Profile of Terry Bisson

I know Terry Bisson well enough, I guess. But I'm not at all sure there's anything I can tell you about him that you don't already know. Because it's all there, in his fiction. I can't say how much autobiographical material finds its way into his work (not much, I suspect), but it doesn't matter. His personality shines through the scrim of prose like a pure and holy light.

I could tell you that Terry has a Kentucky accent so sly and smooth that listening to him read from his own work is a physical pleasure. I could tell you that he has an imagination that is extraordinary even by the standards of our own famously eccentric corner of literature. I could tell you that Terry is one of the sweetest guys you'd ever care to meet, good company, and exactly the sort of person you'd like to have for a friend.

But you've read "Bears Discover Fire."

Terry has worked as an automobile mechanic and I'm willing to bet he was a good one. He understands machines. He knows cars and appreciates their mystique. He can see the magic in an old hand-clutch John Deere "A" tractor. He has no doubt whatsoever that a real wizard, if there were such a thing, would be found working in a backwoods garage somewhere, setting points with cigarette papers, chanting over balky engines, and repairing broken oil pans with blood sacrifice.

But you've read Talking Man.

He's also politically committed (he once was jailed for refusing to give testimony to a Grand Jury investigating the radical underground), and a man who's not at all pleased with the Gingrich coalition's plans for America. He can easily picture this country privatized to such a degree that the idea that the government should be responsible for building roads is greeted with horrified cries of "But that's socialism!" He can imagine it reaching such a state that the only way the United States could ever reach Mars would be if Hollywood bought the space program and an entrepreneur funded a shoestring expedition in order to make a movie about it.

But you've read Voyage to the Red Planet.

I could maybe say something about the man's twisted sense of humor. In Bisson's universe, a mother has the knack of reaching her daughter in New York by dialing phone booths at random, the Fermi paradox is explained in a manner insulting to human dignity, automated teller machines deliver changes in weather and offer upgrades in choice of lovers, and men dress up as raccoons for no discernible reason.

But you've read "The Two Janets." You've read "They're Made of Meat." You've read "Press Ann." You've read "Coon Suit."

To name but four.

One story you haven't read is "Walking Out," not the way it was meant to be. Let me tell you the story why.

It begins a couple years back when my wife and I gave Terry a ride home from a convention. ("Try driving through New York City while he gives you directions," Marianne says now. "The Holland Tunnel will never look the same.") He mentioned that he'd had a story idea about a man walking through Manhattan bitching and grousing about how lousy it was, unable to see the fact, obvious to the reader, that it had become, in Terry's memorable phrase, "a fucking Utopia." Now, I happen to have a very keen interest in seeing how wizards - and Terry, never doubt it, is a wizard - work their effects. So I suggested we work on it together.

The method I proposed we use was a month-by-month handoff. The way this works is that one writer has total control of the story for a month. During that time he can do anything at all to it - add characters, change the plot, rewrite old sections, drop the protagonist, anything. At the end of the month, however much or little has been written, the story is mailed to the other writer. This is repeated for as many times as it takes to come up with a story that satisfies both.

Worth a try, he said.

Terry mailed me his notes. I found the plot twist implicit in them, wrote up a full draft, and at the end of the month sent it back to him for changes and improvements. We might, I mentioned in the accompanying letter, want to switch the venue to one of the moons of Jupiter, make the protagonist clinically insane, and throw in a System-wide war of annihilation for background. But I felt we were on the right track.

Later that same day, I dropped in on Gardner Dozois and he asked me what was new.

"I'm collaborating on a story with Terry Bisson," I said.

There was a brief silence. Then Gardner, whose job it is to know such things, said, "No, you're not."

So I wasn't really surprised when, a few weeks later, I got an apologetic call from Terry begging off the project. He was honestly sorry, he said, but he just couldn't work in collaboration. He urged me to "go ahead and write it, sell it for lots of money, and win all kinds of awards."

Some people can write in tandem, and others cannot. It's as simple as that.

(Awards, incidentally, mean nothing to Terry. "Bears Discover Fire" set some kind of record by winning the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards in one swoop. A success like that renders a man jaded.)

I wrote the story, named the deranged protagonist Terry Bissel because I knew it would give him a laugh, sold it to Asimov's, and sure enough it was nominated for a Hugo. I didn't go to the Worldcon this year, but the day after it a friend called in the middle of the night to wake me from a sound sleep and let me know it had come in fifth.

I blame Bisson for this.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Terry had been able to work on the story , the SF community would have had no choice but to dish us up a Hugo apiece. (God knows, I did my part - I left him lots of room for improvement.) Terry could've done it. He would've come up with strange and wonderful ideas, warped and inevitable images that could have arisen from the mind of no other man. He would've - say - had cold fusion effects within the mantle of the Earth unfold and uplift the Appalachians into a single mountain ridge reaching up out of the atmosphere. He would've thrown in land lobsters. He would've . . .

But you've read "Over Flat Mountain."

At any rate, Terry likely didn't have the time to spare. He was working on a new novel. It's about Gunther Glenn, a space ranger for Disney-Windows. His job is to hunt down and skin Peteys, which may be gigantic space-dwelling organisms and then again may be pocket universes. He has a copy-protected girlfriend and wants to buy into the eponymous Pirates of the Universe live-in theme park. Gun is as unaware as they come. Until something goes wrong, his money and access to society are cut off, and he's forced to return home to what was once Kentucky-Tennessee and confront the reality of what's become of the world.

But you've read Pirates of the Universe.

Okay, here's something you probably didn't know: Terry has one of the absolute best smiles in the universe. I can see it now, in fact, floating before me in my mind's eye: Terry smiling skeptically and raising an eyebrow and tilting his head over to one side, the way he always does just after he's heard me out and just before he says in the warmest and friendliest way imaginable, "Swanwick, you're full of it." Terry is kind of a modest guy, and doesn't much enjoy talking about himself, much less this kind of public praise.

But you've read . . .

Or maybe you haven't. Maybe you haven't read any of the works I've mentioned, or Fire on the Mountain or "Two Guys from the Future," or "England Underway" or any of the Bissonian fictions that sporadically wander into print, like postcards from an alien universe. It's possible. In which case I'd like to commend all of his works to your attention. I think you'd like them.

My own tendency when writing about friends is to crank up the hyperbole as far as it will go and see if I can blast out the windows. But it doesn't seem appropriate here. There is in the best of Terry's work a quiet and subtle restraint that nevertheless delivers a more vivid emotional clout than any amount of overheated prose ever could. So I'll restrain myself. The plain and simple truth is this: You really want to get to know Terry Bisson - the undisputed Western Bodhisatva, and the only man ever to lose a Hugo for a story he never wrote.

© 1996 by Michael Swanwick; first appeared in the Philcon 1996 Program Book.

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