The fourth installment in my guest post series on the science fiction of Michael Bishop was provided by Admiral Ironbombs (twitter: @admrl_ironbombs) over at the fantastic blog dedicated to vintage/classic SF and other genres, Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased. He has magazines, piles of magazines. I asked him to provide a post, he looked in his pile of magazines, and VOILA!
Enjoy + visit his site!
Three Michael Bishop Stories
I have to admit, before Joachim asked me to contribute to his guest post series, I’d never read anything by Michael Bishop before. (I realize that was the point, but still.) I’ve read a number of excellent reviews about Bishop’s work (including three right here on this very blog), and have heard nothing but good things. Just wanted to let you know I was going into this blind.
I wouldn’t say my specialty is magazines, but I do own far more of them than any mere mortal needs to own. That’s probably why Joachim suggested I dig through my stacks and see what stories by Bishop I had. Alas, there’s only three – a short and two novellas—but at least the novellas are two of Bishop’s most famous early works, and each earned Hugo and Nebula nominations.
“In Rubble, Pleading” – F&SF Feb 1974
Bishop introduces this story as a fantasy, but it is the story’s emulation of reality that makes it so effectively chilling.
A series of tornadoes have ravaged Kansas, demolishing numerous small towns and creating panic across the plains states. And the towns hit by a tornado have been getting bigger and bigger. In one small town’s barbershop, a retired colonel discusses the threat with his barber as a young boy sits and stares at the endless rain. The colonel suggests that the tornado strikes fit a pattern, going after towns smallest to largest as part of some nefarious plot. Enter Mulcasta the schoolteacher, back from volunteering at a nearby town which just suffered its own tornado strike. As part of the relief effort, Mulcasta came across a young boy in a ditch with a board sticking out of his chest, a boy who has some curious things to say about what he’s seen in the funnel-clouds…
Bishop’s writing is rich, and his prose is fine: it’s curt but lyrical, with not a word wasted. The imagery can be brilliant, and the dialogue is realistic but sharp. That ties in with his sharp characters, all easily distinguishable and evocative, from the colonel’s ramrod-straight tone to Mulcasta’s theatricality. Together, they make for an impressive display of literary SF. Bishop’s writing is effective at an emotional level, too. Mulcasta’s story is gripping, with an intense urgency and terror to it, a sense that’s shattered by the inevitable twist ending that felt at odds with the rest of the story—not unexpected, but an odd change of tone.
“Death and Designation Among the Asadi” – IF, Jan/Feb 1973
One of the founding stories in the field of anthropological SF, which also happens to be a cornerstone of Bishop’s career. Egan Chaney is an anthropologist who’s come to the planet BoskVeld to study the Asadi, a race of primitive alien hominids with murky eyes and an inexplicable culture. Chaney is only the second person to study the Asadi, and there’s plenty of speculation that they are the devolved remnants of a once intelligent race. To do so, he needs to become a pariah of the tribe—so lowly he can blend in because they will refuse to recognize him.
The novella is told in an epistolary form, comprised of various diaries, recordings, and notes made by Chaney—along with some addendum from the rest of the research team, who pulled a confused and bedraggled Chaney out of the wilderness. The notes showcase Chaney’s explorations in their culture, and may explain the truth behind this strange culture—or could signify Chaney’s growing madness.
Therein lies the rub. The story consists as notes and recordings to showcase Chaney’s descent as he “goes native,” hearing him describe things rather than showing them to the reader. The epistolary format makes that unreliable narration work, but it’s also too dry, dull, and passive to be my cup of tea. For every creepy moment of Chaney’s hushed description of some fascinating turn of events—which may or may not be a drug-induced stupor—there are twenty pages of dry anthropological discourse.
“Death and Designation” is not a bad story, which is why it earned Hugo and Nebula nominations. It evokes a lot of Joseph Conrad, and offers some thought-provoking insight into culture and colonialism, but the passivity and distance of academic notes didn’t do much for me. If you like anthropological science fiction, I’d still recommend you look into it.
“The White Otters of Childhood” – F&SF Jul 1973
It is the future. The year is 5309, or so it is believed. The last remaining two million humans—most of them mutated in some way—have been relegated to the islands of the Caribbean, exiled by the post-human Parfects, perfect beings in mind and body, who now are masters of the earth. Markcrier Rains has been the diplomatic envoy to the Parfects twice now, and after returning from his services, retires from that unpleasant task to marry his love, Marina. She had spurned the affections of Fearing Serenos, the local ruler and Markcrier’s lord, and Markcrier fears the despot will act out in vengeance. When Serenos does, it cripples Markcrier; a broken man, he entreats Mariana’s father—Serenos’ doctor—for aid in retaliation for Serenos’ evil.
Bishop’s prose has a neo-antiquated flourish to it, reminding me of a 19th-century adventure story or Gothic. Halfway through the tale, when Markcrier’s plan of revenge is revealed, I had a flash of insight: this tale of mystery and the macabre, of revenge and weird science, this the kind of story Poe would write had he lived in the 1970s. It’s a brooding horror that transcends genius and surpasses madness, while drawing together many of the thematic elements and quotes Bishop had used at the start of each chapter (luminaries including Walter M. Miller and H.G. Wells). I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say it involves genetic manipulation.
The story’s richness comes not just from its prose, but also from the depth of its metaphors—which happens to be reinforced by that more archaic language and setting, now that I think of it. Having tried to destroy itself in two holocausts, humanity now returns to the sea—almost literally. Homo sapiens has come full circle in its de-evolution, the mutated and broken husks that used to be a proud ruling species regressed in shape and in morals. There’s a melancholic undertone that decries the bestial elements of humanity. The savagery of Fearing Serenos and his ironclad rule is something Markcrier decries time and time again, yet when he is lofted to a position of power, his noble intent also leads to death and ruin – was Serenos just pure evil, or corrupted by power?
“White Otters” was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, but for some bizarre reason won neither. (I want to say it was competing with the likes of Gene Wolfe and James Tiptree, Jr., so the work that bested it was no slouch.) In any case, it was enthralling, a tale made of pure wonder and horror and deep, thought-provoking concepts. “In Rubble” and “Death and Designation” were good stories; “White Otters” was a mind-blowing one.
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