Michael Bishop is joining us today to talk about his collection, A Few Last Words for the Late Immortals. Here’s the publisher’s description:
This retrospective Michael Bishop collection of fifty short pieces (thirty-four stories, fifteen poems or prose-poems, and one amusing Moon-based play about writing SF, “The Grape Jelly and Mustard Method”) spans the author’s entire career, from “Asytages’s Dream,” written while Bishop was a college student, to “Yahweh’s Hour,” an acerbic but moving work of science-fantasy political satire composed in 2020.
The collection’s most distinctive attribute, however, lies in the fact that no contribution is longer than 3,000 words and most are shorter, a kind of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories for lovers of short fiction, heartfelt pieces that afford the reader as much meat as they do flash.
“A Few Last Words for the Late Immortals,” set on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, embodies a requiem for the entire human species. “Philip K. Dick is dead, a lass” memorializes in verse science fiction’s preeminent bard of the reality breakdown.” “Love’s Heresy” and “The Library of Babble” appear to be channeling the labyrinthine mind of Jorge Luis Borges, albeit with surprising jinks all their own. And the list of narrative explorations grows and grows . . .
Humor and horror, music and whimsy, primates and pathology, mice and men, religion and rebellion: these stories and poems cover the waterfront of human experience while acknowledging the singularity of each human life.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
What I like best about my new book from Fairwood Press/Kudzu Planet Productions is its title, A Few Last Words for the Late Immortals. I’ve paid close attention to titles ever since I began seriously reading as a grade-schooler in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1957-58, when Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf keel-hauled me through settings and situations as gripping as those in classic films like Captain Blood (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) that I thrilled to on late-night TV.
Then came Ray Bradbury, whose fix-ups The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine and such collections as The October Country, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun, and A Medicine for Melancholy held me rapt with their tales’ lyricism and wasp-sting endings. Soon after, Harlan Ellison’s wildly monikered yarns also ensorcelled me. How could I resist stories titled “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World”? But Harlan had nothing on England’s J. G. Ballard, author of The Atrocity Exhibition, Vermillion Sands, and Low-Flying Aircraft, in which I devoured such tales as “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D,” and “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island.” About the same time, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Thomas M. Disch, New Wavers on the American shore, wrote stories bearing such cool titles as “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move in a Rigorous Line” (Delany), “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (Le Guin), “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth” (Zelazny), and “Dangerous Flags” (Disch), from his 1971 collection One Hundred and Two H-Bombs (Berkley, 1971).
Yes, titles fascinate me, except when they seem depressingly dull like, say, “The Man,” a Ray Bradbury tale that ignites its blah title with an amazing premise and plot. And some titles fail by sounding less like a thrilling read than it does, say, a stale, stodgy text, as, for example, does the full title of an undisputed world classic: TRAVELS INTO SEVERAL REMOTE NATIONS OF THE WORLD. IN FOUR PARTS (with each voyage listed in detail and its phony byline added to the title as a coda: BY LEMUEL GULLIVER, FIRST A SURGEON AND THEN CAPTAIN OF SEVERAL SHIPS. Most of us, of course, know this book as Gulliver’s Travels, and it remains my all-time favorite reading experience, a fact that proves that I sometimes come to like works whose titles initially put me off.
Still, good titles deserve all the kudos they gather. Early on, writers and poets dubbed their works just what their subjects dictated: Euripides’s Medea, Anonymous’s Everyman, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Farther on, Tennessee Williams called one of his plays A Streetcar Named Desire. And although that title strikes me as the most allusively evocative of the four just catalogued, The Taming of the Shrew, the title of the Bard’s earliest comedy, piques our curiosity as effectively as does Williams’s title, if a tad less perversely. Even so, writers of fantastika often go to Shakespeare for titles: Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves), Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes), Philip K. Dick (Time Out of Joint), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), and Richard Matheson (What Dreams May Come): a brief survey that doesn’t come close to exhausting our available examples.
Of course, not everyone plunders Shakespeare for titles, and two of my favorite titles taken from other writers’ work are Joyce Carol Oates’s Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (from Stephen Crane’s enigmatic poem “In the Desert”) and Susan Strait’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots (from Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road). Some folks would probably recoil from these two titles as overelaborate or fussy, but I adore their eloquent chutzpah.
Early in my career, three of my novellas’ titles—“Death and Designation Among the Asadi,” “On the Street of the Serpents,” and “The White Otters of Childhood”—struck me as pretty good; and later, a conspicuous tribute to Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones,” the title of my novelette “Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats” also owes a debt to the title of Ballard’s assassination-of-JFK story, which may have influenced Delany’s “Time Considered . . .”
My first sale to Analog, a story called “A Few Last Words for the Late Immortals,” bears a title that came to me virtually unbidden. The story is a eulogy for humanity set on Saturn’s moon Titan, with a birdlike alien anthropologist doing the honors. Back in 1979, it attracted little notice, but once my editor Michael Hutchins and I started inspecting my new collection (which features fifty pieces, prose and poetry, none longer than three-thousand words) for a usable title, we briefly considered Midwifing the World, Love’s Heresy, and In the Memory Room, to each of which we meant to add And Other Stories as a predictable caboose. Then it struck us that A Few Last Words for the Late Immortals filled the bill for the whole collection.
A pair of poems bookend the stories, a proem entitled “Astyages’ Dream” (in which the Astyages dream-prophesies that he will be the last king of the Medians) and an envoi called “The Scaffold” (an ode-like critique of the Dylan Thomas’s eulogy for victims of the London Blitzkrieg). The stories and poems between these pieces span centuries of human history, with Astyages and Thomas as two of our species’ arguable immortals. Jesus Christ, Jorge Luis Borges, P. K. Dick, Stephen Hawking, my father, an insurrectionist president, the author as an AI, and a host of other characters, human and otherwise, also appear in these stories and poems.
Finally, A Few Last Words for the Late Immortals is a line of perfect—okay, almost perfect—iambic-pentameter: a nod to Shakespeare that, years ago, I made without even realizing that I’d done so.
In 1988, Michael Bishop won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for an earlier version of Unicorn Mountain. His other prize-winning novels are No Enemy but Time (1982), winner of a Nebula Award, and Brittle Innings (1994), winner of a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. He has also published poetry, reviews, and essays as well as story collections, notably Other Arms Reach Out to Me: Georgia Stories (2017), winner of a Georgia Author of the Year Award in 2018. He continues to live in Pine Mountain, Georgia, with his wife Jeri of fifty-one years, a retired elementary-school counselor, a yoga devotee, and an avid gardener. On November 5, 2018, Bishop was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.