Georgia’s gun culture as a piece of science fiction

Add a pinch of Claxton, the south Georgia town famous for its annual roundup of serpents, and perhaps a dash of sawdust Pentecostalism.

Stir thoroughly in the head of a science-fiction writer appalled by his experience with gun politics in the state Capitol, and the result is a just-published novelette called “Rattlesnakes and Men,” the tale of a Georgia community that requires homeowners to own pit vipers for self-protection.

“Open-carry” enthusiasts stride through Wriggly, Ga., with serpents in their belt loops. A pediatrician is nearly lynched for suggesting that rattlesnakes in the home might be the cause of a child’s anxiety. And statistics of accidental snake-bites are hushed up by a group that just happens to bear the initials “NRA.”

Michael Bishop’s short story made its debut in the February issue of “Asimov’s Science Fiction.” You don’t expect to find Georgia politics in a pulp magazine. But then, the Bishop family never expected to draw the black ticket in a Shirley Jackson-style lottery.

In 2007, a Virginia Tech senior with a history of mental illness rampaged through his university’s campus, killing 32 and wounding another 17. One of the dead was Jamie Bishop, a German instructor and son of Michael and Jeri Bishop.

“It was in the engineering building. We had no idea that he taught a class in that building,” said Michael Bishop, in the kitchen of a spacious frame house, just off the main drag, that has been in his wife’s family for three generations.

The couple have been gun control advocates ever since. “At least we should have stronger background checks,” Jeri Bishop said.

But last year was the Bishops’ first trip to the Capitol. They drove to Atlanta in an effort to stop what ultimately became known as the “guns everywhere” bill – which greatly expanded the public areas in which licensed owners can carry concealed weapons.

The Bishops testified. They button-holed. And they failed miserably. H.B. 60 passed the General Assembly, and was signed into law amid much election-year hoopla by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Only a few months later, “Rattlesnakes and Men” was born out of Michael Bishop’s disappointment. He is a well-established author who has published in several genres, but science fiction is his wheelhouse. It is a school of literature with a long history of subversion.

“I just began thinking, what would be something that would show just how ridiculous it is to completely fall in love with and fetishize something like guns,” Bishop said. “The first idea I had was something like pit bulls.”

But mandatory rattlesnakes won. Reptiles have the better reputation for treachery. And like guns, they’re cold to the touch.

Science fiction, with its construction of fictional societies, needs a core of believability to work. And Bishop says he’s received some out-of-state criticism of his tale from those who never heard of Kennesaw or Claxton. Or, presumably, snake-handling in churches.

“It’s no more over top than the positions our legislators take on this issue, in the way that they want to put guns in every possible venue – whether it’s bars or churches or schools. Everywhere,” Bishop said.

The Nebula Award-winning author has become convinced that his son was as much a ritual sacrifice to a wayward culture as was any innocent on an Aztec altar.

America’s attachment to firearms “has become more important than the lives of people who are part of the community,” Bishop said. “It has become so culturally pervasive and it has so saturated the belief systems and the rights and rituals of the people that it puts in the shade anything that might make sense.”

The Bishops may have been defeated at the state Capitol last year. But aside from the low pay, there is one advantage to being a writer, and that is ownership of the last word.

Bishop peopled his short story with characters named – through anagrams and word play – for those in the state Capitol who wouldn’t listen to him. One “ample-waisted” villain is named Newell Alpo, an anagram that fits state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, one of the primary authors of the “guns everywhere” bill.

Another snake-enthusiast, lawyer and pastor is carries the last name of Purina – a nod of the head to House Speaker David Ralston. Ralston Purina. Get it?

And a chief protagonist goes by the name of Dusty Shallowpit. Not by coincidence, the Bishops’ trip to Atlanta last year included an encounter with state Rep. Dustin Hightower, R-Carrollton, who during a committee meeting – with the Pine Mountain couple sitting right in front of him – declared that, had he been on the Virginia Tech campus with a gun, he would have put their son’s killer down with a bullet between the eyes.

Michael and Jeri Bishop remain active gun control advocates.

They are happy that no new effort to allow concealed firearms on college campuses has erupted this year, but crestfallen that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has pulled back on its effort to ban armor-piercing ammunition.

But clearly, Michael Bishop’s short story was a literary wail of frustration. And I asked him if, with those needles aimed at Capitol heavyweights, he might have given up on influencing any future debate in Atlanta.

“I don’t have any influence in the Capitol. Do we have any influence, Jeri?”

“I would think not,” she said, pulling a batch of fresh pumpkin bread out of the oven.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.