4.25/5 (Very Good)
Doris Piserchia’s A Billion Days of Earth (1976) is a whimsical, disturbing, and stunningly inventive science fiction novel. This is the second and by far the best of her novels I’ve read (A Billion Days of Earth surpasses Doomtime (1981) in virtually every regard). Not only are the characters better drawn but the plot isn’t as easily derailed by repetitious actions. That said, she isn’t always the best at plotting but her imaginative worldscapes and bizarre creatures more than compensate. Doris Piserchia’s oeuvre deserves to be read (and reprinted!). Sadly due to deaths in her family she stopped publishing in 1983…
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
The year is three million A.D. and humans have evolved to the point where they possess immense physical and technological abilities. Humans (Homo Superior), now called Gods, in the past dabbled with genetics and created various creatures including the ferocious zizzy, which is a pouched bee/cat. The Gods refuse to interact with the denizens of the Earth and occupy themselves by engaging in various leisure activities in the clouds.
However the Gods are not the only sentient creature inhabiting this future earth. Rats have evolved and gained sentience without the assistance of the Gods. The rats call themselves humans. These rat/humans have constructed an immense foundry to supply surrogate metal hands… Occasionally pockets of intelligent rats without metal hands are discovered.
The action takes place in Osfar (the location of the hand foundry) a city in the middle of a desert cut off from its water supply by an earthquake. The main characters are Rik, a brilliant and fearless scientist, and his adopted brother Jak (whom Rik discovered and supplied with hands). The humans are ruled by an inbred “caste” called Fillys who are virtual dictators and control vast amounts of money and live in huge estates.
The inhabitants of this future earth, besides the Gods, are engaged in vicious interspecies strife (the zizzies attack the human/rats and vice-versa).
Into this violent and unusual world comes Sheen an amorphous silver being whose purpose and origins are unknown. Sheen seeps out of the volcanic Valley of the Dead and preys on any species it encounters (besides the advanced Gods) by presenting a victim specific telepathic vision of paradise in order to consume the victim’s ego. Sheen multiples and soon huge swaths of land are devoid of life. For a long time no one is concerned despite Rik’s repeated attempts to notify the authorities…
A parallel story emerges as well — Rik spends his time stealing gadgets from the Gods (humans). On one of these treks Rik and Jak encounter a helpless Goddess who momentarily lost her abilities while secretly giving birthabout to be consumed by a moving hill. Yes, a moving semi-sentient hill!
The two narratives — Sheen’s slow engulfing of all human life and Rik’s interactions with the aloof Gods — intertwine in spectacular fashion.
A Billion Days of Earth is a heady brew of fascinating ideas — semi-sentient moving hills, evolved human/gods uninterested in the world below, sentient rats with metal hands, and of course the amorphous/shape-shifting ego consuming Sheen. The snappy dialogue between Rik and Sheen is a delight to read (and the dialogue between Sheen and any of the creatures it attempts to consume).
My critiques are minor. I wish Rik had a larger role to play (especially his interaction with the Goddess after the incident with the moving hill). His role is minimized because of Piserchia’s unfortunate tendency to introduce a horde of characters throughout the novel which don’t add too much to the narrative. Likewise I’m still unsure of the purpose of the tangential Filly machination subplot…
Highly recommended for all sci-fi fans.
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20 thoughts on “Book Review: A Billion Days of Earth, Doris Piserchia (1976)”
Looks interesting! Wasn’t really aware of this at all. Will be keeping an eye out for it (good to see you’re still on the post-apocalyptic thing too!)
An unusual and worthwhile read…. Sadly Doris Piserchia doesn’t feature of many women sci-fi author lists…
I’ve never heard of this, or of the author. What an amazingly cool find. I love the idea too, very sweeping, very visionary.
Plus it’s nice to see evolved rats who’re not made vicious and dirty. I’ve seen that in more than one book and given a moment’s thought it makes no sense at all (there would be some behavioural changes on the path from today to sentience).
Quick question, do you recall a novel in which the sun is bloated and red, rats are sentient (but without hands) and humans remain much as now. The two get along poorly, but two individuals form a sort of grudging friendship. I’m thinking Aldiss but I’m not at all sure and it’s not enough detail for a proper google search.
It’s a very unusual read. I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece or rises above a certain level of intriguing esoterica– BUT, definitely worth reading.
Haha, yeah, the rats act exactly like humans… The humans who have become “the Gods” act completely different.
I can’t off the top of my head think of that novel — sounds somewhat interesting though… I do know that Aldiss did have semi-sentient rats (with captive rabbits) in Starship (variant title: Non-Stop) but that’s a completely different situation than the one you described.
It may be British author Brian Stableford’s very first novel, “Cradle of the Sun” (l969). I’m not totally sure, because it’s decades since I read it; but there are intelligent rats in that, sort of friendly with humans – and I think the sun is red and bloated, too. My vague memory of it seems to tally with the few details you give.
Interesting novel, although with a rather ambiguous conclusion. The atmosphere is most striking, and the weird flora and fauna very unusual indeed. Worth reading if you find a copy.
Joachim, I got an e-mail from you about this. Because what you said isn’t here, I assume it was a private e-mail; but when I tried replying to the e-mail address you wrote from, I don’t think it worked (the address began with “donotreply”). If you want my reply, could you please write again and give me a working e-mail address to send it from?
Sorry, I incorrectly read your message and thought you were responding to my review instead of another commenter’s comment — so I deleted my response!
Thanks so much for stopping by. The Stableford book sounds intriguing. The rat in sci-fi is definitely a prevalent (in limited numbers of course) trope…
That’s it! Thank you. That makes sense. I kept thinking Aldiss but I was reading a lot of Stableford at the same time as I was into Aldiss and of course both are Brians.
That’s very much appreciated. I’ll track down a copy.
You didn’t make it sound a masterpiece, but it does sound fun and unusual and that’s no bad combination for sf.
I could even be wrong about it being Aldiss. Oh well. Non-Stop, great novel. Hugely influential.
I loved Non-stop — I gave it a great review a multiple months ago….
What’s your second favorite Aldiss work (or perhaps Non-stop isn’t your favorite)? I’ve read at least three more of his works and I’ve been really disappointed — Bow down to Nul, variant title: The Interpreter — (1960), The Dark Light-Years (1964), Earthworks (1965)…
Sorry, just saw this. I’m not sure actually, it’s been ages since I’ve read any. Probably the Helliconia books unoriginal as that is.
I haven’t read the Helliconia books yet — Greybeard will be my next Aldiss work.
I’ve read that but don’t recall it that well. I’ll look forward to your review.
Hi, I just found your site and will be coming back regularly. I had wondered about A Billion… since I saw the cover photo in Starlog…nearly 40 years ago. [Damn I`m old.] Finally read it last year, and while I didn`t like it as much, it was an enjoyable read. Piserchia wrote a handful of unusual books–check out The Spinner for a different, grim read–and I`ve been disappointed that she just stopped writing. I hope younger fans discover her; I find each of her books very different from the others, which may be off-putting to some. Best, John
Thanks for the kind words!
I might have been overly seduced by the work’s originality — the delivery could have been much better. Her prose is often not the most refined or vivid. But yes, in hindsight, I’d rate it slightly lower. I have The Fluger on my shelf — but it’s not supposed to be one of her best. The Spinner has been on my to acquire list for some time…. But not that high on it…
So many years later… If I recall correctly it’s this post of yours that first led me to your site 7 or 8 years ago (maybe 9?). At the time I was groaning under the weight of my PhD and was somewhat distracted by stories about the very far future, dying earth, etc. Somehow “A Billion Days of Earth” came up in my wanderings and before I knew it I stumbled upon Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. Ah, nostalgia for the short term! I do recall reading “A Billion Days…” but never finished it. I’m not sure why. I loved the beginning of the book but ultimately found Piserchia’s idiosyncratic prose less than compelling. Groaning under the weight of all this culture, more’s the problem!
She’s definitely on the surreal/bizarre side of things and feels a bit like the “outsider artist” of SF along with Lafferty. Although, Lafferty is a far superior stylist…
As with many of my early reviews, I suspect I overrated this one. I was blown away by how different it felt.
Thank you for the kind words and reminisce. I have no plans on stopping the site!
I discovered Piserchia after picking up “The Spinner” for its creature feature cover, only to find a fantastic little Ballard-esque piece about a city under siege. The best of her work slips between sci-fi subgenres and modes with such confidence. Also loved “Earth in Twilight” though that’s a more straightforward story, like “Hothouse” mixed with Farmer’s “Dark is the Sun.” “The Dimensioneers” and “Earthchild” are good juveniles. Love the site, had to comment because Piserchia is such a unique author.
Thanks for stopping by — and for the kind words. I haven’t read her fiction in a long while. I hope to get back to it soon — especially her short fiction. As a huge Ballard fan, I’m suddenly intrigued by The Spinner!