(Paul Swenson’s cover for the 2012 edition)
The second installment of my guest post series on Michael Bishop’s SF is the critically acclaimed Brittle Innings (1994) (Nominated for the 1994 Hugo + Won the 1995 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel)—his last published genre novel. In the words of the wonderful James Harris—over at Auxiliary Memory—who wrote the following review, “Brittle Innings is Flannery O’Connor mashed up with Mary Shelley, and a dash of A League of Their Own.” Make sure to check out his site [here] where he discusses writing, science fiction, movies, and definitely track down his best SF novels of the each decade lists!
Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop: Literary v. Genre Fiction
Stories about minor league baseball always have to deal the ambition of making it big, of going to the show, and playing for the majors. Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop is a baseball novel by a science fiction writer, and I can’t help but wonder if this novel isn’t about writing in the minor leagues hoping to make it big in the literary majors. Brittle Innings is the perfect novel to contrast genre writing versus literary writing for two reasons. First, it’s a literary work written by a genre writer, but it’s also a sequel to Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, so that it combines the fantastic with a very realistic portrayal of the Deep South during 1943. Not only that, but I feel Mr. Bishop’s writing reflects his desire to hit one out of the park.
Reviewing a twenty-year-old book brings up some interesting possibilities. We already know Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop won the Locus Award in 1995 for Best Novel, and was nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy and Campbell awards that year too. Brittle Innings is still popular – 95% of people liked the book at Good Reads, with 39% giving it 5 stars out of 5, and 37% giving it 4 stars. It’s still in print at Amazon, another rather good sign. So is it a classic? See, that’s where things get tough to describe. Is it a classic baseball novel? Or a classic fantasy? And if you don’t read baseball novels, would you even give it a try? Brittle Innings is a rather unique novel.
I’m not a sports fan of any kind, and I thoroughly enjoyed this baseball novel about a 1943 season in a class-C Georgia farm team. Michael Bishop was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1945, but move to Georgia in 1963 for college, ending up marrying and making his home in there. Bishop, who is primarily known as a science fiction writer, has written with Brittle Innings his literary masterpiece, and a gothic southern tale at that. Brittle Innings a historical novel, with the kind of rich details that go into making both a literary novel and a historical novel vivid and entertaining.
Brittle Innings is Flannery O’Connor mashed up with Mary Shelley, and a dash of A League of Their Own, but instead of women ball players during WWII, we have 4F military rejects, and men too young or too old to be drafted, playing ball for a tiny Chattahoochee Valley League (CLV), covering two states, Georgia and Alabama, and eight small towns.
Watching a science fiction novelist write a literary novel is a real lesson in writing, and shows the difference between genre stories and literary stories. Literary novels require more acting. Not only did Michael Bishop have to invent 17-year-old Danny Boles, but he must play him like an actor, to give him voice. Bishop had to talk like Danny “Dumbo” Boles, dress like him, walk like him, emote like him. Science fiction is usually about plot and action, and the characters are rather sketchy, in more ways than one. When reading a literary novel, you often feel like you’re reading a biography, and that’s how Brittle Innings feels.
A genre novel, especially science fiction or fantasy, is often focused on an encounter with the fantastic. Hank “Jumbo” Clerval is the monster Dr. Frankenstein created in Mary Shelley’s story, but he’s not the main focus of this novel. Hank is just a big ugly ball player that Danny gets to know. Danny plays shortstop and Hank plays first, and they become a very minor sensation as Dumbo and Jumbo, while the Highbridge Hellbenders claw their way up a tempest in a teapot playoff in the summer of 1943.
Bishop has to do some clever literary trickery to get Frankenstein’s monster into his story and convince the reader of its realism. In the process, Bishop shows off his writing ability in novel ways, much like Shelley. If Brittle Innings had just been about Danny Boles I think it would have been more of a literary success than with Hank Clerval and his strange past. To the literary world, genre elements smack of juvenile antics, and using characters from previous works shame of fanfiction. So, in one sense, Bishop has two strikes against him for many readers even before they step up to the plate to read.
I read reviews of Brittle Innings when it came out in 1994. It seemed like a neat idea, but I didn’t care for baseball. Nineteen years later I finally got around to reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and was so impressed that I wanted more – and remembered Brittle Innings. I immediately ordered it from ABE Books. I got a beautiful hardback copy that I think is a first edition. But it sat on my shelf until Joachim asked me to write this review. I’m glad he did, because the story was wonderful. I was damned impressed with Bishop’s writing.
I’ve always fantasized about writing science fiction, and reading Brittle Innings proved very discouraging. I just don’t have that kind of talent, and Bishop’s writing made it obvious just how much work it takes to be that inventive. Brittle Innings is impressive, but I’m not sure if it’s classic. It’s discouraging to see a novel that got so close to playing in the big leagues be essentially forgotten today. But most award winning novels are eventually forgotten.
It’s amazing how Brittle Innings publishing success has paralleled the career of Danny Boles. Few writers can hit one out of the park like Hank Clerval, to achieve the success of a book like Frankenstein. Bishop is not a novelist I have followed. I think I might have read No Enemy But Time and Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas, but I’m not sure, and it’s been so many years. Because of Brittle Innings, I plan to change that.
Fairwood Press has reprinted Brittle Innings and their web site has a wonderful list of quotes about the novel from Michael Bishop’s fellow science fiction writers. I think they envy Bishop’s writing ability too.
Links to previous Michael Bishop Guest Posts [updated]
“Allegiances” (1975) (review by Peter S.)
A Little Knowledge (1977) (review by Heloise at Heloise Merlin’s Weblog)
Blooded on Arachne (1982) (selections) (review by Carl V. Anderson at Stainless Steel Droppings)
Brittle Innings (1994) (review by James Harris at Auxiliary Memory)
Catacomb Years (1979) (review by 2theD at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature)
“Death and Designation Among the Asadi” (1973) (review by Jesse at Speculiction…)
“In Rubble, Pleading” (1974), “Death and Designation Among the Asadi” (1973), and “The White Otters of Childhood” (1973), (review by Admiral Ironbombs at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased)
No Enemy But Time (1982) (review by Megan at From Couch to Moon)
“The Quickening” (1981) (review by Max at Pechorin’s Journal)
Links to my three previously posted reviews of Bishop’s work