(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!
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.
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.
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)
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