Locus Magazine Review

BRIGHTEN TO INCANDESCENCE: 17 STORIES, Michael Bishop (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-16-9, $24.95, 295pp, hc) June 2003. Cover by Jamie Bishop.

Introducing the new Michael Bishop collection, Brighten to Incandescence, Lucius Shepard speaks of Bishop's continuing growth as an artist and declares that a preview of future stories (still unpublished at that point) convinced him of "an astonishing evolution in his work." And it's true: recent Bishop can achieve a power several orders of magnitude greater than works from just a few years earlier. But it's not the whole truth.

Non-chronologically arranged and drawn from venues as well-known as F&SF, as obscure as a short-lived mag and an introduction for a collection of Mary Shelley's fiction, this miscellany of previously uncollected fiction shouldn't be dismissed as a grab-bag of lesser works. (Only the Shelley piece, "The Unexpected Visit of a Reanimated Englishwoman", where the lady's ghost discourses with the author about her short fiction, remains more academic intro than story, right down to its bibliography of Sources.) Bishop has never restricted himself to any one subgenre, as Brighten clearly demonstrates with its mix of far-future SF (the collaboration "Murder on Lupozny Station" and solo "Simply Indispensable"), edgy poetic horror ("Thirteen Lies About Hummingbirds"), meditation on torture-cum-tribute to the Beatles ("With a Little Help From Her Friends"), dark fantasy set in the Vietnam era ("The Tigers of Hysteria . . . "), time-slip adventure of humans among dinosaurs ("Herding With the Hadrosaurs"), plus evocations of Bradbury's Dark Carnival ("Tithes of Mint and Rue") and the glorious strangeness of R. A. Lafferty ("Of Crystalline Labyrinths and the New Creation").

Aside from a tendency toward wordy, "literary" titles, what unifies Bishop's work? The stories originally published between 1981 and 1991 tend toward strange juxtapositions — first-edition poetry with nameless horror, torture victims with superannuated Beatles, Jurassic herds with human viciousness, locked-room mystery with deep-space mining. Though he can clearly get inside his characters' heads, cruel paradox often seems to outweigh empathy. Better to evoke an occasional grimace or wince than to leave the reader merely satisfied.

Most of the post-'91 works, along with two from the '70s in revised versions, lack that whiff of ironic distancing. Vibrant, eccentric, almost mainstream until the end, "Chihuahua Flats" depicts blue-collar love, loss, and chihuahua racing so directly you'd swear you lived it yourself. "Sequel on Skorpiós" turns an entire religion on its head through brief scenes from an obscure Greek island, and even before the final twist it packs an extraordinary punch. "Tithes of Mint and Rue" cuts through Bradburyesque romanticism to find deeper truths in the tale of an angry fat woman and a carnival performer, while "Of Crystalline Labyrinths . . . " goes beyond parody or tribute to Lafferty — it displays an equal genius. All these stories have a gritty, down-to-earth quality (yes, even "Labyrinths") because of their protagonists: working-class people of the South or the dry plains, the ones often dismissed as "rednecks" or "hillbillies." Bishop doesn't try to elevate these folks to moral grandeur as True Americans; he just knows them, from the inside out. The same is true of revised 1974 Vietnam veteran story "The Tigers of Hysteria Feed Only on Themselves" — yep, another of those "lit'ry" titles, though the work itself is spare and direct — with characters drawn from the author's own relatives, as he notes in the afterword. After "Tigers," the rest of the book derives from post-1995 (including works I've discussed above), and the effect indeed shows an author brightening toward incandescence: the quantum leap. Still, that's not the whole story.

Just before "Tigers" there's "A Tapestry of Little Murders," a surreal little tale of a wife-killer who drives off to encounter hordes of road-kill toads and suicidal mockingbirds that originally appeared in F&SF back in 1971 when Bishop was still new on the scene. Here it follows "Murder on Lupozny Station" written with Gerald W. Page — a competent work from 1981 which it utterly eclipses. Since "Tapestry" is a revision, I hauled down a box of musty old mags and ("Eureka!") found June of '71. It turns out that he did an expert job, tightening up sentences and making some vague concepts more vivid. But these were relatively minor changes; the essential ideas, the key phrases, were already there. Michael Bishop has reached greatness by coming into his own.

— Faren Miller, Locus, June 2003


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