The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy by Michael Bishop
The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy (Subterranean Press, 2011) is a retrospective collection of Michael Bishop’s short stories. Out of the 140 or so published, it picks those liked the best starting with the first sale, “Pinon Fall” (1970) which captures the moment when the first winged creature comes through to our world, bringing the snow with him, to “The City Quiet as Death” (2009) jointly written with Stephen Utley. In this, it’s not up to me to comment on the choices made, but simply to look at the stories chosen. For the record, there’s been some editorialisation. Not surprisingly, the older and wiser writer has removed redundancies and produced leaner texts where necessary. The results should be considered definitive. There are many I remember from the earlier years, but all of those written during the last twenty-five years are new to me.
“Cathadonian Odyssey” (1974) (Hugo Award nominee) first tells us how best to name a planet and then reminds us it can be dangerous when making a first landfall on a planet, to kill the local wildlife for sport. “Blooded on Arachne” gives us an insight into a rather different coming-of-age ritual while “The Samurai and the Willows” (1976) (Locus Award winner; Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominee) deals with the problems the not-so-young face when trying to find the best place for their ageing parents to spend their final years. Guilt unchecked can do terrible things to people unless they ask sensible questions about whether it was possible to have organised things differently. “The House of Compassionate Sharers” (1977) (Hugo Award nominee) is a moving story about trauma and how one might react if the body was so damaged that it had to be completely rebuilt. As people, we’re used to feeling comfortable in our own skins. Once we know we have a different body, how do we relate to ourselves or to others, for that matter? It’s at times like this we need help. But first we have to admit that need. In a way, we’re most likely to heal ourselves, but only if we want to.
“Within the Walls of Tyre” (1978) (World Fantasy Award nominee) is a sideways move into horror as we consider what might represent the real point of weakness in the armour a woman has woven around herself to keep out the pain. “Storming the Bijou, Mon Amour” speculates on whether you can ever watch too many films or television shows. It might become nightmarish. “The Yukio Mishima Cultural Association of Kudzu Valley, Georgia” is a hilariously tragic commentary on the lack of empathy displayed by some academics. Some are so self-absorbed, they have no idea what effect they can have on other people. “The Quickening” (1981) (Nebula Award winner) asks and answers a deceptively easy question: if, in an instant, the world stopped being as it was, how would you react? Trying to force it back to what it was, is only going to cause conflict. So what would you like it to become? Perhaps, as suggested in “Dogs’ Lives” (1984) (reprinted in Best American Short Stories, 1985), you might think it good to become more like a dog, even live your life through them as, first, innocent children do, and then as parents who, in turn, buy them for their children. “A Gift from the GrayLanders” (1985) (Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominee) reinvents the Cold War paranoia that led many to equip their cellars with food or actually to build fall-out shelters so they could survive should the bombs drop. How ironic, then, to find one small boy who might inadvertently benefit from the anger of the adults around him — although, of course, he wouldn’t see it as a benefit at all.
“Taccati’ Tomorrow” (1986) is not science fiction as such, but makes an elegant point about how the use of language can warm up old prejudices and divide us, if we let it. Equally, some music can reach out and find kindred spirits across other cultural divides. “Alien Graffiti” (1986) naturally follows on the same theme that, when people cannot understand the significance of what’s displayed, they may shift from anger that it has disrupted their lives to worship. Why? Because, when all explanations fail to convince, it’s comforting to believe the source of the inexplicable must be divine. “Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana” (1989) (World Fantasy Award nominee) shows us that, even with weak gravity, there can be an attraction between the physics of string theory and the apartheid regime in South Africa. As they say, it may be a stretch, but if it explains everything, it must be right.
In “Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats” (1991) (Nebula Award nominee) where the form of the narrative matches the title, we’re invited to consider the level of responsibility we accept for maintaining relationships. We can’t all be like one of the characters in this story who, when he can’t find the right piece to fit in the jigsaw, takes a razor-blade and shaves a close match to fit the hole. “Tithes of Mint and Rue” (1999) is a wonderful story about a woman who finds her life unsatisfactory so, in one of those “moments of madness” others can never understand, she runs away to join a circus. Naturally, all she finds is herself but, in a way, that’s all she was looking for in the first place. “Help Me, Rondo” (2002) continues in the same vein and confirms the essential truth that, despite outward appearances, there are human beings inside each body they occupy.
“The Door Gunner” (2003) (Southeastern Science Fiction Achievement Award winner) is a completely fascinating zombie story. Indeed, at this length, it’s one of the best zombie stories I’ve ever read. This zombie really does go above and beyond the call of duty! “The Road Leads Back” (2003) reminds us that we are the sum of our experiences. All we know and believe comes from what we see and how we interpret it. So what would happen to our beliefs if there was a certain dissonance between what we expected and what actually happened? Perhaps even characterising an event as miraculous is all in the eye of the beholder.
“The Angst, I Kid You Not, of God (2004) magnificently underlines the essential similarity between those who self-righteously interfere in the affairs of others. Regardless whether they believe their motivations good or evil, they’re trampling over the rights of those others. If their reason satisfies utilitarian criteria and is objectively for the benefit of the majority, we might forgive the aggressiveness. But if, on proper philosophical analysis, the reason turns out to be bad for everyone, this might be a source of angst, or not as the case may be. “Bears Discover Smut” (2005) (Southeastern Science Fiction Achievement Award winner and British Science Fiction Association Award nominee) is a hilarious take on the issue of immigration and offers an entirely plausible solution to the problem. All you have to do is deport every last alien back to Mexico or wherever they came from and then, after a little genetic manipulation to achieve uplift, give all the menial work to the bears. They won’t work for peanuts — only apes do that — but they will keep the economy going with reduced labour costs. Just think how much more time this will give the humans to indulge their passion for soft porn and voyeurism, until the bears muscle in, that is.
“Miriam” (2007) turns the Christian world in a different direction. When Satan interferes, what’s God supposed to do? He can’t let Lucifer deflect His ministry. He must make the best of a bad job and use whoever is to hand. “The Pile” (2008) (Shirley Jackson Award winner) is a tribute to his son who died in one of these unfortunate shootings that seem to afflict American colleges and universities. It’s always good when there’s a sense of community. Self-help and a willingness to share helps people get by. Unless, of course, coincidence suggests one feature may bring bad luck. Or, perhaps, it’s not coincidence and, in that uncertainty, lies the rub. “Vinegar Peace; or, The Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage” (2008) (Nebula Award nominee) continues the process of working through his grief in this fictionally autobiographical piece as our protagonist is designated orphaned by the death of the remaining child and has to face internment in a parental orphanage unless someone can be persuaded to come forward for an adoption. Finally, “The City Quiet as Death” (2009) speculates on what might persuade a person to continue life when, from his point of view, everything around him is either physical or psychological torture. Should he stay for the love of a good woman, respond to offerings from science, or succumb to the temptations of religion?
This is a magnificent collection. If you’re not familiar with Michael Bishop’s work, this is as good a sample as you could hope to find. Hopefully, it will convert you to his cause. Many of his novels are also outstanding! For those of you who are fans, this is going to expand your experience. I had read the earlier collections and picked up one or two more stories in anthologies, but missed several of the early stories and all the most recent. The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy reminds me why I think Michael Bishop one of the best writers still working.
A great piece of artwork from Lee Moyer for the jacket.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.