Guest Post: “In Rubble, Pleading” (1974), “Death and Designation Among the Asadi” (1973), and “The White Otters of Childhood” (1973), Michael Bishop

(David Hardy’s cover for the July 1973 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Edward L. Fermin)

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.

(Richard Sternbach’s cover for the February 1974 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Edward L. Ferman)

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

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1974 edition of The 1974 Annual World’s Best SF (1974), ed. Wollheim and Saha)

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.

(Ron Walotsky’s cover for the 1982 edition of Blooded on Arachne (1982), Michael Bishop)

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)

Brighten to Incandescence (2003) (review by MPorcius at MPorcius Fiction Log)

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

A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975)

And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (1976)

Stolen Faces (1977)

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: “In Rubble, Pleading” (1974), “Death and Designation Among the Asadi” (1973), and “The White Otters of Childhood” (1973), Michael Bishop

  1. Looking at this and previous posts, I’m thinking there really should be a post just on Michael Bishop’s titles. Even without having read the story it’s clear that anything called “The White Otters of Childhood” can only be brilliant, and that this is only one example of a long list of utterly compelling titling. If titles were an art form in and of themselves (which maybe they are) then Michael Bishop would be their Shakespeare or Picasso (which he possibly is).

      • I remember reading an author who said Ellison should win a Hugo every time he writes a story, just for the title. I get what they meant—the titles are pure brilliance—but it felt like it was selling the stories short, because they were just as brilliant as the titles, if not moreso.

        Same thing with Bishop—exquisite titles reflect exquisite stories. I was planning to read “White Otters” this year based on title alone… It’s so evocative and poetic that it had to be good. (Obviously, I thought it was.)

  2. This series has made me go on a search of my collection for anything by Bishop!
    I thought I had a copy of that ‘Best of..’ collection, but it turned out to be the one for ’79, it’s cover is very similar to the one for ’74. I eventually found my copy of a ‘best of 1976’ which includes Bishop’s story, “Allegiances”.

  3. I just found these posts and I am so glad that one of my all-time favorite genre authors is being covered on the web this exhaustively. I read these three in their magazine versions and was too young to understand “White Otters”. But his other novella which was also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula that year was “Death and Designation”. So he competed against himself. “Death of Doctor Island” by Gene Wolfe won the nebula and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr. won the Hugo. My favorite that year was and still remains the double nominated “Chains of the Sea” by Gardner Dozois. But all of these were excellent works. And should be on a list of the great novellas of SF.

    Anyway – thank you so much for this. I have read all his novels and collections. You have a worthy subject to bring back into the genre’s reading list!

    • You’re welcome!

      I’d love to know your favorite of his works. And, perhaps, whether or not you enjoyed the original version of A Funeral For The Eyes of Fire (which I consider a masterpiece) or his later complete rewrite (and currently available instead of the original) Eyes of Fire.

      I need to read some Dozois—I really want this collection.

      • Joachim,

        Sorry I am late replying. I have been on vacation. I have to say that I loved A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire much better than Eyes of Fire. I think the exuberance and energy in the first novel is missing in the re-write. The second may be better written (I can’t quite remember after all these years) but I remember thinking that the re-write had been much less enjoyable. I got rid of a lot of my books recently – sold the Eyes of Fire copy I had but kept Funeral for…l.

        I have always loved Bishop’s short fiction better. Love his Urban Nucleus stories – as well as the novel A Little Knowledge. My favorite novels are probably his most famous ones – Brittle Innings and No Enemy But Time.
        His novellas are the things that stay completely in my mind and have been read and reread – Her Habiline Husband (I hate the novel Ancient of Days that came from it – the only novel by him that I did not like), On the Street of the Serpents, Death and Designation Among the Asadi, White Otters of Childhood, Blue Kansas Sky. Apartheid, Superstrings …, Cri de Couer, The Samurai and the Willows, The Gospel according to Gamelial Crucis and on and on. Many short stories and novelettes also are strong in my memories, but I have gone on too long as it is.

        Again it is so good to see him brought back into the readers consciousness by these posts.


      • I don’t think Hank (who reviewed the collection Brighten to Incandescence) enjoyed Ancient of Days either.

        (sorry for my long delay in answering as well, I was traveling out of state).

  4. By the way – get Geodesic Dreams by Dozois. You will want to read everything he wrote. He is another author that has been forgotten. Though he is still well known by his editing! He wrote very little. two novels – a collaboration with George Alec Effinger which should be ignored, and Strangers that should be devoured! And any short story he had a part with are either classics in the truest sense or at least fun.

    Enjoy. I envy you meeting him for the first time.


    • Argh, I completely forgot to look for his work at the best SF book store in the US (whenever I head to Ann Arbor, MI — don’t live there) I go to Dawn Treader Books and pick up around 20…. I will put the acquisition posts up over the next month.

  5. Pingback: 3 Year Anniversary | Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased

  6. Pingback: “The White Otters of Childhood” by Michael Bishop | gaping blackbird

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