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Entries in Terry Bisson (2)

Monday
Aug032009

Fantastic Voyage: Terry Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet

Terry Bisson’s Planet of Mystery (PS Publishing 2008) transports readers to Venus, not the lifeless planet we know, but one filled with strangeness and, well, mystery. The novella harkens back to the days of pulp planetary romances, but it’s not the first time Bisson has left mother earth, and hopefully no the last. Anyone who has read Planet of Mystery, or who is just discovering this wonderful and insightful author, may want to check out his novel about the red planet.

In Voyage to the Red Planet (Avon, 1991), Terry Bisson rediscovers the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury. He describes the red planet as an ancient, dying world filled with beauty, awe, and mystery, a place where man can uncover the truth about himself and his place in the cosmos. There’s only one problem: grand revelations aren’t very profitable.

The novel is set in the near future when America is finally recovering from the Grand Depression thanks to giant corporations that have bought all of the national parks and government agencies.

Just prior to all the financial woes, NASA scrapped the first manned mission to Mars. Twenty years later, the mission is given the green light – by Hollywood. A roguish producer wants to make the first film on Mars, not about Mars, but set on Mars. To that end, he “acquires” a moth-balled ship, the Mary Poppins, and hires the two original pilots who trained under the joint NASA-Soviet venture, a top cinematographer, and some “pure-bred” actors.

While the Hollywood crew tackles the important task of filming, Bass (the pilot) and Jeffries (the doctor who developed a serum for bear-like hibernation that can have some interesting side effects) stumble across ancient ruins and evidence that their arrival has been anticipated. Both men are stunned by their discovery and must decide what’s to be done with it. They know that if they tell anyone in America, the discovery will be exploited for every cent it can possibly generate. On the other hand, to keep it to themselves means years of waiting with little hope, if any, that the discovery will be used to further man’s knowledge.

Bisson’s novel is remarkable on many levels. The characters are real and motivated by real concerns. Man is shown at his best (moved by compassion) and his worst (compelled by greed), and the story is an exciting, adventurous romp that pays tribute to the glorious pulp fantasies of the past. At the same time, it is a biting satire about commercialism in America, and while the novel is filled with many humorous scenes, the laughter is often cut short. In this land where theme parks and sports arenas have become nothing more than gigantic billboards, Voyage to the Red Planet doesn’t seem too fantastic.

 

Friday
Jul312009

Kentucky Fried Science Fiction

 

     Kentucky – home to horse farms, bluegrass, basketball, and fried chicken. Oh yeah . . . and science fiction. Science fiction? That’s right. Kentucky has a good claim on all of the above, including SF. Sure, you’ve heard of the Derby, Bill Monroe, and KFC. Many folks would even probably recognize some of Kentucky’s great writers like Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren. But SF writers? Sure. In fact, one of today’s best and most acclaimed SF writers, Terry Bisson, has his roots in the bluegrass state.

     Bisson has published several highly praised novels for adults, including Fire on the Mountain, Pirates of the Universe and The Pick-up Artist. He’s also written comic books and several movie and TV adaptations. He’s even written numerous books for young readers, ranging in topics from NASCAR to Star Wars, but it is his science fiction and fantasy stories for which he is most recognized. 

     A sense of purpose fills Bisson’s writing. On the surface, what may appear to be a witty tale of space exploration, as in Voyage to the Red Planet, actually turns out to be a humorous yet startling glimpse of the world we live in today. In “Bears Discover Fire,” probably his most famous short story, bears learn how to use fire and develop a sense of community while humans begin to drift apart. The award winning “macs,” a story about cloning, shows how terrible human beings can be when given the opportunity. Some of his best shorter works are collected in Bears Discover Fire and In the Upper Room and Other Likely Stories.

     In addition to writing, Bisson has taught at the prestigious Clarion science fiction and fantasy writer’s workshop and with the New School for Social Research in New York

     Born in 1942, Bisson grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky. In an email interview with students from Whitesburg High School, he told how he began concentrating on writing as a teen: “a great high school teacher, Louise Brody, encouraged me to read widely and then to try to imitate the writers I liked as a way of finding my own style.” After reading what he describes as “a lot of trash and pulp,” he discovered the Beats – a group of provocative and unconventional writers of the 1950’s – and started writing poetry. It was also during this time that he was drawn to science fiction, but he would not begin writing stories until he was in college.

     While attending the University of Louisville, Bisson entered a contest for a magazine and won fifty dollars for his first short story, “George.” The experience inspired him to write his first novel which never sold. Fortunately, he didn’t stop. “I loved what a good story did to me,” Bison related, “and I wanted to be able to do that to others.” Over the years, he kept writing and kept learning, but it wasn’t easy: “when I first started, I wanted to be famous, like Kerouac or Hemingway, but that didn’t work out.” The secret to success, he learned, wasn’t trying to become rich and famous: it was discovering “the pleasure of working something over again and again, until you get it right.”

     Since then, Bisson’s works have been published in Europe, Japan and China and have garnered him numerous awards, including the Nebula and the Hugo, the two most distinguished awards in science fiction and fantasy literature. In 2000, he was awarded France’s Gran Prix de L’imaginaire. One of his favorite honors, however, was bestowed upon him in 1999. He was inducted into the Owensboro Hall of Fame, joining the ranks with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, NASCAR’s Darrell Waltrip, and Hollywood idol Johnny Depp.

     Now residing in California, Bisson continues to produce thought-provoking fiction and nonfiction. In 2008, PS Publishing released the novella Planet of Mystery, which combines his exceptional wit and insight with the planetary romances of Burroughs, Brackett, and Bradbury.  Nonetheless, Kentucky remains a part of him. He still listens to Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, and he visits his home state regularly to camp and hike. Kentucky permeates his stories. You can see it in the rolling hills and mysterious woods he describes or the characters who know the ins and outs of growing tobacco and fixing cars. Despite the fact that most people do not think of science fiction when they think of Kentucky, he doesn’t feel he or his work has been negatively labeled or stereotyped. In fact, he sees it as a boon: “people assume I’m a ‘regular guy’ who knows all about horses and cool country stuff.”

     To find out more about Terry Bisson or his works, visit his website at www.terrybisson.com.