Bisson, Terry 1942-

views updated

Bisson, Terry 1942-
(Terry Ballantine Bisson, T.B. Calhoun, Jacobin, Brad Quentin)


Born February 12, 1942, in Owensboro, Hopkins County, KY; son of Max and Martha Bisson; married Deirdre Holst, 1962 (divorced 1966); married Judy Jensen; children: (first marriage) Kristen, Gabriel, Welcome; (second marriage) Nathaniel, Peter, Zoe. Education: Attended Grinnell College, 1960-62; University of Louisville, B.A., 1964.


Home—Oakland, CA. Agent—Frances Goldin Literary Agency, 57 E. 11th St., New York, NY 10003.


Writer. Magazine comic writer, 1964-72; automotive mechanic in Colorado, 1972-77; founder of No-Frills Books, 1981; editor and copywriter with Berkley Books, New York, NY, and Avon Books, New York, 1976-85; owner of Jacobin Books, 1985-1990; consultant for HarperCollins, 1994-95. Visiting professor of creative writing, Clarion College and New School for Social Research.


Science Fiction Writers of America, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.


World Fantasy Award nomination, 1987, for Talking Man; Nebula Award, Science Fiction Writers of America, Hugo Award, World Science Fiction Convention, Asimov's Science Fiction Readers' Award, and Theodore Sturgeon Award, all 1991, all for story "Bears Discover Fire"; Phoenix Award, 1993; Hugo Award nomination, 1993, for story "Press Ann"; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in screen-writing and playwriting, 1998; Locus magazine award, Nebula Award, and Gran Prix de l'Imaginaire (France), all for short story "Macs"; inducted into the Owensboro, KY, Hall of Fame, 1999.



Wyrldmaker, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1980.

Talking Man, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1986.

Fire on the Mountain, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1988.

Voyage to the Red Planet, Morrow (New York, NY), 1990.

Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories (short stories), Tor Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Johnny Mnemonic (novelization of screenplay by William Gibson), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Pirates of the Universe, Tor Books (New York, NY), 1996.

Roger Zelazny's Amber: The Guns of Avalon (graphic novel adaptation of novels by Roger Zelazny), illustrated by Christopher Schenck and Andrew Pepoy, three volumes, DC Comics (New York, NY), 1996.

Alien Resurrection (novelization of screenplay by Joss Whedon), HarperPrism (New York, NY), 1997.

Galaxy Quest (novelization of film by Steven Spielberg and Susan Allison), Ace Books (New York, NY), 1999.

(With Stephanie Spinner) Be First in the Universe (juvenile), Delacorte (New York, NY), 2000.

In the Upper Room and Other Likely Stories (short stories), Tor Books (New York, NY), 2000.

The 6th Day (novelization of screenplay by Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley), Tor (New York, NY), 2000.

Miracle Man (novelization of The X Files teleplay by Howard Gordon and Chris Carter), HarperEntertainment (New York, NY), 2000.

(With Stephanie Spinner) Expiration Date: Never, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2001.

The Pickup Artist, Tor (New York, NY), 2001.

Boba Fett: Crossfire: A Clone Wars Novel (for children), Scholastic (New York, NY), 2002.

Boba Fett: Fight to Survive (for children), Scholastic (New York, NY), 2003.

Dear Abbey, PS Publishing (Hornsea, East Yorkshire, England), 2003.

Numbers Don't Lie, Tachyon (San Francisco, CA), 2005.

Greetings: And Other Stories (short stories), Tachyon (San Francisco, CA), 2005.

Also author of The Fifth Element, a novelization of the film by Luc Besson. Contributor of 115 pages of text, as per author's instructions and outline, to Walter M. Miller Jr.'s Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, Bantam (New York, NY), 1997.


The Demon of the Deep: The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.

Peril in the Peaks: The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.

Attack of the Evil Cyber-God: The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.


NASCAR Rolling Thunder, HarperEntertainment (New York, NY), 1998.

NASCAR in the Groove, HarperEntertainment (New York, NY), 1998.

NASCAR Race Ready, HarperEntertainment (New York, NY), 1998.

Hammer Down, HarperEntertainment (New York, NY), 1999.

Spinout, HarperEntertainment (New York, NY), 2001.


Nat Turner (biography for young adults), Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1987, revised edition with additional text by John Davenport published as Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader, Chelsea House (Philadelphia, PA), 2005.

(Editor, as Jacobin, with Tim Blunk and Ray Levasseur) Hauling Up the Morning, Red Sea Press (Lawrenceville, NJ), 1990.

(With Tom and Ray Magliozzi) Car Talk with Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, Dell (New York, NY), 1991.

(With Elizabeth Ballantine Johnson) A Green River Girlhood, Green River (Owensboro, KY), 1991.

On a Move: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Litmus Books (Farmington, PA), 2000.

Tradin' Paint: Raceway Rookies and Royalty, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor to Washington Post, Asimov's, Omni, Playboy, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Harper's. Editor of Web of Horror magazine. Has created graphic novel adaptations of classic works, including Pride and Prejudice and Emma, by Jane Austin, and Henry V, by William Shakespeare, all for Classics Illustrated.


The stories "Two Guys from the Future," "They're Made Out of Meat," "Next," "Are There Any Questions?," "Partial People," and "The Toxic Donut" were all adapted for the stage and produced at the West Bank Theatre, New York, 1992-93; "Orson the Alien" and several of Bisson's other stories have been adapted for radio as part of The SciFi Channel's Seeing Ear Theater; "Bears Discover Fire" was adapted by Ed Smith and produced at Georgetown's College Kentucky Onstage series, 2002.


Terry Bisson has written science fiction novels and short stories marked by what Paul Kincaid in the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers called "the importance of home and the sense of nostalgia." This sense of nostalgia, which Kincaid believed "places Bisson firmly in the tradition of Southern writers," is expressed in a humorous and sometimes satirical manner. As Ray Olson wrote in a Booklist review of Numbers Don't Lie, Bisson "embroiders ludicrous premises with wordplay, nutty incongruities, goofy character humor, and outrageous irony." Bisson's fiction, Kincaid explained, "like the stories of Howard Waldrop or the cartoons of Gary Larson, is as much ironic commentary on the genre as it is a fresh work of science fiction." Whatever his aims, however, Bisson established himself in the 1990s as a science fiction writer of note. As one Publishers Weekly reviewer put it, "Bisson's prose is a wonder of seemingly effortless control and precision; he is one of science fiction's most promising short story practitioners, proving that in the genre, the short story remains a powerful, viable and evocative form."

Bisson's novel Talking Man follows a rural eccentric nicknamed the Talking Man (though he never speaks) on a cross-country journey. As the trip unfolds, the Talking Man finds that the nation is changing drastically the farther he travels. By the time he returns home to rural Kentucky, society has undergone a radical alteration into a near-utopia. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Jesus Salvador Trevino called Talking Man "an action-filled romp through a surreal landscape of ever-changing America." According to Trevino, the theme of the novel is an exploration of the question: "If someone is changing our reality from moment to moment, how do we know it?"

Fire on the Mountain explores another kind of American utopia. The novel posits an alternate history in which John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 was successful, leading to a national slave revolt and the establishment of an independent African American country in the Southern United States. Publishers Weekly critic Sybil Steinberg claimed that the novel displays Bisson's "talent for evoking the joyful, vertiginous experiences of a world at fundamental turning points." John Clute, writing in the Washington Post Book World, felt that Fire on the Mountain creates "an America magically cleansed and calm and rich; the remoteness of that world from ours only increases the pathos of the fable."

In Voyage to the Red Planet Bisson turns to satire, creating a future world where, following a massive economic depression, government services have been sold to private corporations. In this privatized society, a movie producer named Markson leaves for Mars to make a film. During the long voyage, the corporation running mission control back on Earth has cash flow problems. They must focus their efforts on more lucrative activities, leaving Markson's film crew stranded in an offcourse spaceship. According to Gerald Jonas in the New York Times Book Review, the film crew knows "something is wrong when their requests for course corrections are routed to an answering machine and [they are called] back collect." Kincaid deemed Voyage to the Red Planet "a comedy of ramshackled adventure, and there are the predictable disasters and problems along the way, most of them casting a satirical light on the Earth left behind." Jonas believed that Bisson shows a "genuine affection for his characters" and has an "ability to remind us of the excitement and wonder of space travel even while poking fun at the conventions of space fiction."

Bisson created another satirical future in Pirates of the Universe. In this society, Space Ranger Gunther "Gun" Ryder is close to winning his coveted place in a retirement theme park called Pirates of the Universe. But when he returns from his latest mission, Gunther "finds himself entangled in a Kafkaesque conundrum," as a critic for Publishers Weekly explained. Unable to e-mail anyone or use computer systems because of a bureaucratic snafu, Gunther is thus also unable to contact the proper bureaucracy to fix the problem. "It is all very funny," Gregory Feeley wrote in the Washington Post Book World. Jonas, writing in another New York Times Book Review article, admired Bisson's "knack for capturing a reality that is never as simple as we would like to believe."

After publishing several novels, Bisson turned to writing short stories in 1990. Since that time he has enjoyed acclaim from critics who count him among the science fiction genre's best short-story writers. In 1991 Bisson won a Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and Theodore Sturgeon Award for "Bears Discover Fire," a short story that manages to combine the nonsensical with the ordinary to good effect. Martha Soukup described the story in the Washington Post Book World as "a gentle, wise tale of a man whose mother is dying, whose nephew wants to learn how to mount tires, and of bears who discover fire and now sit around campfires instead of hibernating." The collection Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories displays what a Publishers Weekly critic called Bisson's "seemingly effortless control and precision." Soukup believed that the stories "that will stay with the reader are Bisson's homier tales. … There's a warmth in them, and a respect for ordinary folk. … There is also a sharpness and wit that is quite Bisson's own."

In the mid-1990s Bisson received a challenging professional opportunity. Walter M. Miller Jr., the author of the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, was unable to finish that novel's sequel due to ill health. Bisson was contracted to provide the final one hundred pages of the manuscript, basing his work on Miller's notes and outline. In an online interview with Science Fiction Weekly, Bisson described his contribution to Miller's St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. "What I did," he said, "was take the scenes [Miller] had sketched out, I did them exactly as he did it but fleshed them out so they were in the style of the rest of the book. I interpolated all his material. I followed whatever instructions he had, where he wanted to go, to the letter, because the important thing to me was that this book be his book." Indeed, when St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published, it appeared under Miller's name, even though Bisson had contributed the final 115 pages of manuscript text.

Bisson's second short story collection, In the Upper Room and Other Likely Stories, was published in 2000. Noting the collection's treatment of such issues as cloning and virtual reality, a Publishers Weekly reviewer deemed it "cutting-edge SF." In Booklist, Donna Seaman praised Bisson for his "witty stories with a timeless sweetness and allure," concluding that In the Upper Room offers "speculative fiction that transcends its genre." A Kirkus Reviews contributor found the book "more playful, less thoughtful, than the earlier collection," but nonetheless concluded that the work offers "rousing entertainment, underwear, equations, entities and all."

Numbers Don't Lie falls somewhere between short story collection and novel. The book features three interlocking novellas, all about friends Wilson Wu and Irving. Irving, the narrator, is a regular guy who keeps stumbling upon space-time anomalies—including a portal through which one can get from Brooklyn to the moon in one step—which Wilson, a Princeton mathematician, can easily explain mathematically. Although these anomalies seem ridiculous, all of them are at least plausible within the framework of quantum physics. Numbers Don't Lie is an "irreverent but never smartalecky spoof," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic.

Bisson's third true short story collection, Greetings and Other Stories, again features Bisson's trademark "prodigious wit and inventiveness," Carl Hays wrote in Booklist. The stories featured in this book include "The Old Rugged Cross," in which death row inmates are given the option of being crucified live on television; "Dear Abbey," about environmentalists who use a porch swing to travel into the future in an attempt to stop global warming; and "I Saw the Light," in which humans discover that aliens have been treating them as pets. "Bisson fans are bound to savor this strong story collection," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Bisson has not abandoned novel-writing for short stories entirely, though. The Pickup Artist, published in 2001, is another satirical novel set in the future. The book was described by many critics as the comic version of Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451, but with Bisson's "outrageous humor and incisive perceptions" as Jackie Cassada commented in Library Journal. The "pickup artist" of the title is Hank Shapiro, an employee of the Bureau of Arts and Entertainment. Because the future world has too much art, the Bureau has declared that certain artists and their works are to be deleted. Hank spends his days collecting twentieth-century art, books, and music for destruction, until he becomes curious about the music of his namesake, Hank Williams. Trying to listen of one of Hank William's albums ends up setting Hank off on a zany cross-country quest with a strange group of companions. "It's a tribute to Bisson's power as a novelist that his grotesque creations are ultimately endearing as well as clever," Elizabeth Hand concluded in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.



St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Analog Science Fiction-Science Fact, December 15, 1988, Tom Easton, review of Fire on the Mountain, p. 181; December 15, 1990, Tom Easton, review of Voyage to the Red Planet, p. 181.

Booklist, April 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of In the Upper Room and Other Likely Stories, p. 1527; February 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of On a Move: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal, p. 1096; March 15, 2001, Ray Olson, review of The Pickup Artist, p. 1360; August, 2001, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Expiration Date: Never, p. 2122; February 1, 2005, John Peters, review of Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader, p. 967; October 1, 2005, Carl Hays, review of Greetings and Other Stories, p. 43; December 15, 2005, Ray Olson, review of Numbers Don't Lie, p. 31.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1993, review of Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories; March 15, 2000, review of In the Upper Room and Other Likely Stories, p. 343.

Library Journal, April 15, 2001, Jackie Cassada, review of The Pickup Artist, p. 137; December 1, 2005, Jackie Cassada, review of Numbers Don't Lie, p. 118; January 1, 2006, Jackie Cassada, review of Numbers Don't Lie, p. 50.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 9, 1986, Jesus Salvador Trevino, review of Talking Man.

Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April, 1989, Orson Scott Card, review of Wyrldmaker, p. 38; February, 1994, John Kessel, review of Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories, p. 39; June, 2001, Elizabeth Hand, review of The Pickup Artist, p. 30; August, 2001, Charles de Lint, reviews of Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories and Numbers Don't Lie, p. 38.

New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1988, Gerald Jonas, review of Fire on the Mountain, p. 26; September 2, 1990, Gerald Jonas, review of Voyage to the Red Planet, p. 18; May 12, 1996, Gerald Jonas, review of Pirates of the Universe, p. 27; December 21, 1997, Gerald Jonas, review of Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

Publishers Weekly, June 3, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Fire on the Mountain, p. 73; June 1, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Voyage to the Red Planet, p. 50; November 1, 1993, review of Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories, p. 70; March 25, 1996, review of Pirates of the Universe, p. 67; January 31, 2000, review of Be First in the Universe, p. 107; April 24, 2000, review of In the Upper Room and Other Likely Stories, p. 66; January 22, 2001, review of On a Move, p. 312; February 19, 2001, review of The Pickup Artist, p. 74; August 29, 2005, review of Greetings and Other Stories, p. 38; October 31, 2005, review of Numbers Don't Lie, p. 36.

School Library Journal, February, 1989, Elizabeth M. Reardon, review of Nat Turner, p. 104; July, 2001, Kay Bowes, review of Expiration Date, p. 89.

Washington Post Book World, November 27, 1988, John Clute, review of Fire on the Mountain, p. 8; November 28, 1993, Martha Soukup, review of Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories, p. 8; March 31, 1996, Gregory Feeley, review of Pirates of the Universe, p. 8.


Cybling, (March 10, 2006).

Tachyon Publications Web site, (March 10, 2006), "Terry Bisson."

Terry Bisson Web site, (March 10, 2006).

About this article

Bisson, Terry 1942-

Updated About content Print Article