline, a proposal -- almost anything -- he was struck by the terribly self-effacing fear of the challenge:

...I'd been pushing my limits to write one coherent story of seventy pages. How could I do a hundred, much less two hundred or more, without my prose degenerating into mere jargon and my story into farce or surreal argle-bargle?
I was afraid to write a novel. I had no confidence. I didn't think I could. (pp524-5)

A book like this, a raggle-taggle gathering of oddments, is never likely to gain the appearance of something planned, something conceived as a whole, but Bishop -- and Hutchins -- does an admirable job in organising, often revising and welding together various related pieces in very effective manner. (To be precise, this isn't necessarily a process Bishop has introduced just for this volume: many of the reviews appeared separately, only to be recombined into essay form for another publication long before they were gathered together for this book.)

You can come to this book for many reasons, and leave it satisfied. Overall, you get a mosaic portrait of the man, the writer, from the overtly autobiographical through to the fragmented mirror of his reviews which, particularly when gathered in this way, reflect as much about the reviewer as the reviewed. Aspiring writers can leave this book knowing more about the writer's methods, the life of the writer. Fans and students of genre fiction can leave with anecdotal history of the field, and with incisive commentary on key works and writers.

What rings clear is a writer with a passionate belief in the heights we can scale through speculative fiction, and in pushing one's own talent as far as possible up that slope:

...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. (p149)

At which point, may I just add "Bravo"?

That statement should be a part of any writing programme. There's plenty more here for aspiring writers, too. Books like this are far more beneficial for them than a dozen "How to Write" manuals. Bishop argues that his book proposal for the novel No Enemy but Time is an examplar of how not to write a book pitch, but he writes a bad book pitch so damned well! The proposal works powerfully in the way it both illustrates the author's deep knowledge of his subject (paleoanthropology) and acts as an eloquent plea of ignorance, of the need to back this author and trust in his abilities to find out more, to explore the ideas, to find the story.

From an essay for the SFWA bulletin on how to write convincing aliens, here's Bishop's wonderfully evasive response:

The knack, and how to get it.
I wish I knew. (p82)

Wonderful! A How To article that doesn't tell you how to! But he does, elliptically. The knack, it transpires, involves paying attention to the world around you and thinking about it. And sitting down and writing. There goes another trade secret...

The longest piece in A Reverie for Mister Ray, "Military Brat: a memoir", was written for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography series -- which, as you might expect, is a slice of autobiography. It follows the young Bishop through the upheavals of his parents' separation and reconciliation and subsequent divorce and remarriages, and his life as an itinerant Forces child, spending time in Japan, Spain and various parts of the US, drawing from this the influences and sparks that formed the foundations of a life of writing. It's an eloquent telling (of course), touching on incidents and memories already encountered in the cumulatively-biographical pages of Reverie, and also filling in the gaps; like the book, it's full of wry humour and insight into the man and his work, and the path that led him to science fiction.

Fascinating and engaging as this collection is, for all kinds of reasons, it's the portrait of the man that will remain with me longest, a man who is a writer who passionately believes in the power of words when those words are combined with a talent pushed to its limits. In "More than a Masterpiece?" Bishop refers to his "half-assed guilt" at staying stateside in uniform during the Vietnam War, neither fighting in the jungles nor fleeing to Canada to avoid his duty. What he did was teach science fiction in a military college, requiring cadets to read the likes of A Canticle for Leibowitz, A Clockwork Orange, Camp Concentration, and More than Human:

Was I really teaching science fiction? Yes and no, for it also seemed to me that I was teaching a hands-on variety of ethics in a technological age muddied by cold-war fears and a bloody little war in Southeast Asia. What an exhilarating comfort to be able to read aloud: "...multiplicity is our first characteristic: unity our second. As your parts know they are parts of you, so must you know that we are parts of humanity."

I've always argued that science fiction is a hugely powerful way of sidestepping readers' preconceptions and prejudices, of being more real -- returning to the discussion of magnified reality with which I opened this review -- by not being explicitly realist. Here, in Bishop's wartime experience, is that argument made flesh. Fiction -- and in certain very special ways, science fiction -- reaches higher, probes deeper, tells it truer, than mere reportage, which can only ever, at best, tell it like it is.

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