Short SF Book Reviews: Michaelmas, Algis Budrys (1976), The Machine in Shaft Ten, M. John Harrison (1975), and Catacomb Years, Michael Bishop (1979)

[The second of four review catch up posts.  The first — > here]

1. Catacomb Years, Michael Bishop (1979)

(Ron Walotsky’s cover for the 1979 edition)

5/5 (collated rating: Masterpiece)

Michael Bishop’s Catacomb Years (1979) takes the form of a complex and multi-layered future history of a single city, the Urban Nucleus of Atlanta, Georgia—entombed/reborn under a vast dome where even the sky is obscured.  Over the course of seven short SF works linked by recurring characters (and character references), theme, and chronology Bishop weaves one of the more spectacular future history canvases.  This is a future history of a profoundly human scope focusing on transformative junctures in the life of the city from the point of view of a range of the inhabitants—from the old to the young, from technicians to recluses obsessed with bonsai, from teachers to human caregivers of the alien visitors…  And most intriguing is Bishop’s willingness to tackle issues of race in a Southern American city…

My favorite in the collection is “At the Dixie-Apple with the Shoofly-Pie Kid” (1977)—aliens have come to Atlanta and Julian is fascinated, along with everyone else in the city, by their presence.  He writes a strange story about a journey through the Level 4 Mall with its chaotic and extravagant Dixie-Apple Autumn Savings Sale.  The star attraction is “Cygnor the Cygnusian” displayed somewhere in the maze of the store.  The alien visitors co-opted into maximizing sales?  This metafictional story presages the more serious and complex portrayal of the Cygnusians in the last story of the collection, “Death Rehearsals.”

And also…

“Old Folks at Home” (1978) might have the most unusual premise for a SF story I have every encountered.  A moving look at an unusual utopian experiment of communal marriage as a way to renew life amongst Atlanta’s aging population…  The story follows Zoe Breedlove, whose daughter “volunteered” her for the study…  She soon finds belonging and love.  The story is a fascinating vehicle to explore both the city’s drastic social transformation but also time old themes of generational difference.

Catacomb Years easily ranks among the best of Michael Bishop’s works I have encountered so far—i.e. the philosophical tapestry of A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975), the unnerving anthropologically inclined first contact story “Death and Designation Among the Asadi” (1973) which forms part of the novel Transfigurations (1979), and the distilled and venomous nightmare of Stolen Faces (1976).  This sequence of stories might be a great place to start…

Strangely, only one story in the collection received substantial critical notice:  “The Samurai and the Willows” (1976) was nominated for both the 1977 Hugo and Nebula.  It won the 1977 Locus Award for Best Novella.  For a more complete analysis of the work see 2theD’s wonderful review which he contributed for my SF of Michael Bishop series [here].

Read Michael Bishop.  Consult my series page [here] for other views on his work.

2.  The Machine in Shaft Ten, M. John Harrison (1975)


(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1975 edition)

4.25/5 (Collated rating: Good)

The Machine in Shaft Ten (1975) is a spectacular collection of early short stories by one of the masters—M. John Harrison.  Apparently, Harrison has decided that the collection itself and many of the stories in the collection are not worth reprinting.  As a result, eight of the twelve stories cannot be found in later anthologies or his single author collections.  The scarcity of the original UK-only printing makes The Machine an expensive ($15+ online) and difficult collection to find.  But, fans of Harrison’s fascinating decayed worldscapes, nihilistic world views, and evocative language will find this collection well worth tracking down a copy.

The title story is a good indication of Harrison’s surreal landscapes and entropic tendencies…  “Gentlemen, we have no option but to assume that the joys and miseries of Man are fuel for some gigantic cosmic machine; that, since our evolution as an emotion-bearing species, we have been used; that our most public triumphs and our most sordid personal tragedies may b the oil that runs the galactic bakery van” (10).  This scientific discovery is a fucral idea in Harrison’s larger oeuvre as humankind despairs at the idea that their emotions are purely motive forces.  Perhaps “The Machine in Shaft Ten” too explicitly lays out the world Harrison’s later works dwell within… As humanity loses the ability to be emotive, the world slows. Regardless, Harrison’s creation of an England plagued by microclimates due to machines rummaging into the Earth and the effects of the discovery that mankind’s emotions fuel the cosmos will resonate for a long while.

The best: “Events Witnessed From a City” [in the Viriconium sequence] (1975), “The Machine in Shaft Ten” (1972), “Running Down” (1975), “Visions of Monad” (1968), “The Bringer with the Window” (variant title: “Lamia Mutable”) [in the Viriconium sequence] (1972)…

Recommended for fans of M. John Harrison and more experimental 70s SF visions!

3. Michaelmas, Algis Budrys (serialized 1976)


(Don Brautigam’s cover for the 1978 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

Michaelmas (1975) has a promising premise: Laurent Michaelmas is a famous newsman and via advanced technology he has developed, he can communicate with an artificial intelligence named Domino.  Domino’s abilities are profoundly useful for Michaelmas’ profession—it can control other computers and hack electronic systems.  And, no one else is aware of its existence.  Michaelmas himself uses his profound power for good.  He creates the UNAC (United Nations Astronautics Commission) and puts together informative news programs.  However, soon Domino becomes aware of another entity that might have a secret plan.  The central mystery of the reappearance of an astronaut presumed dead brings both powers into conflict.

Michaelmas’ conversions with Domino are the most appealing elements of the work.  However, as the thriller elements (which are never that thrilling) of the plot plunge forward the conversations diminish…  I also find it hard to believe that Michaelmas is as pure-intentioned as Budrys so desperately wants him to be considering the incredible power he has at his fingertips.  Budrys combines character study with SF thriller.  Michaelmas is an intriguing, but not masterful, examination of future media and technology (some claim the novel foretells the coming of the internet…).

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

20 thoughts on “Short SF Book Reviews: Michaelmas, Algis Budrys (1976), The Machine in Shaft Ten, M. John Harrison (1975), and Catacomb Years, Michael Bishop (1979)

  1. Interesting about the Harrisons not being reprinted – fortunately, I believe I have a copy of “Machine” knocking about somewhere, possibly even the edition you show. Definitely one to hang onto!

    • The Viriconium stories were reprinted (if I remember correctly). But, I really enjoyed the title story and I am trying to figure out why Harrison might not. The “machine in shaft ten” is referenced in The Centauri Device for example….

      • You’re probably right about the Viriconium stories, as I have a kind of collected edition somewhere with all the Viriconium stuff in one. Really must dig all my Harrisons out. It’s so long since I read him that my memory could do with refreshing!

  2. The Bishop collection I think,is probably the one for me to go for next of his.I think I might prefer his shorter stuff.”Transfiguration” had the potential to be a very good novel,but the author failed to sustain it over it’s length,but found it much better than “Stolen Faces”.

    I think the short piece,”Life and Death among the Assadi”,might be good.

  3. One of the other interesting aspects of the Harrison collection is how many of the stories serve as preliminary sketches for what would later become novels. It’s something very few authors still do these days, but a lot could benefit from.

    By the way, what’s the appeal of the title story for you? For me it wasn’t terrible, but it also wasn’t a highlight. Did I miss something?

    • I doubt you missed something — you are a perceptive reader! That said, I enjoyed numerous elements of the story — the distant National Geographic vibe towards the discovery and its ramifications, the surreal landscape caused by the tunnels, the odd implications of the discovery for the rest of Harrison’s oeuvre and the ways his characters act, the Victorian-esque way of telling that jibed well with the world-changing implications of the Machine in Shaft Ten….

      • Fair enough. 🙂 I think it was the writing style (the tribute to Moorcock) that threw me off. Harrison does the surreal better in his own style. The one point I can’t disagree with, and never thought about, however, is the way the implications of the discovery indeed set a tone for Harrison’s writing. Good point.

  4. Still being a pain about the MJH stories, which were the four which were reprinted? I can find Lamia, Running Down and Bringer with the Window in a variant version but not any others (unless I’m missing a collection). Thanks!

    • The Internet Speculative Fiction Database is always your best bet for publication histories (and variant titles — which can be confusing).

      The listing for the collection

      Isfdb tells me that the reprinted stories are: “The Lamia and Lord Cromis,” “Running Down,” “Events Witnessed From a City” (only in the 1984 edition of Viriconium Nights), “The Bringer with the Window” as “Lamia Mutable”…

  5. Pingback: Rediscovering Viriconium | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

  6. Just dropped by because you put a link to this post on your most recent ‘purchases’ post, which included a Michael Bishop novel.
    Last year during lockdown I re-read/read the omnibus edition of A Little Knowledge & Catacomb Years, now slightly re-written and issued as The City and the Cygnets. I read them both years ago and have been meaning to re-read them for a while now so the omnibus seemed like the ideal option. The collection’s stories run in the same order, with the novel inserted before the final story, Death Rehearsals.
    I still really liked the stories but the novel plodded a bit this time around. Maybe I’m not so keen on novels about aliens and theology any more…

    Most of the revisions seemed to be of the order of tinkering with the names of technology -no more vid-screens and the like! Sometimes this seemed a little awkward as his original future tech’s abilities didn’t quite match the replacements from our timeline. That was generally ok though; the one alteration that stopped me dead was a comparison as being ‘like an old episode of The Big Bang Theory!’ (paraphrasing). Given how his alternate history had diverged, that just seemed completely unfeasible!
    Anyway, my advice is to stick with the original texts if you can rather than the re-issue.

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