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A Reverie For Mister Ray by Michael Bishop

28/11/2005. Contributed by Paul Skevington

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pub: PS Publishing. 611 page limited edition book. Slipcase hardback: Price: 60.00 (UK), $90.00 (US). ISBN: 1-902-880-88-9. Hardback: Price: 25.00 (UK), $45.00 (US). ISBN: 1-902-880-87-0.

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'A Reverie For Mister Ray' is an example of that particular type of book that I have recently grown to love: a collection of essays, reviews and autobiographical pieces by an author highly experienced in the SF field. In this case, the multi-talented novelist Michael Bishop. Despite being focused on SF, this book, like Jeff Vandermeer's 'Why Should I Cut Your Throat', does not exclude the casual reader. Indeed, like 'Throat', it goes some way towards breaking down the barriers between 'genre' fiction and the so-called 'mainstream'. The book's name is taken from the first essay within the book, a critical examination of the work of Ray Bradbury done from a uniquely personal viewpoint.

There's much of value in this massive volume, so much so that it's difficult to decide which areas to highlight. Unsurprisingly, as a reviewer of SF books, I was particularly drawn to the section entitled 'On Reviewing'. Within it is the essay 'Oh, To Be A Blurber!' which is an hilarious account of Bishop's early desire to become one of the elite group whose publicity quotes are used on the back of novels. Here he marks the difference between 'proper' blurbers (SF authors) and those '...obscure scientists...identified only by their intimidating titles and accomplishments.' This is followed by 'On Reviewing And Being Reviewed', which takes an admirably balanced look at the titular subject and has some very astute things to say about the nature of criticism itself. Bishop discusses the way in which the individual reviewer's prejudices influences their final assessment of the novel they are examining. He also looks at authors reactions to reviews, both negative and positive. It's a fascinating piece of writing for anyone interested in the interplay between creation and criticism.

I loved '104 Really Cool Works' which is a list of books that Bishop admires, arranged in no particular order and presented to the reader without fanfare. Reading it feels like perusing a letter of recommendations from an enthusiastic friend. It immediately made me want to go on-line and pick a load of them up! It's also another agent in the aforementioned degradation of genre/mainstream barriers, as it does not exclude any particular category of fiction.

Book reviews are by far the largest ingredient in 'A Reverie For Mister Ray', forming a substantial part of the mix. These are assembled from the many different sources of original publication and range from interesting to deeply incisive. I found the reviews of Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Mars Trilogy' fascinating as it demonstrates the evolution of the series and Bishop's reaction to it. Reviewing the first book 'Red Mars', Bishop praises the author for avoiding the creation of a 'planetary scale grommet-factory tour', achieved by introducing a strong human element into the extraordinarily detailed novel. By the third novel, 'Blue Mars', the grommet factory seems to be in full operation and mass producing large orders as Bishop notes that the book '...drags almost as often as it wags, often assuming a character more encyclopaedic than novelistic.'

There are several other review-essays that I enjoyed thoroughly. All are beautiful little artefacts, whispering to me of reading pleasures yet to come and the astounding things that can be achieved by talented and dedicated authors. 'Gene Wolfe As Hero: The Shadow Of The Torturer' reminded me of the reasons that I love that novel myself, it ignited a desire to re-read it and to finish reading the other instalments that I've never gotten around to picking up. It concludes with a great interview wherein Bishop tries desperately to milk titbits of plot information from Wolfe (the third and fourth volumes of the series not being published at the time), leaving me with a wry smile at his singular lack of success!

Of the reviews, my favourite is 'Sitting In The Sun In The Waist-High Grass', which handles the work of Gardner Dozois, in particular the novelette 'The Last Day Of July'. Bishop illustrates his reaction to a first reading of it with the simple phrase, 'I shivered'. He goes on to describe the effect the story had on him and on the field. For me, reading, it was like having a window gently pushed open in my mind, with the view beyond showing me vistas of creative possibility. Bishop's love of the work produced by the authors he examines is a transformative force in itself. Again, this article is ended with a review, but this time Bishop gets his man to open up a little more, obtaining some elucidative responses from his subject. I loved reading the source list as well, which told me that the original name of part of the essay was 'Write Like Dozois? I Can't Even Say His Name.' It's a statement that I can truly identify with, especially after hearing the correct pronunciation as they were reading out the nominees for best editor at Interaction. I'm just glad that I'd never used my own version of his name outside my home. If we meet and you try to bribe my partner to find out what it was, I'll be very upset.

In several instances throughout the book, Bishop mentions his own Christianity in the context of literary criticism. As an agnostic this proved slightly difficult for me. For a while, I could not decide if this religiosity negatively influenced the value of the pieces presented within. Perhaps an instance of that critical bias we were talking about earlier! This notion was soon dispelled as Bishop shows an admirable willingness to tackle works problematic to established Christian doctrine and to do so without unjustly damning or dismissing them. At the same time, the biographical pieces demonstrated clearly that his religion is not a static thing, it is an element of his life that he continually questions. I was left feeling at the works conclusion that whilst I do not share his beliefs, they are an element in Michael Bishop that contribute towards creating the valuable and unique viewpoint he most definitely possesses.

Which brings me nicely to the autobiographical sections of the book. I can only hope that someday these sections are expanded as I found them extremely enjoyable, full of life and incident. My only criticism of the collection is that I found myself wishing that a larger section of it had been devoted to his personal history and private musings, as Bishop is often at his most compelling when he is speaking from the heart.

For those of you who wish to know, that is very compelling indeed.

Paul Skevington

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