Guest Post: “The Quickening,” Michael Bishop (1981)

(Roger Zimmerman’s cover for Universe 11 (1981), first place of publication for “The Quickening”)

My ninth installment of my guest post series on The Science Fiction of Michael Bishop comes via Max (twitter: @MaxCarnduff) at the fiction (and occasionally SF/F) review site Pechorin’s Journal.  His incredibly erudite review of  Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) is the reason I have not tried to review the work myself….  Follow him on twitter and check out his site!

For this series he selected the novelette “The Quickening” (1981) which won the Nebula for Best Novelette (1982) (one of the two Nebula wins Bishop has under his belt) and was nominated for the Hugo for best novelette that same year.  The novelette appears in Bishop’s most recent retrospective collection put out by Subterranean Press, The Door Gunner and Other Flights of Fancy (2012) that desperately needs an eBook/Kindle version!



Screen shot 2014-04-19 at 7.30.08 PM

“The Quickening” (1981)

When Joachim approached me about participating in his series of guest reviews of works by Michael Bishop I was delighted, but worried I wouldn’t be able to get a review to him on time (work, life, that sort of thing).

Well, I was right on both counts. I was right to be delighted because Michael Bishop’s a writer with real talent and I’d never read him before, and I was right to be worried because I sent this review to Joachim about a month after his deadline. So it goes. Sorry Joachim!

Joachim suggested a couple of titles to me to try, and the one I picked was The Quickening, which won the 1982 Nebula award for Best Novelette. It’s basically a longish short story, 40 odd pages in the Pulphouse edition I have with each of those pages three-quarters or so the size of the pages in your average paperback. It’s a quick read, but one that stays with you.

(George Barr’s cover for the 1991 edition)

Great cover. Low key but apposite and effective.

The plot’s simple, though how it develops works better if left unspoiled so I won’t say too much about it. The protagonist, Lawson, is an ex-air force man now working in Veterans Administration in Lynchburg, Tennessee. He’s married with two young children, three and five. It’s a normal life, until one morning he wakes up on the banks of what he quickly recognises as the Guadalquivir river, in Seville, Spain. All around him are the moans and cries of other people who just woke up the same as he did, alone and very far from home.

“The city – and Lawson knew that it sure as hell wasn’t Lynchburg, that the river running through it wasn’t the James – was full of people. A few, their expressions terrified and their postures defensive, were padding past Lawson on the boulevard beside the parapet. Many shrieked or babbled as they ran. Other human shapes, dressed not even remotely alike, were lifting themselves bemusedly from paving stones, or riverside benches, or the gutter beyond the sidewalk. Their grogginess and their swiftly congealing fear, Lawson realized, mirrored his own: like him, these people were awakening to nightmare.”

Someone, God, aliens, who knows, but someone has taken all of humanity while it slept (even though there’s never a time when everyone is asleep) and shuffled it. Seville is filled with people from every nation, randomly assembled and distributed. All the evidence suggests everywhere else is the same, all of humanity gathered up and scattered across the world regardless of where they originally came from.

Lawson wanders the streets, nobody has a common language and everyone is stunned with disbelief and fear. Families are torn apart, his own included, civil order has broken down. How can you have society when nobody speaks the same language?

“The bodies of infants floated in the Guadalquivir, and Lawson, from his early reconnoiterings of the city on a motor scooter that he had found near the Jardines de Cristina park knew that thousands of adults already lay dead on streets and in apartment buildings – victims of panic-inspired beatings or their own traumatized hearts. Who knew exactly what was going on in the morning’s chaos? Babel had come again, and with it, as part of the package, the utter dissolution of all family and societal ties. You couldn’t go around a corner without encountering a child of some exotic ethnic caste, her face snot-glazed, sobbing loudly or maybe running through a crush of bodies calling out names in an alien tongue.”

Soon, of course, people start organising and some try to separate out into groups of people able to speak to each other, but the question comes, what next? Do you try to make it home, hoping that somewhere your family are doing the same thing, or do you accept that whatever’s happened must have a reason to it and try to make a new life?

As a tale of culture shock and social collapse The Quickening works well, but that alone probably wouldn’t have won it the Nebula. Where it really excels is in its subtler aspects.

Lawson is worried about his children, but when he sees other children lost and alone on the streets he feels no desire to help them, in fact he avoids them. So does everyone else, which has dark implications for his own children’s fate wherever they’ve ended up. Whatever’s happened seems to have changed people without them realising. The world has been swept clean, and family ties are the first thing to have been lost.

Some of course try to restore what existed before, which leads to a tremendous set-piece as a bunch of English speakers including Lawson try to commandeer a plane back to the US, holding off the desperate with stolen submachine guns and violence born of fear. It’s when Lawson realises though that any attempt to recover what he’s lost is hopeless that the book really takes off, tilting into a strange beauty.

I loved The Quickening. I read it twice, the first time in bite-sized chunks and the second time straight through. It works much better read as a whole – the progress from utter chaos to attempts to restore order to a sort of acceptance of the situation flows naturally and convincingly. What really works though is the lingering effect of the book. I can’t say why without massive spoilers, but as the bit above about the indifference to children hopefully illustrates there’s more going on here than mere displacement, we’ve been broken in order to be made new.

I’ll definitely be reading more Bishop, and I’m grateful to Joachim for having convinced me to try him. This oddly disturbing little story stays with you and while if you wanted you could pick some holes in it (I suspect if it actually happened the Chinese speakers would soon dominate just by virtue of being one displaced person in five) that’s not really the point. It’s an elegant and unsettling little tale that richly deserved to win an award and that anyone fond of psychological SF would almost certainly enjoy.

Other collections/anthologies containing “The Quickening” 

(Lee Moyer’s cover for the 2012 edition of The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy: A Michael Bishop Retrospective  (2012), Michael Bishop)

(Oliviero Berni’s hideous cover for 1982 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 8 (1982), ed. Arthur W. Saha)

(Uncredited cover for the  1982 edition of Fantasy Annual V (1982), ed. Terry Carr)

(Uncredited cover for the 1983 edition of Universe 11 (1982), ed. Terry Carr)

(Raymond Bayless’ cover for the 1984 edition of One Winter In Eden (1984), Michael Bishop)

(Wayne D. Barlowe’s cover for the 1997 edition of A Century of Fantasy 1980-1989: The Greatest Stories of the Decade (1997), ed. Robert Silverberg)

(Ann Monn’s cover for the 2011 edition of Crucified Dreams (2011), ed. Joe R. Lansdale)

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)

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: “The Quickening,” Michael Bishop (1981)

  1. Sounds like a very atypical apocalypse story: randomly re-shuffle humanity on Earth and see what comes of it.

    Though certainly not to the extent Bishop describes, it’s interesting that something similar is happening in the world today via natural means. Fewer and fewer people die in the same area they were born as a large amount of emigration, from East to West, 3rd world countries to 1st world, former colonies to colonizers is taking place. The racial and cultural profile of major US urban environments, for example, is looking like a re-shuffling of humanity, homogeneity fading.

    It would seem Bishop’s story is only gaining relevancy…

    • Jesse, I would agree — this sounds very atypical yet fantastic. The fantastic situation (reminds me of Saramago’s Blindness) seems to be the perfect vehicle for Brishop’s humanistic allegory.

      I want to read this one…

Comment! Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.