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Bisson, Terry

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1942-    ) US author who has also worked as a New York publishing copy-writer. His first novel, Wyrldmaker: A Heroic Romance (1981), is a too rapidly told but intermittently dazzling Generation Starship tale told in the guise of a heroic fantasy (see also World Ship). With his second, Talking Man (1986), he comes into his full powers as a novelist whose narrative voice is urgently and lucidly that of a teller of tales. The figure at the heart of Talking Man – who does not talk – seems at the story's beginning to be nothing more than a bemusedly eccentric rural Kentuckian with a knack for repairing motors – Bisson's admiration for "shade tree mechanics" was expressed more recently in "The Edge of the Universe" (August 1996 Asimov's). As the novel develops into a quest west and then north across a USA more and more radically transformed the further the search proceeds, the talking man takes on qualities of Trickster and Redeemer, and eventually seems to contain the world's reality in his hands. The tale closes back home, but home is now an American South changed magically into a clement Utopia. In Fire on the Mountain (1988), which is in no ostensible sense a sequel, this same utopia proves to be an Alternate History born out of a different course of US history. The enslaved Blacks of the Southern states have successfully revolted during the course of the Civil War, have founded an independent Southern country, and by the late twentieth century have established an unracist, beneficent, courteous, livable comity. Those parts of the tale set during this period are perhaps less convincing – and certainly less moving – than the central passages of the book, which represent the reminiscences long afterwards of one of the original Black revolutionaries; his descriptions of the successful campaign to free his people intensely invokes the haunted heartlands of the Civil War upriver from Washington, though subtly and upliftingly transformed.

Bisson's fourth novel, Voyage to the Red Planet (1990), complicatedly combines spoof, elegy and tall tale. In the twenty-first century the USA has declined severely, and the Mary Poppins, an umbrella-shaped spaceship once destined to take humanity to Mars, is in a mothball orbit. But an entrepreneur decides that a good film could be made of an actual trip to Mars, using the original ageing crew; and this is done. The portrait of a spineless, privatized USA is scathing; but the ship and the voyage – both described with considerable verisimilitude – evoke a powerful sense of genuine but wasted opportunity, while generating at the same time a sense that humanity's dream of travelling outwards was not yet, perhaps, over. Bisson's sf novels seem at their heart to re-write traditional sf visions of the future of America as being essentially counterfactual. There is a sense that, at times, as in The Pickup Artist (2001), he loses heart before abandoning his tale to the inevitable conclusion that the old stories do not any longer work; in this novel, an almost Absurdist vision of a Near Future America, in which redundant works of Art are confiscated for destruction, turns into a kind of road story tied to the Interstate highway system, a dying fall or diminishing return typical of his book-length fiction.

Bisson wrote no stories during the 1980s, but beginning in 1990 became a significant author of short fiction. His shorter work seems exempt from the terminal lassitude of the longer work; its buoyancy of telling is more reminiscent of older regionalists like Fred Chappell or Donald Harington than it is of his urbanized regional contemporaries William Gibson and Jack Womack. Bisson's most famous short story is probably "Bears Discover Fire" (August 1990 Asimov's), which won a Nebula, a Hugo and a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. The tale once again elegizes the land, the loss of the dream of America; it is also very funny. Other stories of note include "macs" (October/November 1999 F&SF), a nearly unbearable (though comic) analysis of revenge justice, and "The Old Rugged Cross" (in Starlight 3, anth 2001, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden), a perfectly savage portrayal of modern commercial Christianity. Bisson's short work has been assembled in Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories (coll 1993), In the Upper Room and Other Likely Stories (coll 2000) and Greetings (coll 2005); the Wilson Wu story sequence is assembled as Numbers Don't Lie (coll of linked stories 2005), which includes "The Edge of the Universe" (see above). Fluent and moral and wry, and very much a writer dominated by aftermath issues and emotions, Bisson will continue to be read with great intensity by those who hope they recognize him. [JC]

see also: Asimov's Science Fiction; Evolution; Fantasy; Fermi Paradox; Invention.

Terry Ballantine Bisson

born Madisonville, Kentucky: 12 February 1942



Alien Store

individual titles

collections and stories

ties and pseudonymous work

Jonny Quest

Nascar "Pole Position"

  • Rolling Thunder (New York: HarperPrism, 1998) as by T B Calhoun [Nascar "Pole Position": pb/]
  • In the Groove (New York: HarperPrism, 1998) as by T B Calhoun [Nascar "Pole Position": pb/]
  • Race Ready (New York: HarperPrism, 1998) as by T B Calhoun [Nascar "Pole Position": pb/]
  • Speed Demon (New York: HarperPrism, 1999) with Ned Webb as by T B Calhoun [Nascar "Pole Position": pb/]
  • Hammer Down (New York: HarperPrism, 1999) with Ned Webb as by T B Calhoun [Nascar "Pole Position": pb/]
  • Spin Out (New York: HarperPrism, 1999) with Ned Webb as by T B Calhoun [Nascar "Pole Position": pb/]

Star Wars: Boba Fett

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