Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Review: Brighten to Incandescence

Brighten to Incandescence, by Michael Bishop
7.5/10, great writing and ideas that aren’t as engaging as they should be

My first exposure to Michael Bishop’s writing was back in the late eighties, when the science fiction class I was taking studied “No Enemy But Time.” It was a fascinating idea: a man going back in time to live with a family of early hominids. Problem was, I found my attention wandering, and partway through the book, he introduced a plot twist out of nowhere that I just didn’t get. It won a Nebula, so what do I know, but there are so many other authors out there that I just never bothered to pick anything else up by him again, until this year.

He had a story online with intelligent rats (“O Happy Day“)that was included in this collection. As I’m trying to collect authors for New Fables, it caught my eye. These are short stories, I thought, so I gave him another shot and bought the collection.

It’s a mixed bag. To continue forward the topic of the last post, Bishop is definitely a Good Writer. He demonstrates in this collection an impressive range of ability in science fiction, from aliens to the dusty southwest to the near future. His imagination is seemingly boundless, taking the reader through different places and ideas in each story, building vivid worlds and scenarios and characters. He has a deft talent for description and dialogue particularly; his worlds feel textured and real, and his characters rarely, if ever, sound fake.

But it’s the stories themselves that stop this from being a brilliant collection. Sometimes they take a really odd turn midstream, as when a story of courtship and romance becomes an odd stalker-thriller. Sometimes they just end when the idea is played out, without any change in the characters, leaving you wondering what you’re supposed to get out of the story (the rat story was one of these). And in light of Eleanor Arnason’s posting about male SF writers being violent and all about the technology, well, Bishop is certainly much more about society and ideas than about technology, but it seems that at least half these stories deal with murders, and the ones that don’t deal with some kind of emotional violence.

“Murder on Lupozny Station” (co-written with Gerald Page) was probably my favorite in the volume, a story of a human-alien dyad, linked as starship pilots. Bishop gives us enough glimpses of the alien culture to make them feel real, and brings off a nice murder mystery in the process.

His afterword is worth reading. In it, he talks about each of the stories, and also about his collaborations. He feels that SF/fantasy is a more collaborative genre than some others (mystery is notoriously competitive and, forgive the term, backstabbing), and I’ve found that in my work as well. Even if collaborations don’t always pan out, there is always someone willing to try them and they turn out to be a lot of fun.

I admire Bishop’s writing and hesitantly recommend this volume. Because the stories are short, you can read one or many, depending on your time, and certainly the ideas themselves are worth exploring. I just wish he’d do a little more with his characters.

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