(Ron Walotsky’s cover for the 1982 edition)
The seventh installment of my guest post series on the SF of Michael Bishop comes via Carl V. Anderson (twitter: @SteelDroppings) over at the SF/F site Stainless Steel Droppings. Although he does not often review older SF he was excited to participate in my project. We decided to split Bishop’s first collection of short stories, Blooded on Arachne (1982). Although he found a few of the stories rather hit or miss, he was blown away by “In Chinistrex Fortronza the People are Machines” 5/5 among others. Check out Carl’s worthwhile site (for example, posts on the new Hugo art nominees, Andre Norton reviews etc. etc. etc.)
Blooded on Arachne (1982)–Michael Bishop
When Joachim Boaz asked me to join a group to guest post about author Michael Bishop, I jumped at the opportunity despite my overwhelming schedule. I had not been doing much short story reading, and the proposition of exploring work from an author I had not read…admittedly don’t recall ever having heard of…excited me. Of course there was more to it than that. Having followed Joachim’s site for several years and knowing his passion for classic science fiction, and his discerning tastes, I had to find out why he felt the need to shine a light on this author in particular. I am glad I took the time.
I chose to split the collection Blooded on Arachne with Joachim, with me reading and reviewing the first half of the book and he the second. In the interest of full disclosure I chose not to review the poem that was a part of my assigned reading. I enjoy some poetry, but unless a poem has a profound effect on me, I have trouble in saying anything worthwhile about it. For those used to Joachim’s thorough reviews, please accept my apologies.
And now, before diving in to briefly discuss the individual stories, allow me to share my joy over the experience. In Michael Bishop I have found a skilled author who knows how to use the medium of short stories to great effect. Furthermore, the 70’s are a period of science fiction that I have left largely unexplored. This hasn’t been a wholly conscious decision, it is instead due to the simple fact that there is a great deal of classic science fiction that remains unexplored by me and most of the large number of books and short story collections I have scattered around my house are from an earlier era. As I read these stories it was fun to contemplate what I was doing at the time they were written, especially given that most of these were printed for the first time when I was between the ages of six and ten.
And now, on to the short stories:
“Blooded on Arachne” 2.75/5 (1976 Nebula Nominee for Best Novelette)
This otherworldly tale focus on a young boy, Ethan Dedicos, who at the age of sixteen is about to undergo the ritual of beingblooded, a right of passage necessary if he wishes to be a probeship pilot. The ritual involves a journey riding on giant spiders, so those with arachnophobia may want to steer clear. I must admit that my journey with Michael Bishop could have easily derailed right here had I not made a commitment and had a deadline in which to read and review these stories. Having read and loved unusually imagined stories by the likes of Cordwainer Smith and Jack Vance (both of whom I found myself favorably comparing Bishop to), I am unsure why this story was so difficult for me to engage with, but mid-way through I decided to give it a pass and come back to it at a later time. This turned out to be a wise decision because the next story captured my fancy and I was able to better focus on Ethan’s tale after finishing the rest of my assigned stories.
The impact of Ethan’s story, and the price to be paid as part of the ritual of being blooded, was undercut for me because of my difficulty with the story’s execution. While I found Ethan’s reaction at the end to be quite profound intellectually, the emotional impact of the story was marred by my early struggles. It is advised to keep this experience in mind when contemplating my rating of the story.
“Cathadonian Odyssey” 4/5 (1975 Hugo Nominee for Best Short Story)
‘Men are hardy creatures…men are the ultimate vermin’ are statements Maria Jill Ian attributes to her husband Arthur, who died along with their co-scientist Nathan Fischelson, when their descentcraft was drawn off course by mysterious circumstances as they attempted to land near the ocean on the recently discovered world Cathadonia. From the very start of this story Michael Bishop shows his hand. He does so in the early stages when humans first discover and name Cathadonia, then conveniently leave out the details of how the ship’s crew gamely murdered many of the sentient inhabitants of the planet when they return and log their discovery. He does so again as Maria reminisces about her dead husband. Bishop then proceeds to perform written prestidigitation that lulls the reader into thinking he/she is reading a story of the healing power of love and connection, only to reveal in the end what was before the reader’s eye all along. This deception, or rather layering of messages, is masterfully done.
This is a story of first, and second, contact. An Earth woman who suffers a devastating loss goes on both a physical and spiritual journey of healing and strength, and through her eyes we see not only this new world but its alien inhabitants. Bishop draws the reader in through Maria Jill Ian’s narrative in a way that pulls on the reader in the same way Maria is being pulled towards Cathadonia’s ocean. This very personal story is bookended by one more grand, and tragic, than Maria’s own. An astute reader can draw parallels with many of the incidents of bloodshed in our brief history. I could not help but think of the history of the Indians during America’s westward expansion, wondering as I read if beauty must always arise out of ashes how much more beautiful things might be if we were not the ultimate vermin.
This is the mournful tale of the death of a civilization, and their last brief gasp of hope. Our narrator is Theleh, one of the younger adults of the Dying People. Through her we are introduced to a culture that at first seems very human and yet clearly is not. On an unknown world this humanoid people live a primitive, though ordered life, with rules in place regarding even nightly copulation in hopes that procreation will stave off their barrenness and save their people. In the midst of this dark time, the oldest member of the Dying People, Verlis, recruits Theleh for a special project that he claims is the last best hope for the redemption of this people.
In his introduction Bishop admits to readers’ complaints of the “bleakness” of this story, and there is no dying that fact, however the story itself is captivating in the way that it reveals this alien culture and their apparent fate. There is something very much akin to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories in this tale in the fact that there are hints of an older, more technologically advanced civilization buried within the mountains where these people live, a place that only Verlis has the courage to explore. Verlis is certainly a scientist, if only a mad one from the viewpoint of his people. There is something sadly beautiful about this story and I found myself drawn in and my attention held fast throughout the entire tale.
“The House of Compassionate Sharers” 4.25/5
Dorian Lorca, saved from a life-ending accident by the love of a wife and the wonders of modern technology, cannot embrace his artificial self nor can he forebear the presence of any human without feelings of revulsion and disgust. Ignoring his requests to have his consciousness transferred to some remote machine, he is introduced to Wardess Kefa who offers him a stay upon Earth at the House of Compassionate Sharers. Dorian correctly surmises that the “House” in question caters to the more base desires of the rich and affluent, though Wardress Kefa assures him that this aspect of the house serves only to finance its true purpose, one that must remain a mystery until it experienced for oneself. What follows is a narration of self-exploration as Dorian Lorca reluctantly interacts with his assigned sharer, a being that is even more machine than Dorian.
“The House of Compassionate Sharers” is a reflexive, psychological tale both surrounded and significantly aided by the trappings of science fiction. Dorian initially comes off as an unsympathetic character though the readers compassion grows as Dorian begins to open up and to heal. Bishop weaves in a bit of mystery and treachery to give the story an edge, which also works well to compel Dorian into the live he eventually leads.
“In Chinistrex Fortronza the People are Machines” 5/5
This nod to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” is a whirring, clicking, mechanically lyrical tale of a wholly mechanized world thrown into delightfully controlled chaos when it encounters first an emotionally programmed ape-like Homunculus and then an organic one gifted to them by a competing mechanize planet. Bishop’s writing here has an alliterative quality that creates a rhythmic reading pattern that takes the focus off of what might be an initially confusing narrative, allowing the reader to merge right into the flow of the story. This is a humorous tale, though not what would be considered slight. There is so much going on here and yet it is not hard to understand how this fully automated society stratifies itself in understandably human ways. True, a story about a deified mechanical parrot and a machine-ape that cries gemstone tears in mourning for is long-dead and forgotten creators sounds like it would be too bizarre to work, but instead it is both highly entertaining and interesting from the standpoint of being a very early example of post-human storytelling. Being a fan of robot tales, of fairy-tale recastings, and of wry humor, this story was right up my alley. I give Michael Bishop kudos for the great pun-like twisting of one of John Donne’s most famous poetic verses.
“Leaps of Faith” 3.75/5
Heinz Jurgens, employee of Ridpest, Ltd, is called out to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mayer to tackle their rather significant flea infestation. The Ridpest Ltd. goal is for their agents to procure contracts for year-round pest control, and Jurgens is convinced of his ability to live up to the company’s expectations. That is until he arrives to discover that Mr. Mayer has decided to handle the flea infestation on his own. Frustrated, yet mollified by the niceness of the Mayers, Heinz Jurgen allows Mrs. Mayer to talk him into doing an inspection anyway, given that he traveled so far to do so. The Mayer’s flea infestation has its root in the experiments that Mrs. Mayer is doing on fleas, the details of which reveals to Heinz Jurgens during his inspection of the house. In the meantime Mr. Jurgens proves to be more than a humble exterminator, for he has building migraines which cause him to leap unexpectedly forward or backwards in time.
This time leaping not only gives the reader some background information on Jurgens and his life, but also shows glimpses of what might be in the future for both Jurgens and Mrs. Mayer. The juxtaposition of the unexplained jumps in time against the mundane job of pest control makes for an intriguing story. Michael Bishop leaves the reader, and Heinz Jurgens, with some unexplained mystery, which does not detract from the story’s ability to engage the imagination.
Final thoughts: Michael Bishop is an interesting writer. He is unafraid to make use of science fictional conventions, but in doing so he often colors outside the lines, creating stories that feel unconventional yet remain accessible. Other than the difficulties I had with engaging with the first story in this collection, Michael Bishop’s prose swept me away to other worlds. Despite the boundaries inherent in short fiction, the characters, landscapes and cultures created by Michael Bishop feel fully realized. Although time prohibited me from reviewing the entire collection, rest assured that I will be reading the second half ofBlooded on Arachne with great anticipation for more memorable reading experiences.
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