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Bill Bowler’s Essays and Fiction

by Donald Schneider

Bill Bowler is Coordinating Editor of Bewildering Stories as well as a prolific contributor to the online publication. His writing spans the spectrum from fiction and poetry to erudite, enlightening essays concerning literary matters. Dr. Bowler (holding a doctorate in foreign languages) in issue 224 presents a de facto review of Steven F. Murphy’s “Sharpshooter” (issue 184) rendered in tandem with an essay Dr. Bowler had previously written concerning the usage of politics within science fiction.

As I personally consider “Sharpshooter” to be among the best constructed and most effective (in terms of persuasive writing, i.e. “propaganda”) short stories yet published at Bewildering Stories, Dr. Bowler’s astute and most objective analysis of an increasingly rare example of a literary piece with political overtones from a conservative perspective, one that is highly reminiscent of Allen Drury’s, is recommended for writers interested in crafting similar stories from whatever perspective along the political spectrum.

In issue 212, Dr. Bowler offers his instructive essay “Narration and Point of View,” which should be held to be definitive reading for all aspiring writers. This scholarly and masterful analysis of the current publishing environment (for better or worse) will be extremely beneficial for all writers who have yet to reach professional status. (Indeed, I wish I had read it a few years ago.)

Within the essay, Dr. Bowler recounts the pros and cons of invoking the various forms of narration while relating one’s tale, adeptly cautioning the reader as to the inherent pitfalls each form harbors and into which aspiring writers all too often fall.

Most especially, Dr. Bowler warns against the dreaded “infodump,” a writing pitfall that seemingly inevitably engenders the perhaps insipid sounding admonition from editors of: “Show, don’t tell.”

As Dr. Bowler rhetorically asks, since letters within the Roman alphabet are not Chinese ideograms encompassing visual significance, how exactly is an English language writer supposed to “show” as opposed to tell? He explains that what modern editors mean by invoking this parroted, presumed axiom is that they consider that the modern reader — and most especially, themselves — no longer has the patience to wade through long digressions within a story, which interrupt the action of the plot, a la the likes of Tolstoy’s writing. It would seem that few if any writers today are Tolstoy, and presumably few if any readers are Tolstoy’s (or even Hemingway’s).

It would also appear as if few contemporary readers feel the need to “taste the grapes.” Just say that there are red grapes on the vine (okay, “succulent red grapes”) and readers — and more importantly, editors — will be satisfied. To paraphrase the late Mario Puzo’s account of how he came to write The Godfather, if some crazed personage with literary illusions of grandeur wishes to create an artistic masterpiece of the likes of War and Peace, then let him or her discover the joys of self-publishing. Today’s editors and publishers want The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s literary testament to societal dyslexia.

No one could accuse Dr. Bowler of not being willing to heed his own counsel. His science fiction stories in the main consist of rapid fire, action-packed, usually brief paragraphs, each one seamlessly flowing forth from its predecessor. Indeed, true to Dr. Bowler’s unquestionably keen intellect and apparently analytic nature, his stories seem as literary flowcharts; with each paragraph being fleshed out on an ex post facto basis from an a priori skeletal diagram.

Despite such seemingly mechanical writing, the genius of Dr. Bowler’s fiction contributions lies with his ability to subtly ingrain within his work profound messages of a highly philosophical nature; the only downside to which is that a less than astute reader might fail to recognize such while finding himself or herself engrossed within the torrid pace of the narrative.

A favorite theme of Dr. Bowler’s is the reexamination of prevailing definitions of what exactly constitutes “life” in advance of the approaching (and perhaps ultimately encroaching) advent of artificial intelligence. “Broken Parts” (issue 206), “Birds of a Feather” (issue 217) and “Garbage Planet” (issue 230) are highly recommended, superlative examples; with the last named encompassing other considerations also contained within Dr. Bowler’s “Significant Other” (issue 208).

In the latter piece, Earthling astronauts land upon an alien world and unknowingly stumble into an inter-species civil war which in the process reverses the adage: “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” One might alternately interpret this riveting and fascinating story as an allegory concerning racism or as an environmental piece embracing the “Gaia hypothesis.” On the other hand, it might be intended simply as a good read; a mission admirably fulfilled.

In “Birds of a Feather,” we witness Dr. Bowler’s perhaps most profound effort. After first contact with aliens, who turn out to be robots without masters, the farcically named Senator Claiborne Steele, a somewhat unscrupulous, greedy mining magnate turned politician, senses a business opportunity; which he has no compunction in exploiting to the maximum using his political prowess. After a serious physical injury, however, Steele is forced to reassess his life as the story takes an abrupt turn, veering from avarice and opportunism onto the road to redemption. The piece serves as an intriguing — and elegant — counterpoint to Steven Murphy’s aforementioned piece, differing in its philosophical outlook and more nimble as discourse.

Dr. Bowler’s versatility as an author is evidenced within his children’s novella “The Boy With Orange Hair” (issues 241-245), a whimsical tale that resembles a contemporary version of Baum’s Oz stories. Anyone with youngsters might well wish to print this out for bedtime reading.

I suspect the most popular work of fiction presented within Bewildering Stories by Dr. Bowler to be “Zero Ping,” an innovative play on Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” and, most especially, on Lu Xun’s variation on it.

Walter is a jaded, New York City office worker seemingly long since defeated by life. At age forty, he finds himself living with his long-suffering mother in the wake of a divorce after only two years of marriage. He is bereft of friends and money, trapped in a nine-to-five grind of a job he despises along with his co-workers; especially his supervisor, aptly named “Bossman.” The character spends more time frittering away his workdays surfing the web in search of porn and video game sites than he does working, a situation that renders his position precarious as his extracurricular activities haven’t gone unnoticed by the office “spies,” as he puts matters.

In spite of his self-delusion that his current dismal state of affairs is merely temporary, he takes refuge in the world of virtual reality online video games with combat scenarios. As Walter’s interest in his “avocation” steadily grows into obvious obsession, the reader encounters a first-person account of a man and a mind slowly, seemingly inexorably, unraveling into fantasy-bred paranoid delusions; culminating with his falling madly in love with a female character’s scantly clad gaming icon, despite realizing on an intellectual basis that the human player behind the screen character might be anyone, a man or even a kid.

In this most vivid of his stories, Dr. Bowler combines his obvious expertise regarding online video gaming, the story’s ostensive subject matter, with biting social commentary reminiscent of Gogol’s and Lu Xun’s prefatory efforts. Nevertheless, Dr. Bowler’s frantically paced variation on an old theme is sufficiently original within its scope to be deemed superb. Due to his previously noted style of writing, a casual read of the story jeopardizes the reader’s comprehension of nuances within the work pertaining to matters of interpretation. Is Walter ultimately fired from his job or is there perhaps some more sinister explanation as to why he has suddenly disappeared from his company’s list of employees?

It was certainly a boon to Bewildering Stories, both to its esteemed staff and loyal readers, when Dr. Bowler discovered the zine. One looks forward to many more of his inestimable contributions and perhaps one day to a print anthology. May the most alert and astute publication house prevail!

Copyright © 2008 by Donald Schneider

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