Terry Bisson’s History of the Future

For more than two decades, one of pulp sci-fi’s masters has delivered headlines from a time defined by the absurd.
An illustration of a bear lighting a fire inside of an hourglass.
Illustration by Pablo Delcan

Sometime in 1989, Terry Bisson was driving his daughter to college in upstate New York when an idea for a short story came to him. Glancing toward the highway median, he had a vision: animals sitting together, in their own world, talking to one other. The vision became a title: “Bears Discover Fire.”

The story that resulted is strange and funny, yet oddly realistic. It takes place in Kentucky, where Bisson grew up, but is set in “unclaimed land” that could stand in for any exurban wilderness, and follows an uncle and nephew during an odd season in which bears stop hibernating and discover fire. “They make a fire and keep it going all winter,” a character explains. No one knows what to make of this development. The uncle and his nephew, Wallace Jr., follow the story on TV, but grow frustrated that the news mainly shows “guys talking about bears” rather than the bears themselves. They decide to go looking for the genuine article.

After supper, they head into the back yard and through a fence. “Across the interstate and through the trees we could see the light of the bears’ fire,” Bisson writes. “Wallace Jr. wanted to go back to the house and get his .22 and go shoot one, and I explained why that would be wrong.” Also, the uncle points out, “a .22 wouldn’t do much more to a bear than make it mad.” Later, Wallace Jr.’s ornery grandma escapes her nursing home and disappears into the dark wilderness; they find her with the bears, enjoying their campfire in silence. “My imagination ran wild,” the uncle recalls. “I looked around the circle at the bears and wondered what they saw.”

“Bears Discover Fire” evokes climate change and the otherness of nature. It captures the mix of blitheness and curiosity with which we often apprehend the world shifting around us. It’s not quite sci-fi; it’s more like a parable. When Bisson wrote it, he sent it to Asimov’s, one of the top magazines in science fiction; the editor wrote back to say that though the story wasn’t sci-fi, he wanted it anyway. In 1990 and 1991, “Bears Discover Fire” won almost every award in science fiction and fantasy.

And yet Bisson hasn’t sold a story in years. Instead, since the early two-thousands, or perhaps the late nineties—he can no longer recall—he’s been writing what may be the longest-running monthly fiction feature ever. Each month, for the Bay Area sci-fi trade magazine Locus, Bisson drafts four short paragraphs about future events. The paragraphs, with brief headlines (“Pope weds,” “Apple buys Estée Lauder,” “Suez Canal closes”) appear in little boxes under the title “This Month in History,” and are each associated with specific dates (July 16, 2049; May 26, 2105; and June 7, 2255, respectively). The sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, who is a longtime friend of Bisson’s, told me that he sees each vignette as the opening of a novel, or a whole novel compressed. He urged me to get my hands on the whole archive, which contains more than a thousand entries. I borrowed some old issues of Locus:

March 22, 2099. Amazon buys Amazon. In what critics deem an environmental “Hail Mary,” the 8 million square km carbon sink is purchased for the retail giant’s Prime Preserve, which also includes wetlands in New Jersey and Sudan.

February 11, 2114. “Crap gas” ban. Overriding a joint US/Israel veto, the World Congress prohibits civilian use of C-330, the military assault gas that renders crowds incontinent.

November 9, 2176. First dog on Mars. Yeolhan, one of the 94 Nureongi on Hyundai’s colonization fleet, escaped through a galley vent shortly after touchdown, and died while trying valiantly to bark, but at what was never revealed.

In science fiction, what counts as plausible or as serious? What comes across as silly—and what is just outlandish enough to be believable? Your views on these questions depend on your ideas about the future. We live in an era of prestige sci-fi, in which many writers aim for seriousness, and yet seriousness can be a kind of constraint, since the world is so often absurd. “This Month in History” is from an earlier, looser, raunchier, zanier sci-fi era. The genre’s longest-running joke, it raises an unsettling possibility: What if pulpy absurdity is a good way to predict the future?

Bisson, who was born in 1942, discovered science fiction by reading the novels he could find in the drugstore. At thirteen, he read “Surface Tension,” a novella by James Blish about humans who genetically engineer their descendants in order to colonize a new planet. At that time, he liked to sneak cigarettes from his parents and smoke while walking along the tobacco fields at night; he looked up at the stars and thought, of Blish’s novel, “Nobody else around here even knows it’s there.” Later, in the sixties, he discovered the Beats and moved to New York, hoping to publish his first novel, “Diamond Jim.” J. D. Salinger’s agent took it on, but couldn’t get it published. “I thought I was teetering on the brink of a career,” Bisson recalled. Instead, he made a living washing dishes and writing jacket copy.

In 1969, Bisson quit writing for a decade and left New York for “hippie commune” work in the South and Southwest. He met his wife, Judy Jensen, in a commune, and they became involved in the May 19th Communist Organization, a group created by former members of the Weather Underground. In 1975, the couple moved back to New York to organize for May 19th, and Bisson worked as an auto mechanic in taxi garages and a copywriter. He sold his first science-fiction novel, “Wylrdmaker,” to the publisher David Hartwell in 1981, for fifteen hundred dollars. The novel was pulp: it told the story of Kemen of Pastryn, a satirical futuristic version of Conan the Barbarian. It wasn’t the book Bisson wanted to write, he told me, but “it was the smartest thing I ever did. That’s when I discovered you didn’t have to be fucking Hemingway or Fitzgerald to write a novel.” His second novel, “The Talking Man,” was more of a passion project—it was a fantasy novel set in the rural South, with junkyards instead of castles. “There was a sense of science fiction as a very urban literature and the future as a very urban place,” the writer Karen Joy Fowler told me. “Terry’s perspective was more land-based, regional, and populist.”

If May 19th had asked him to do anything risky, Bisson would have. But he was always suspected of being a “petit-bourgeois intellectual” and thus was kept on the sidelines. In 1985, he was subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury, to identify friends who had gone into hiding, and who were suspected for bombings at the Capitol and three military bases nearby. He refused to comply, and spent three months in prison—a short stint, he notes, compared with those of his friends. There, Bisson started his third novel, “Fire on The Mountain,” an alternative history in which the abolitionist John Brown’s revolt at Harper’s Ferry succeeded. When it was published, in 1988, Bisson dedicated the book to Kuwasi Balagoon and the Black Liberation Army.

Bisson was never very successful as a novelist, but he got a lot of work as a writer. He produced nonfiction and young-adult fiction under pen names, and wrote novelizations for films such as “Johnny Mnemonic,” “The Fifth Element,” and “Alien Resurrection.” He adapted William Gibson, Greg Bear, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Roger Zelazny, and Anne McCaffrey into comics. He wrote copy for Consumer Reports, and a book with the mechanics on NPR’s “Car Talk.” He edited the writings of political prisoners, most notably “Love and Struggle,” the memoir of David Gilbert of the Weather Underground, who spent a commuted sentence of forty years in prison for robbery and murder. All the while, he and Jensen operated Jacobin Books, a mail-order book service for prisoners.

Bisson was forty-eight in 1990, when “Bears Discover Fire” briefly made him a star. The next year, he published his most famous story, “They’re Made Out of Meat,” in Omni. The story—essentially a dialogue between two aliens who have discovered the existence of humanity—was “one of the great pre-digital memes of all time,” the writer Jonathan Lethem told me. “They’re made out of meat,” one alien says. “Meat?” the other replies, incredulously. “There’s no doubt about it,” the first says. “We picked several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.” They continue:

“No brain?”

“Oh, there is a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat!”

“So . . . what does the thinking?”

“You’re not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.”

“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?”

“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. ♦