[A Reverie for Mister Ray by Michael Bishop, edited by Michael H. Hutchins. PS Publishing, 2005, ISBN: 1-90288-087-0.]
Michael Bishop has been publishing science fiction for over thirty years—closer to thirty-five, actually. During that time he's won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, the Southeastern Science Fiction Achievement Award, the Phoenix Award (given by DeepSouthCon), the Rhysling, and more than one of both the Nebula and Hugo awards. Bishop has also taught English at the college level, and his work falls on the literary end of the science fiction spectrum, a genre position that he has helped develop as science fiction matured.
During these decades as a working science fiction and fantasy writer, in which Bishop published such works as No Enemy But Time and Unicorn Mountain, Bishop was also engaged in writing nonfiction about literature, science fiction, and ideas. His new collection, A Reverie for Mister Ray, collects thirty years of Bishop's nonfiction.
A Reverie for Mister Ray is an odd book—it blends memoir, criticism, reflection, satire, homage, and some less easily classified pieces—but an interesting and valuable one. If you are a Michael Bishop fan, you'll want to snap it up immediately, for the insights into Bishop's history and creative process. If you're a more general reader of science fiction, the collection is still intriguing, but what precisely it offers you will be a more open-ended question, and I'll devote the remainder of my space here to trying to answer it.
The most straightforward pieces in the collection are those that could be classified as homage or memoir. In a life shaped as fully by books as Bishop's has been, these two categories blur together more fully than they might in many lives. The first of these pieces, "A Reverie for Mister Ray," besides providing the title for the collection, details Bishop's first encounter with Ray Bradbury, and his subsequent love of the great man's stories. In it Bishop moves as swiftly to that time of childhood nostalgia, evoking the excitement found just on the underside of adolescence through a series of well-chosen details. Later, he catalogs how much he owes Bradbury as a writer, pulling out selections of his own fiction and combing through the parallels with Bradbury's work. This sort of writing provides the raw material for incisive external criticism; where is the critic who can identify all the Bradbury-esque influences in Bishop's work, and how they shift and fade over time? The essay also provides another Bradbury moment, when Bishop casts his adult eye over Bradbury's later work and reluctantly disagrees with the master about which stories are best.
This mixing of joy, criticism, and timeslip defines much of the collection, even when the individual pieces aren't as nuanced as this one. "A Speculation of SF Writers" offers a fine example of how this happens. In it Bishop briefly discusses the careers of four writers: Gardner Dozois, Suzette Haden Elgin, Steven Utley, and Ian Watson...except that this piece was published in 1980, and reviews their careers to date. The result is a kind of verbal high school yearbook, and it is fascinating to see what Dozois "looked like" when he was only fifteen stories and one novel old. Perhaps, though, it would be better to call this a family album, for while Bishop's discussion of these authors is always intelligent and articulate, it is always very much an intimate and personal discussion. For example, near the end of his profile of Ian Watson, Bishop notes that Watson "has collaborated at novel-length with an American writer by the name of Michael Bishop." I'm glad he noted this, but it serves as a marker of just how in-house Bishop's reflections are, and offers considerable substance upon which the reader can muse. How much objectivity is possible for a writer within the field? How much is necessary in order to view one's peers, or even oneself, clearly? Bishop is honest enough, and this collection varied enough, to be useful here.
A Reverie for Mister Ray is interestingly weak when attempting a broad theoretical view. The best example of this is "Children Who Survive: An Autobiographical Meditation on Horror Fiction." This piece reasons through the functions and purposes of horror fiction. The piece was included in Horror Literature as an introduction, and works as such for the general reader who hasn't thought much about horror fiction. Bishop walks through ideas developed by Bruno Bettelheim, Ursula K. Leguin, and David Hartwell. However...the reasoning is pretty pedestrian. It doesn't include either the most striking literary theorists of the time (this was published in 1990) or, more surprisingly, use any real evidence taken from the social sciences Bishop employs so well in his fiction. By contrast, the autobiographical sections are vivid, and I had the strange sense that these are what Bishop writes from, and the sort of reasoning presented here functioned as kind of necessary mask—something to put out for the public to chew on, so that the real work could go on deep behind it.
This tension between public face and private creation actually fits well with an underestimated element of Bishop's work, and of this collection: its Southern roots. Southern manners are legendary, and like many legends, they often serve to cover less pleasant realities. The South is also known to accent personal connections over formal structures, to be haunted by the past, and to have a tradition of leisurely storytelling, and while Bishop was born in Nebraska, he attended the University of Georgia and has lived in the South for years. The result is that Bishop is particularly good at paying direct tribute to those who have helped him (as in his appreciative comments regarding editor David Hartwell), and particularly sharp when discussing Southern writers like Andy Duncan, when discussing ghosts, either literary (as in the piece on the Norton anthology of ghost stories), historical (as when discussing the Civil War), or even species-related (as when he discusses human prehistory and developments in paleoanthropology).
All of his works included here are marked by personal asides, and they are always as much about Bishop as they are about their supposed subject matter. As a result, readers will learn a great deal about many topics here, and will have a chance to enjoy lush prose. They will encounter a history of the genre and of literature that is intensely personal. Even when Bishop is discussing more historically distant works, such as Gulliver's Travels, the experience is always personal and immediate, and there's always a sense in which the past stays richly with him. Readers will experience a writer whose childhood passions shape him as much as his adult studies, and, more importantly, who knows and admits it. If they take the time, they'll get to see well-composed verbal portraits of many from Bishop's extended literary family (mostly the literary end of the science fiction world). And this will all be exceptionally honest, for it will all take place, as the title indicates, in a kind of rich and gentle reverie. Come not to this book seeking sharply drawn theories, or fully worked out mechanisms of creation, but instead, bide a while and enjoy.