Paul Di Filippo Reviews Michael Bishop’s A Few Last Words for the Late Immortals
A Few Last Words for the Late Immortals, Michael Bishop (Fairwood Press 978-1933846125, trade paperback, 250pp, $17.99) November 2021.
Fairwood Press has become the classy home to many of Michael Bishop’s fine books from his large and exciting backlist. They have now issued a dozen of his titles, all extensively revised by the author. But this latest compilation is something very different, a brand-new assemblage of poetry and flash fictions, fifty selections in all (four of which have never before been seen). It’s a veritable feast of Bishop-flavored tapas, a Bishop banquet, a Bishop cornucopia, and would serve as a knockout introduction to any newbie wondering why this man is so universally beloved and esteemed. (Savvy longtime fans will similarly be entranced.) The items likewise span fifty years, from 1971 to 2021, and thus illustrate the author’s evolving career. But, not surprisingly, they reveal a remarkable consistency of vision and talent and style across all those decades.
In his generous and illuminating “Story Notes,” Bishop cites several inspirations for putting together such an omnium gatherum of bite-sized pieces, including Bradbury’s A Medicine for Melancholy. But he does not mention one relevant forerunner which I kept thinking of during my reading: Fredric Brown’s Nightmares and Geezenstacks, which also has almost fifty stories on its table of contents. Like Brown’s masterful offerings, Bishop’s stories all punch above their wordcount weight, giving us compressed shocks and epiphanies. And they demonstrate his immense range.
I can’t possibly canvass all fifty items in this short review, but will merely highlight some favorites and try to show how they support Bishop’s unique skills and worldview.
The first prose item, “Love’s Heresy”, conveys the fatal insanity of faith caused by a cult preacher, and proves that Bishop is as adept in mainstream modes as in fantastika. It also shows his lifelong resonance with great Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor.
As far removed from this story as possible, “The Contributors to Plenum Four” shows Bishop in a playful, madcap, ideationally sparkling mode, as he gives us irreverent capsule biographies of some imagined fellow SF writers. His gentle satire, seen elsewhere in this book, is apparent as well.
“Vernalfest Morning”—which I recently had the opportunity to showcase as a piece of online fiction—is quasi-cyberpunk (1978), before cyberpunk was even a glimmer in Bill Gibson’s eye, a harsh war story.
The title story has Bishop operating in Stephen Baxter fashion, giving us a tale of far-future aliens in exotic settings. “In the Memory Room”, all about a funeral home and its dissatisfied customers, has a Bradburyian flavor. With its portrait of a disgruntled and prejudiced man and his comeuppance, “The Balloon” might have come from the acidic pen of Harlan Ellison.
The wry sexual surreality of “Annalise, Annalise”—about a man presented with a revelatory video of his own indiscretions, reminded me a bit of Geoff Ryman’s Lust. Bishop’s fascination with our simian kin and hominid ancestors is witnessed several times in the collection, notably in “Her Chimpanion”, which vividly conveys humanity’s callousness towards our nonhuman cousins.
A trio of stories—“Sequel on Skorpiós”; “Outside the Circle”; and “Miriam”—gives us Bishop in his role as eternal explicator and interrogator of Christianity. (His “The Gospel According to Gamaliel Crucis” is his best-known and most accomplished foray into this realm.) I was particularly fond of “Miriam,” which compresses a whole alternate timeline into a tiny space, as Mary, Mother of God, assumes a different destiny.
Bishop’s facility for pure horror or weirdness has several manifestations in this volume, and a lovely instance is “Purr”, a tale of a cat that ensured itself not nine but ten lives through its sinister doings. The fevered, manic stream-of-consciousness rant that constitutes “Dr. Prida’s Dream-Plagued Patient” is Bishop doing Malzberg. And lastly, the newest story, “Yahweh’s Hour”, is a hard-hitting yet blackly comic evocation of “The Patchwork States of America,” which have become a mediacentric theocracy.
I note that I have not touched on the highly accomplished plangent, poignant, persuasive poetry in this book. They are all winners. My favorite might be “For the Lady of a Physicist”, which reads as if Andrew Marvell was channeling Carl Sagan, or vice versa.
What is invariant among all these disparate tales is Bishop’s gorgeous prose, which is replete with startling metaphors, crisp dialogue, and often ornate verbal constructions which nonetheless conveys images and situations with utmost transparency. Likewise, his formalistically experimental tendencies complement his ability to construct a plain old-fashioned linear tale. The playlet entitled “The Grape Jelly and Mustard Method” is a good example of the former mode. Who else would imagine giving a lesson in fiction construction as a conversation among a robot and some “amalgs,” or splices. Maybe Stanislaw Lem.
This indispensable bundle of pure entertainment is like one of those pixelated portraits composed of thousands of tiny colored elements. Up close, you see that this particular square is a zebra, this one a seashell, this one the Mona Lisa’s smile. But when you step back, the constituent parts leap into focus as the beaming face of the Sage of Pine Mountain, Georgia, here to enlighten and entertain us once more.
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