(Jonathan Weld’s cover for the 1976 edition)
Michael Bishop’s And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (variant title: Beneath the Shattered Moons) (1976) is a melancholic and allegorically inclined parable about a coming cataclysm that threatens a programmed and hierarchically rigid society (accomplished via genetic modification). Bishop’s voice is an intensely humanistic once, futuristic technology is present but not a central concern…. The simple but effective plot is the perfect vehicle for his moralistic ruminations: a man forced into action, a world compelled — despite the external forces at play — to adapt.
And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees is the first of Michael Bishop’s works I have read and I am definitely intrigued enough to place his supposedly superior Nebula-nominated first novel, Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975) near the top of my to read pile.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)
Ongladred, a small island on the planet of Mansueceria, contains a society constructed by the Neo-human Parfects. These far future descendants of man most likely observe Mansueceria somewhere from one of the titular shattered moons in orbit. Twice in the past Ongladred culture, “seemingly at the height of their glory” (32), was destroyed by cataclysmic events. There is intense speculation as to the reasons for the collapse ranging from the coming of the mythical sloak (a massive protoplasmic membrane that is said to creep from the depths of the ocean and cover the entire island) to glacial movements. Whether or not these were Parfect interventions is unclear.
The society itself is bifurcated between the Maskers, “the People Accustomed to the Hand” (35) who are intensely stoic and easily commanded and the Atarites, “the People Touched by Fire” (38) who are imaginative and impulsive, and rule and create art. Some Atarites in the previous period of cataclysm fled to the islands where they have regressed (perhaps only from the perspective of the Ongladred culture) to a barbaric and violent state. The Pelagans raids grow in strength daily. The Pelagan raids and the fear of the protoplasmic sloak all indicate the coming of another cataclysm.
The main narrative follows Ingram Marley, a government spy sent by the Atarite court, to investigate the mysterious haven called Stonelore. Gabriel Elk, who runs Stonelore with the help of his brilliant family, reanimates the bodies of the dead to perform in plays for Master audiences. The use of the dead is required because Ongladred society forbids the living from acting. The act of performing a role would be antithetical to the rigid societal function ascribed to the Masters and Atarites. Elk’s position, as one who has found a loophole in the rules in a profession already held in deep suspicion, is a tentative one. The Atarite court suspects that the has a role in the Pelagan raids or is instigating the Masker population to panic. The Masters themselves, from whom Elk purchases the dead bodies, attend the plays in droves but always remain stoic.
Ingram slowly comes to admire Gabriel and his artist son and is intrigued by the father’s profession. In one of Bishop’s delightful metaphors, he father animates the dead, the son carves trees from stone… As the war grows closer and the government draft sends Gabriel’s son to the front, Ingram becomes not only a surrogate son but Gabriel’s assistant in Stonelore’s macabre productions. As the Pelagan raids threaten the very precincts of Stonelore, the Atarite court appeals to Gabriel, because he alone is able to utilize the advanced technology of the previous incarnations of Ongladred society, for assistance.
Although Bishop’s prose is never transcendent (although I would describe him as a proponent of literary SF), the images and metaphors are often profoundly stirring and through-provoking. For example, the idea that that Maskers — would congregate en mass to watch the bodies of their own dead dance across stages or perform ancient interpretations of ancient plays and thus transcend the boundaries that have been imposed by the Parfects and reinforced by the Atarites — is fantastic. For only in death can the Maskers, forced to be emotionless and controllable, break out of their mold…. Only in death can they escape their programming…
Likewise, the potential for a cataclysm, all the more terrifying considering cataclysms have happened before, causes the rigid hierarchy to buckle and adapt. Those that have escaped their programming, Gabriel Elk and Ingram Marley, are suddenly the only people who are able to act. And who can not be intrigued by the the sloak! Whether it exists or not this vast protoplasmic chalkboard eraser that literarily erase all that lives on the island has to be one of the most original SF cataclysms!
These constructed society scenarios, where all parts are all designed to function in a particular way by their makers, are often ruined by authorial explanation of the experiments at play. Michael Bishop is adept at conveying just enough to tantalize via meaningful, but non-descriptive, indications of the purpose of the Parfects, who remain — amongst the shattered moons? — at a distance.
And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (variant title: Beneath the Shattered Moons) is recommended for all fans of 70s social SF, especially works with a literary bent.
(H. R. Van Dongen’s cover for the 1977 edition)
(Fred Gambino’s cover for the 1978 edition)
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