Guest Post: A Little Knowledge, Michael Bishop (1977)

(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1978 edition)

The sixth installment of my The Science Fiction of Michael Bishop guest post series was graciously provided by Heloise over at Heloise Merlin’s Weblog.  She is a long time fan of Michael Bishop’s work and we have engaged in numerous (fruitful) discussions of his work—including whether or not the first version of A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975) is superior to his complete rewrite Eyes of Fire (1980).

Heloise purposefully chose one of Bishop’s lesser known novels.  But, from the review, A Little Knowledge (1977) has been wrongly ignored: “even though [A Little Knowledge] never leaves this single place on Earth, in the end Bishop’s novel manages to give more of a sense of what it means for humans to live in a vast, largely unexplored universe than most novels that are filled with large spaceships and far-future technologies.”

I plan acquiring a copy ASAP.

Visit Heloise’s site! Enjoy!  Comment!

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A Little Knowledge (1977)—Michael Bishop

Michael Bishop’s Urban Nucleus sequence (consisting of the novel A Little Knowledge and the stories collected in Catacomb Years) is unusual among his early works in that it is not an anthropological Science Fiction novel; unlike books like A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire or And Strange at Ecteban the Trees, while reading A Little Knowledge, one is not so much reminded of Ursula K. LeGuin but it rather seems influenced by Philip K. Dick – and not by his largely consensual novels like Ubik or The Man in the High Castle, but his later work, most notably the VALIS trilogy, which still often gets written off as a mere product of mental illness.

Of course, Bishop being Bishop, what he offers here is his own, very unique take on Dick’s work, and what it resulted in might not be his best novel, but it is in all likelihood his most unsettling. A Little Knowledge seems almost like a deliberate total reversal of the Space Opera paradigm – instead of the broad sweep into outer space, there is an extremely narrow focus, all of the novel’s events take place in a single North-American city. And yet, even though it never leaves this single place on Earth, in the end Bishop’s novel manages to give more of a sense of what it means for humans to live in a vast, largely unexplored universe than most novels that are filled with large spaceships and far-future technologies.

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1980 German Edition)

A Little Knowledge takes place in Atlanta in the year 2071, an Atlanta that – like most large cities in the former US – has been placed underneath a dome and is ruled by a theocracy. It mainly follows the points of view of two young people (although there are chapters written from other characters’ perspectives, too), aspiring writer Julian Cawthon and Margot Eastwing who is studying to be a priest. The plot gets under way when Julian is forced to take a job and ends up working as caretaker for a group of aliens that are living with the influential Fiona Bitler. Things are already pretty weird at this stage – Fiona is the widow of a popular politician who was assassinated, who took on the assassin’s son as her own son and later as her lover and husband; the aliens not only look very bizarre and communicate in strange ways but also have some very unusual eating habits – which lead to Julian prowling the city streets for stray cats at night. But they get even weirder when one of the aliens asks to be allowed to attend a church service during which he converts to Atlanta’s official religion.

There are quite a few books that concern themselves with religion from SFnal point of view – Bishop even has one of his characters openly reference two of them, Blish’s A Case of Conscienceand Miller’s Canticles for Leibowitz, if anyone is curious; other ones that would come to mind are Keith Robert’s Pavane or Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. What all of these books share, however, is that they are written from an auctorial point of view that is either distinctly pro- or unmistakably anti-religious. Things are rather more complicated with A Little Knowledge: on the one hand, the novel is a serious exploration of the question where aliens would fit into a monotheistic religion (and every reader not believing in God will have to deal with that), on the other hand, the religion Bishop presents here – the “Ortho-Urban Church” – while clearly a Christian religion, is just as clearly maintaining a religious dictatorship (something every readerbelieving in God will have to deal with). This is no anti-ecclesiastical novel either – the church’s theocracy is a surprisingly mild, almost benign one, it even allows competing religious belief. But it is a dictatorship none the less, the only other religions allowed are the two sanctioned by the official church, and events in the novel progress and spin increasingly out of control the velvet glove becomes increasingly threadbare, showing the iron fist inside. Even then, however, Bishop still portrays the leaders of the church as basically well-meaning. The human is inextricably tangled with the divine, and that may be humanity’s flaw, or its salvation – the jury remains still out on that one.

(K. G. Yanase’s cover for the 1987 Japanese Edition)

A Little Knowledge does have some weaknesses – it attempts to be both a character study and a novel of ideas, and does not always manage to reconcile the two; while the main protagonists’ self-doubts and soul-searching are well done, the minor characters never get really fleshed out enough to interest the reader, and events often seem staged rather than grow out of the characters (most notably the relationship between Margot and Julian). It is also a novel that not many are going to like – it seems determined to offend pretty much everyone, believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians alike, and I doubt that anyone can read the revelation at the ending without having a “Is he fucking kidding me?” moment. This, however, I consider not a weakness of A Little Knowledge but its greatest strength – like all of Bishop’s novels that I have read so far, it asks pertinent question without giving easy answers, and more than anything else by him that I’m familiar with, this novel asks its readers to question their pre-conceived ideas, to re-examine the topics it engages with and possibly view them in a different light after closing the book. And when everything is said and done, I think it is precisely this what Science Fiction at its best is all about.

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)

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Little Knowledge, Michael Bishop (1977)

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Michael Bishop – A Little Knowledge | Heloise Merlin's Weblog

  2. I would argue that Blish’s A Case of Conscience does attempt ambiguity regarding Christianity, but I get the point, and certainly agree the sides are most often divided by a fat black line, which does make A Little Knowledge‘s setting intriguing. Another note regarding A Case of Conscience: Blish entirely ignores Helen’s point about First Contact essentially cancelling out Genesis (and in effect the whole Bible) and skips right to original sin. That Bishop acknowledges this definitely shows more insight…. I am trying to think of other science fiction books which are pro-Christian, but only Miller’s books comes to mind. Do you know any others? It seems such a difficult medium to promote a religious agenda–the aliens, science, evolution, and all… 🙂

    These reviews of Bishop’s works are giving me anxiety. I’m like a kid at Wonka’s chocolate factory.. My eyes dart left, right, back and forth. My brain hungers: I want all the types of candy…

    • “I’m like a kid at Wonka’s chocolate factory.. My eyes dart left, right, back and forth. My brain hungers: I want all the types of candy…” — haha. Exactly what I was hoping to accomplish!

      There are definitely some intriguing works on Christian themes out there — Beckett’s recent Dark Eden (2012), Farmer’s bizarre “Father” (1955),etc.

      I did enjoy Blish A Case of Conscience….

  3. I’ve been very much looking forward to reading this post ever since Heloise told me she was writing it. I’m not familiar with Michael Bishop at all, I’m ashamed to say, but the concept if not the quality of the execution sounds rather interesting, and I’m always tempted by intelligent explorations of religious themes. Perhaps I need to take a step outside my historical-fiction comfort zone one day. 🙂 Brava, Heloise; and Joachim, it’s been a pleasure to discover your blog. Many thanks!

    • It’s a quality review!

      You should be tempted by his work…. It’s almost always worthwhile. Definitely check out all the other posts and, if you’re still curious about his work, the three reviews of his novels (Stolen Faces, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, and And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees) that I have provided (links at the end of the guest post). A Funeral tackles religious themes as well—in an incredibly articulate and thought-provoking way.


  4. I had to rack my brain because at first it seemed like Dick Marcinko.. and, something was amiss for a few minutes. Suddenly I’m like: “It’s Robert Deniro on the cover of the Japanese version” – In fact, looking specific to the 1986 film, The Mission.

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