Terry Bisson’s History of the Future

Terry Bisson’s History of the Future

“They’re Made Out of Meat” has been produced as a radio play, adapted for two films, and quoted by Stephen Pinker, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and other scientists to evoke the philosophical conundrum of how consciousness could have emerged from material stuff. Bisson received a small payment for it from Omni, but earned most of his money from it through reprints in E.S.L. textbooks. In the wake of the story, his fifth novel, “Pirates of the Universe,” became the most reviewed sci-fi novel of 1996, but he earned the most from publishing stories in Playboy. With Alice Turner, an editor at Playboy, and others, he created and ran a celebrated New York City reading series for established and new writers, at KGB Bar.

In 2002, after a few more novels, Bisson and Jensen left New York for San Francisco. He started a reading series there—SF in SF—and began writing “This Month in History.” In 2012, he published one last novel, “Any Day Now,” an alternative history of the last days of the Beats, which Robinson described to me as “the great novel of the sixties.” Otherwise, he has concentrated entirely on his future headlines. “I asked about what else he was writing,” Liza Trombi, the editor-in-chief of Locus, told me. “He said to me, ‘Ly-zuh’—you know, in that accent—‘Don’t you see? I’m done.’ ”

The Bisson-Jensen home, in Oakland, is a small suburban bungalow with a beautifully landscaped front garden. Bisson answered the door in gray jeans and a gray plaid shirt. Now in his eighth decade, he is stocky, short-waisted, and long-legged, like a jockey. We’d met once before, by e-mail, in 2005. I’d asked him to write an afterword to a book I was editing. To my politely crafted “Dear Mr. Bisson” letter, he had responded with one sentence: “Is there any dough?” He walked with a cane, but with his free hand offered me a firm handshake and pulled me in for a hug.

In the back garden, Bisson drank chicory coffee and chewed tobacco while reminiscing about his career. He remembers exactly what every job paid. (Among the highest-paying was a series of children’s books he wrote for Nascar.) He recalled writing a series of “Star Wars” novels about a character he’d never heard of named Boba Fett. “That didn’t last long,” he said. “They could tell I didn’t give a shit about ‘Star Wars.’ ”

I asked to see where he worked, and we moved indoors, past handmade quilts, mismatched hand-painted china, and rustic wood furniture. “We call this look country hippie,” Bisson said. A deconstructed portrait of Elvis by one of their grandchildren, Ocean, hung over the mantle; the King was so pixelated as to have no features, but was still clearly himself. Bisson sat on a couch in the sunny corner of the living room. “This is it,” he said. He loves Victorian literature, and a stack of books on the ottoman included Trollope and Austen. (“June 23, 2042. Janeite jamboree. Traffic jam on Hollywood & Vine as an estimated 1750 quietly applaud new Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame.”) He removed a tattered copy of Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson” from the pile. (“March 4, 2109. Willa Johnson dies. The acclaimed scholar whose research upended centuries of literary history by establishing that ‘Samuel Johnson’ was a fictional creation of James Boswell, is found dead in her cubicle at Clarion Community College.”) He loves Boswell, he said, not just for the writing but for the fact that you can start reading on any page.

Jensen’s sewing machine hummed in another part of the house. Next to the Victorian novels lay a few svelte volumes from Outspoken Authors, a series he edits for the anarchist publisher PM Press. Each volume contains an interview by Bisson. (“Ever been down the Gowanus Canal in a canoe?” he asked Jonathan Lethem. “I have.”) For his own book in the series, Bisson interviewed himself.

Back when Bisson discovered sci-fi, writers seemed interested only in a space-based future. “What happens when we get off this planet—that’s when shit really starts to happen,” he said, recalling those days. But he’d always been fascinated by apparently mundane changes here on Earth. “Robots and space travel, that’s not nearly as interesting as the Internet, the highway system, or air-conditioning,” he said. He likes Amazon even though he’s “not supposed to.” On his Web site, Bisson once quoted the Surrealist and communist Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” When asked about it, he said, gently, “That’s the world I want to be in.”

On the drive home, I wondered about the future of “This Month in History.” Bisson was recently diagnosed with colon cancer. He worries that he won’t find the right writer to take over the feature; he doesn’t want it to devolve into “stupid comedy.” He has compiled all of it into a book, which will be published under the title “Tomorrowing” as part of the Practices series I edit at Duke University Press. Meanwhile, he continues to write the column, turning it in every month on the fifteenth. He calls it his day job.

The time line portrayed in “This Month in History” is equal parts fascinating and familiar. We might colonize Mars, or Amazon might buy the Amazon, but we, who must learn to absorb these events into our everyday lives, will remain our everyday selves. Just as the uncle in “Bears Discover Fire” wonders what the bears see, so Bisson wonders not just what the future will bring but how we will see it. Calamities are coming, just as they’ve always come, but, in his world, we deal with them not as heroes saving the day but as generous observers, open to possibilities and encounters. When we mess up—and we will—we’ll deserve patience and a chuckle at ourselves. We might even deserve forgiveness. I mean, look at us. We’re made out of meat. ♦

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