Michael Bishop


Writing Science Fiction As If It Mattered
A Self-Interview by Michael Bishop

Q. Do you consider yourself a science-fiction writer?

A. Sometimes.  But sometimes I write fantasy, "speculative" fiction, mysteries, magic realism, historical narratives, satire, Biblical and/or Borgesian parables, Southern gothic stuff, and, yes, even unadulterated contemporary fiction.  The category material is often easier to place — or to sell, as we say in the trade — because contemporary-fiction markets consist primarily of prestigious monthlies that publish only one story per issue (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harperís, Playboy, Esquire, and not many others) and of literary magazines — reviews or quarterlies — that take even longer to report than the high-paying markets (because their editors must earn a living doing something else).  Further, the little magazines rarely pay much more than contributorís copies and/or a conscience-assuaging pittance (in those cases when the editors do in fact have consciences).

Another difficulty placing short stories nowadays stems from the fact that everyone and her brother have taken creative writing as undergraduates, MFA candidates, or correspondence-school wannabes.  Flannery OíConnor once famously observed, "Everywhere I go Iím asked if I think the university stifles writers.  My opinion is that they donít stifle enough of them.  Thereís many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."  I might add that thereís also many a pretentious "literary" story that could have been prevented by . . . well, what?  By administering a hearty dose of reality to their authors.  And I say this, by the way, as the repentant author of some pretentious "literary" stories of my own.  After all, long ago I was an aspiring intellectual as well as an English major.

Q. Weíve wandered far from my original question.  When you write science fiction, why do you write it?

A. Actually, I havenít written bona fide beholden-to-Gernsbach scientifiction in nine or ten years, when I produced a generation-starship story called "Cri de Coeur" that eventually appeared in the September 1994 issue of Asimovís Science Fiction Magazine.  (A couple of the magazineís readers wrote in to complain that they had no idea what the title meant.  This they did even though it takes at least as much time to rummage up writing materials, stationery, stamps, and a modicum of furious indignation as it does to crack a dictionary.)  Since "Cri de Coeur" appeared, Iíve published a story collection called At the City Limits of Fate (Edgewood Press); two mystery novels in collaboration with Paul Di Filippo under the joint pseudonym Philip Lawson, Would It Kill You to Smile? (Longstreet Press, 1998) and Muskrat Courage (St. Martinís Press, 2000); and Blue Kansas Sky (Golden Gryphon Press, 2000), a gathering of four novellas whose title story has no fantasy or sf element at all, if you ignore the fact that protagonist Sonny Peacock takes a brief ride inside the undulating funnel of a tornado to his girlfriendís house.  And currently Iím revising a contemporary novel set in small-town Georgia in the autumn of 1980.

Q. Not to chop a dead sandworm into a million annelids, but when you write sf, why do you write it?

A. I always suspect that "Why do you write sf?" conceals the sneaky interrogative, "How can you write it?" — along with the subtextual editorial comment, "Science fiction is spaced-out kiddy lit for losers and nerds."

Q. Why this defensiveness?  Why the chip on the shoulder?  It isnít attractive, and it doesnít make you a very credible spokesperson for fully committed sf writers.

A. Iím not a spokesperson for Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, only for myself.  Besides, if readers donít badmouth sf as spaced-out kiddy lit for the pocket-protector people, they invariably say, "Oh, the stuff you write is way over my head.  Itís too smart for the likes of me — all that stuff about biochemistry, astrophysics, cybernetics, nanotechnology, paleontology, superstrings, ribofunk, and, uh, transistors, why, I just canít grok it all.  Better for me to pick up a murder mystery or a rip-snorting self-yelp book than to try to read anything challenging by Eunice K. Legume or Earle Stanley Robinson."  Anyway, sf alienates half the worldís readers because it evinces no more motherwit than a bad Saturday-morning cartoon show and the other half because it engages so profoundly with the abstruse enzymes and quarks of latter-day science — in both instances, allegedly.

Q. Is that why youíre at such pains to distance yourself from the topic that you came here to talk about?

A. Probably.  No.  Yes.  I write sf, when I choose to do so, because it seems the best medium in which to say whatever I want to say at that moment, and sometimes a story casts itself as science fiction because I have been deliberately thinking in sf tropes — aliens, other worlds, time travel, alternate histories — and itís impossible to proceed to strong effect without deploying or evoking these tropes.  And, sometimes, when I donít write sf, I donít write it not only because other images and vocabularies have seized my imagination, but also because the stigma that still attaches to such work (even when itís very good indeed) has made me suppose, against at least a century of powerful evidence to the contrary, that I canít do work that matters . . . as an sf writer.

Part of this feeling of creative second-class citizenship stems from the periodic rants of dismissive academic critics in Harperís and The Atlantic, but part from the undeniable evidence of my own sales figures, which show that writing "literary" sf drops me (if not all of its quixotic practitioners) between two schools, namely, that of mainstream readers who suppose my work sci-fi junk and that of category aficionados for whom it just ainít junky enough.  In either case, my resulting reluctance to continue producing work that enhances neither my literary reputation nor my bank balance brands me as either a weak-kneed slave to othersí opinions or as a lily-livered philistine.  I donít like to see myself in either of these masks.  It sabotages my preferred self-image as a genius-hero.

When, in fact, the real genius-heroes are sf writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Thomas M. Disch, Carol Emshwiller, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, Jack McDevitt, James Morrow, Lucius Shepard, John Crowley, Paul Park, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, John Kessel, Nancy Kress, James Patrick Kelly, Paul Di Filippo, Maureen McHugh, Jim Grimsley, Bruce Holland Rogers, Andy Duncan, Steven Utley and others who write exactly what they want, as well as they possibly can, because they love what they do.  Further, they take no crippling notice of self-important naysayers or of the often meager financial rewards of the enterprise.  These artists write what matters to them, and they make it matter to others because their own conviction of its importance inheres — even glitters — in every word.

Q. Prove it.

A. I beg your pardon.

Q. Prove that conviction glitters in every word of the work of an sf writer whom you cite as a genius-hero.  Give us an example.

A. All right.  Fine.  With the written permission of Bruce Holland Rogers, I will read, in its entirety, the most recent story in his often brilliant Metamorphosis series, "Tiny Bells."  Please note that in the opening sentence, you, the presumed reader, are identified as a sleeper.  Remember that.  If you donít, the story will assign you a charge that you will lack both the knowledge and the understanding to fulfill.

[Here I read "Tiny Bells."  Readers wishing to subscribe to Bruce Holland Rogersís short-story service may go to www.shortshortshort.com for details.  The cost is $5.00 a year for at least two stories a month, and possibly three, depending on the number of subscribers.]

Q. And you consider this a story that matters?

A. I do.  Maybe Iím too literal-minded, or time-bound, for my own good, but I regard "Tiny Bells" as having not only universal ramifications (our innate suspicion of strangers, the arrogance of emperors and generals, the uncounted costs of state-waged slaughter, the age-old longing for validation and peace), but also a specific application to the clamor for war abroad in our country today.  I e-mailed Bruce, writing, "Whatever your intentions, and maybe they were less political than poetic, the story speaks to me as do all the most eloquent parables.  It moved me.  And it continues to move me."

Q. And how did Bruce Holland Rogers reply?

A. He wrote, "Thank you, Michael.  Iíve had the idea for this story for quite some time, but was triggered to write it now after I saw an Israeli film, Kedma, at the Toronto Film Festival.  Kedma is set in the days prior to Israelís birth, and it seems quite fair on all sides . . . and devastating.  I saw the film in the morning and was depressed all day until Holly [Bruce's wife] told me to write in response.  I did.  And the current calls for war were on my mind, too."

In any case, I would put Bruce forward as an uncategorizable category writer who seizes the unshaped, sometimes terrifying materials of the human psyche and who then transforms them into art with a long echo; in short, into work that matters.  "Tiny Bells" is a fine instance of speculative — mythic — storytelling.  It has simplicity, heart, and resonance.  It matters, whatever the statement "it matters" may mean, and it matters precisely because the narrative arises out of — to quote from William Faulknerís Nobel Prize address — "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself," out of "the old verities and truths," "the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pride and compassion and sacrifice."  To write science fiction, or fantasy, or anything at all that matters, one must write with conviction from the blackened smithy of oneís soul, and I would argue, vehemently, that there are as many members of SFWA drawing from this potent reservoir as swell the membership lists of any other writersí body in the world.  Often, please remember, they do so for low-paying markets and small, albeit devoted and knowledgeable, readerships.

Q. But so much latter-day sf is unmitigated crap — Star Wars and Star Trek novels, role-playing fiction, elf and unicorn franchises, space opera and psychic-cat stories.

A. Granted.  But as the late Theodore Sturgeon declared, in a formulation long known as Sturgeonís Law, "Ninety percent of everything is crap."  A few might dispute his notion of the exact percentage, but not many would dispute the underlying sentiment, namely, that quality is rare, that real talent does not always fulfill or manifest itself, and that a bad literary novel or a broken-backed summer blockbuster is just as common as a hackneyed western or sci-fi tale.  In fact, a full-fledged masterpiece is just as uncommon in the world of serious contemporary fiction as it is in the despised barrios of genre writing.  But I would affirm that Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece in the romance field, that The Ox-Bow Incident bolsters the entire category of westerns, that The Haunting of Hill House represents a genuine landmark among horror novels, and that The Left Hand of Darkness deserves a place among masterful sf titles comparable to that of The Brothers Karamazov on a shelf of great eighteenth-century Russian novels.  Indeed, it can sit, stand, or lean on the same plank as the Dostoevsky itself — as a remarkable work of world literature, with no category qualifications at all.

Q. But donít readers still have a right to say, "As a matter of taste, I still donít much care for science fiction"?  For what theyíre really saying is, "It just doesnít speak to me.  I get bogged down in its tropes, its conventions, its narrative strategies."

A. Of course they have that right.  Just as I have the right to say, "As a matter of taste, I donít care for opera, or poetry, or jazz, or modern dancers cavorting in crotch-hugging leotards."  But I have no right to say that all opera, all poetry, all jazz, all modern dance, or all rap lyrics are second-rate and thus worthy of no emotional response but snooty condescension.  As it happens, I donít much like opera or hip-hop or what I snootily refer to as the honking-and-tweeting varieties of jazz.  But I would never claim that these media by their very nature prevent a talented practitioner from shaping from them great, even spiritually transforming, art.

Even so, my experience has been that readers who dislike science fiction, who would never willingly challenge themselves with the best that the field has to offer, will devour a fine sf work by accident and then baldly declare that it could not possibly be science fiction because they donít like science fiction.  Fairly recently, in fact, a young woman I know, a fellow resident of Pine Mountain, read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and proclaimed it a life-altering masterwork.  But she vigorously denied my claim that she had read an excellent example of what a science-fiction novelist can do when she brings the full arsenal of her thought and literary skill to bear.

It just canít be science fiction, my acquaintance said; it deals with religious issues, theological matters, matters that matter.  Yes, I said, itís about a Jesuit priest who travels to another planet.  There, two sentient species, one alarmingly akin to kangaroos, have a weird codependency that the priest fails to fathom until the stronger species mutilates him for his egocentric obtuseness, and he spirals off into madness and a heart-rending loss of faith.  Clearly, I told my friend, this novel is a simple but exotic variation on the Mitford series by Jan Karon.  She didnít find this amusing, but I found her denial of the science-fictionality of The Sparrow not only off-putting but as obtuse as the cluelessness of the novelís priest, with the added black mark that she insistently willed her obtuseness.  An additional irony: This woman claimed that The Sparrow had deepened and enriched her nascent Catholicism, and it had done so, she felt sure, because Mary Doria Russellís own Catholicism pervaded every character and plot twist.  But, as I know from a brief meeting with Ms. Russell, she is an ardent convert to Judaism.

Q. You just canít get past the fact that some people refuse to grant science fiction its "propers," can you?  Why does the lack of widespread respect for written sf gnaw at you so mercilessly?  Why do you let it?

A. As Iíve already hinted, Iím a dweeb.  The good opinion of self-styled intellectuals and self-appointed cultural arbiters matters to me — much more than it should.  I can explain but not really excuse my hang-up.  First, unlike some of my fellow sf writers, I didnít start off reading Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke.  My first literary heroes were mainstream figures: London, Hemingway, Maugham, and Steinbeck.  I never aspired to be the next Ray Bradbury, I wanted to supersede and in every way outdistance William Faulkner.  At age fourteen, I once stood in my back yard gazing into the field behind my tract house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, imagining myself in Stockholm, Sweden, to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature.  And although Iíve always had a backdoor fondness for sf — early on, I read the scientific romances of H. G. Wells and the lyrical fantasies of Ray Bradbury — I must have regarded these undeniable treats as the literary equivalents of Fritos and Hostess Twinkies.  And when I started writing, I submitted to literary markets that returned my stories with pre-printed rejections.  A friend advised me to try the sf markets, my fifth submission sold, and, voila, I was a science-fiction writer.  Imagine my delight.  Imagine my horror.  Imagine my identity confusion.  Suddenly, I was a literary hermaphrodite.  And, to date, not only has the Nobel Prize eluded me, so has the science-fiction fieldís Hugo Award, a trophy so emphatically phallic that I often consider therapy for my lingering self-doubt.

Q. Youíre kidding, of course.

A. Only literally.  Metaphorically, Iím right on the money.

Q. Any final thoughts?

A. I wish that I were braver.  I wish that the conviction of the hero-geniuses whom I cited earlier would rub off on me, to the extent that I could stop feeling the need to justify myself with work that requires no justification but the degree of commitment with which I always approach it.  For good or ill, I indite every sentence, whether in an sf story, or a poem, or a piece of contemporary fiction for a literary market, with the conviction that it has to be as good as I can make it.  In fact, sometimes I tell myself that for structure, sense, and musicality, my sentences bear comparison to the best of almost any other writer around.  How can such ego — you may wonder — coexist with such insecurity and self-distrust?  Donít I contradict myself?

Very well, as Walt Whitman said, I contradict myself.  But Iím not as big as Whitman was, and the multitudes that I contain often seem mere yawpers measured against the silver-tongued multitudes for whom he crooned.  Still, rude songs periodically arise in me, and I hope to have a few more years to transcribe their melodies and to give them to any who might feel mute without them.  Yes, I occasionally think myself too little valued, and therefore ready to surrender to silence or to take up more profitable work.  And then an evening such as this happens along, and it strikes me how blessed I am.  After all, I am doing something that matters.  If I could just keep that fact in mind, perhaps I would lay down in my own inconstant heart the kind of bedrock bravery undergirding the labors of my hero-genius colleagues.  Please help me.  Pray for that to happen.  Believe it or not, it matters . . .

September 17-18, 2002
Pine Mountain, Georgia