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Bishop, Michael

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1945-2023) US author, much travelled in childhood, with an MA in English from the University of Georgia, where he did a thesis on the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He began publishing sf with "Piñon Fall" in Galaxy for October 1970, and in a short period established himself as one of the significant new writers of the 1970s. Though his early stories and novels display considerable intellectual complexity, and do not shirk the downbeat implications of their anthropological (see Anthropology) treatment of Aliens and alienating milieux, there remained a sense in which Bishop could not be treated as one of those writers, like Edward Bryant, whose primary influences included the US New Wave of the 1960s and the liberating influence of the numerous writing workshops of the succeeding decade. But there were costs involved in walking alone. The earnest ardour and rigorousness of Bishop's fiction made him eminently publishable, but difficult in the end to market to an audience expecting easier heroes to identify with (his seventeen sf/fantasy novels, mostly in hardback, were initially released by eleven different firms).

Bishop's first novel, for instance, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975; rev vt Eyes of Fire 1980; vt to original title with revs retained and new introduction 1989; further rev 2015), laces its Hard SF premises with diversionary Gothicisms (most of them removed as part of the extensive 1980 revision), initially obscuring the fact that what seems to be a routine plot – on an alien planet, the protagonist must perform wonders or be sent back to a despotic Earth – becomes, almost secretly, a complex and sometimes moving analysis of Alien cultures, and a meditation on the possibility of any genuine understanding across species. The finest of these Anthropology-based interrogatory tales is Transfigurations (January/February 1973 If as "Death and Designation among the Asadi"; exp vt 1979; rev 2013; further rev 2017), where the colonizing impact of a "superior" culture upon less technologically advanced natives is complexly contrasted – in a story which owes much to Joseph Conrad – with the recursive unknowableness of the Other.

And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (1976; vt Beneath the Shattered Moons 1977; vt as coll Beneath the Shattered Moons and The White Otters of Childhood 1978), is a somewhat less convincing Far-Future tale dealing with a world most of whose people, long ago genetically engineered (see Genetic Engineering) into stoicism, are now apparently incapable of aggression or any other display of emotion (see also Cultural Engineering). Stolen Faces (1977), again set on an alien planet, darkly offers a culture so diseased that its inhabitants must designate themselves through gross mutilations; but where some sf writers at the end of the twentieth century might embrace the Commedia dell'Arte implications of this sort of "decadence" (see Cyberpunk; Equipoise; Space Opera), Bishop treats his material with humanist reserve.

Meanwhile, while publishing these novels and many of the stories collected in Blooded on Arachne (coll 1982) and One Winter in Eden (coll 1984), Bishop was increasingly focusing his sharp exploratory eye upon the eerier provinces of the American South. In the Urban Nucleus sequence comprising A Little Knowledge (1977) and its sequel, Catacomb Years (fixup 1979), a theocratic regime repressively dominates a Near-Future Atlanta, Georgia, until the conversion of some Alien "Cygnusians" begins to destabilize society; the vision of Atlanta as a domed City whose various levels and intersections literally map the new social order may be cognitively daring, but – for reasons hinted at above – it thins out in the mind's eye when described without joy. The collaborative, non-urban Under Heaven's Bridge (1980) with Ian Watson is loosely connected to Urban Nucleus in that it builds on Watson's fascination with the Cygnusians (here the Kybers) and their home world, which is visited via Starship and found to be doomed.

Bishop's most public success soon followed. No Enemy But Time (1982; rev 2022), which won a Nebula, intensified the movement of his imagination to a local habitat, and for the first time introduced a protagonist of sufficient racial (and mental) complexity to carry a storyline immured in the particular and haunted by the exotic. In this case, dogged by dreams of the Pleistocene, the new Bishop protagonist – who is not dissimilar to the Habiline who later featured in the less successful and overextended tale of Atlanta and Haiti, Ancient of Days (1985; rev 2013) (see Apes as Human) – is enlisted into a Time-Travel project, goes back in Mysterious Stranger equipage to the Africa of his vision, fathers a child in the dawn of time, and returns with her to the battering world. The tale is both melancholy and epic (see Evolution; Prehistoric SF). This meditation is extended in To a Chimp Held Captive for Purposes of Research (1986 broadsheet), a poem.

Through the 1980s, Bishop continued to strive for an adequate form to engage his humanist sympathies; to find forms to express his native South, which is perhaps all too rich in material; to unlock the lurking humorist within the preacher. Who Made Stevie Crye?: A Novel of the American South (1984) is a strangely unengaged horror novel, with laughs and elements of Recursion. The Secret Ascension (1987; vt Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas 1988; rev of this vt 2015), set in an Alternate-History USA, homages and stars Dick (see also Recursive SF) as a reincarnated possible saviour of an Alternate History vision of Amerika as Dystopia under the rule of Richard Nixon; it is perhaps his most ambitious, most sophisticated, most genuinely urban novel. Unicorn Mountain (1988), once again set partly in Atlanta, is a fantasy in which the dying of unicorns from another Dimension and the problem of AIDS in this world intersect encouragingly; and Count Geiger's Blues (1992; rev vt Count Geiger's Blues: (A Comedy) 2012), another fantasy – set in Atlanta-like Salonika, capital of the imaginary southern state of Oconee – is told in Bishop's uneasily humorous, humorously edgy, highly individual voice, through which the novel's hero, a manqué Superhero, is strongly and comically drawn. Though full of energy and strongly willed, with the exception of Philip K Dick Is Dead, Alas (Bishop's preferred title) these novels do not feel entirely comfortably in focus. On the other hand, Brittle Innings (1994; rev 2012) conveys a powerful sense of smoothly released energies; retelling the story of the Frankenstein Monster within a Gothic SF frame – it is set in the American South during World War Two, and the Monster is a professional Baseball player – the tale amply confirms a sense that Bishop, constantly in search of a strong world to illuminate, had once again found one; it is perhaps his finest novel. Baseball also figures in the Young Adult fantasy Joel-Brock the Brave and the Valorous Smalls (2016), much of which is set Underground in a hallucinated kingdom as the cast searches for lost family.

Volumes of short fiction continued to appear, most notably The Quickening (in Universe 11, anth 1981, ed Terry Carr; 1991 chap), reprinting a 1981 winner of the Nebula; Blue Kansas Sky: Four Short Novels of Memory, Magic, Surmise & Estrangement (coll 2000), which incorporates Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana (1989 chap); in A Reverie for Mister Ray: Reflections on Life, Death, and Speculative Fiction (coll 2005) Bishop assembled an intensely interesting array of nonfiction; and The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy: A Michael Bishop Retrospective (coll 2011) assembles stories from his entire career, from his 1970 Galaxy debut "Piñon Fall" to "The City Quiet as Death" (9 June 2009 with Steven Utley, the stories being revised into definitive form. Other Arms Reach Out to Me: Georgia Stories (coll 2017) assembles a wide range of stories, some previously unpublished and some nonfantastic, set in the designated state, and The Sacerdotal Owl and Three Other Long Tales ... of Calamity, Pilgrimage, and Atonement (coll 2018) assembles recent and old stories, including perhaps the final version of And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees [see above].

The Will Keats sequence of detective novels, beginning with Would It Kill You to Smile (1998) with Paul Di Filippo, writing together as Philip Lawson, is nonfantastic. Bishop published only one solo novel in the twenty-first century, though many of his earlier works were extensively (and effectively) revised. It might have once been possible not to fully heed the humanely expressed pessimism about America and Homo sapiens in general that marked almost everything he wrote; but the flow of republished novels and stories in recent years makes it much harder to dodge recognizing his stature as an elegist of our species. [JC]

see also: Arkham House; Cosmology; Devolution; Origin of Man; Poetry; Sex; Sociology; Timescape Books.

Michael Lawson Bishop

born Lincoln, Nebraska: 12 November 1945

died Pine Mountain, Georgia: 13 November 2023



Urban Nucleus

  • A Little Knowledge (New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1977) [Urban Nucleus: hb/Dean Ellis]
  • Catacomb Years (New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1979) [fixup: Urban Nucleus: hb/Ron Walotsky]
    • The City and the Cygnets (Bonney Lake, Washington: Fairwood Press/Kudzu Planet Productions, 2019) [omni of the above two: much revised with 7 stories added: Urban Nucleus: pb/Amit Dutta]
  • Under Heaven's Bridge (London: Victor Gollancz, 1980) with Ian Watson [dated 1980 but published 1981: Urban Nucleus: hb/nonpictorial]

Will Keats

  • Would It Kill You to Smile (Atlanta, Georgia: Longstreet, 1998) with Paul Di Filippo, writing together as Philip Lawson [detection: Will Keats: hb/David Turner]
  • Muskrat Courage (New York: St Martin's/Minotaur, 2000) with Paul Di Filippo, writing together as Philip Lawson [detection: Will Keats: hb/Joseph Daniel Fiedler]
    • Families Are Murder (Rockville, Maryland: Wildside Press/PointBlank, 2005) with Paul Di Filippo, writing together as Philip Lawson [omni of the above two: Will Keats: pb/oiva design group]

individual titles

collections, poetry and stories


works as editor

Nebula Awards

See also Nebula Anthologies.

individual titles

about the author


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