I have to credit the collection of vintage SF review bloggers for my recent interest in Michael Bishop, especially the excellent series of reviews posted here. Following those recommendations, I managed to find and read Bishop titles like Catacomb Years, Transfigurations, Beneath the Shattered Moons and A Funeral for Eyes of Fire – and my high expectations were never disappointed. As the SF Encyclopedia points out, His work has been intellectual, challenging and surprising; this made his work consistently published but erratically marketed (15 SF/F novels with 11 different publishers). Over the last year or so, I’ve restocked my collection with more novels and collections by this significant writer – including his Nebula winner.
No Enemy But Time (1982) might be Michael Bishop’s most famous novel, and it (with Transfigurations) has been reprinted in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. It is written around a basic concept shared with his earlier novels: an iconoclastic member of an anthropology mission immerses himself in a society of primitive humanoids. In Transfigurations and A Funeral for Eyes of Fire, these humanoids are the indigenous* inhabitants of alien planets, but in NEBT it is East Africa, many thousands of years ago.
Typically, science fiction encourages us to take the futuristic or alien elements at face value; in this case, it would be the notion that time travel was actually experienced by Joshua. It keeps the story going and (in the case of the more worthwhile genre fiction) allows us to focus on the more provocative messages in a safer, off-planet, setting.**
Bishop does something very different in NEBT. The time-travel story, in which Joshua has been marooned in the prehistorical version of East Africa, is interleaved chapter-by-chapter with the story of his life. The biographical chapters start at birth, and quickly introduce his strange “dream travel” experiences. His dreams are vivid, plausible immersions into the same ancient Africa that his adult self is sent into as a chrono-naut. Growing up poor and transient, he educates himself with anthropological and zoological texts as way of understanding these dreams. This life-story is inspiring – we should all have a driving, if irrational, force beneath a habit of learning and self-enlightenment – but leads to the question – is this trip back in time another one of Joshua’s dreams?
We really do not get a definitive answer, but Bishop sets us up on an intriguing mystery. The life story of Joshua Monegal has very curious overlaps with his adventures in Pleistocene Adventure: he makes trips to and from his hidden time-traveling vessel via a staircase that leads into the sky; soon afterward, we get a description of contemporary Joshua leading his girlfriend up the stairs of a water tower. His abandonment of the communicator device in Africa mirrors his choice to cut himself off from his adoptive family. Many other hints abound without explicitly giving away the farm – Joshua has spent his entire life dreaming about these hominids and their habitat, and as dreams they contain interpretations of real-life experiences.
The theme of dream-worlds colliding with the real world, as well as the matter of a mental “illness” opening up the truth to those who suffer from it, indicate the influence of Philip K. Dick. NEBT is also populated with plenty of clever jokes and characters making impulsive decisions. Bishop did write a tribute novel to Dick, Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas, which might explain the extent to which NEBT was inspired by him. In any case, fans of Dick’s fiction will be familiar with the idea of a sustained trip through the irrational and unreliable, from beginning to end.
The personality of Joshua Monegal, the intrepid traveler of NEBT, shares many traits with the protagonists of Bishop’s other anthropologically-themed novels: Gunnar Balduin of Funeral for the Eyes of Fire and Egan Cheney of Transfigurations. These obviously include the deliberate distance he puts between himself and his family, obsession with his protohuman subjects, and undergoing physical injury – at times quite deliberately – in order to further his understanding of the alien society. However, Joshua’s complete lack of formal training and consequent reliance on his irrational mind as the source of truth make him a unique character. I recommend all of these books, and NEBT in particular is a rightly celebrated novel. 8/10.
* I use the term indigenous in a relative sense: I meant the race of inhabitants who had been on the planet long before the technology advanced protagonist humans, for both novels. Often, part of the fun of Bishop’s work is figuring out the most likely origins of these strange societies.
** This was the appeal of SF as stated (more eloquently) by Nancy Kress in a video interview playing at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle. At least, I think it was Nancy Kress.