I’ve been a fan of Michael Bishop’s work since discovering the reviews of the site SF Ruminations and reading Transfigurations. Much of his novel-length fiction focuses on the ideas and methods of anthropology, in a mixture of wonder and skepticism. Besides Transfigurations, I recommend The Catacomb Years, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, No Enemy But Time and especially Brittle Innings for readers prepared for SF featuring substantial intellectual heft.
Bishop has also produced a considerable number of short fiction pieces that have garnered critical recognition. His first story collection Blooded on Arachne (1982), comprised of stories published throughout the 1970s, appeared in paperback form under the Timescape imprint. My overview will be split into three articles, each covering roughly 110-page chunks, with one entry dedicated to the 1973 novella “The White Otters of Childhood.”
Besides stories, BoA includes two poems, one at the beginning and one at the end. I read both of them, but won’t comment on either one — I’m simply not prepared to offer comments on poetry.
“Blooded On Arachne” (1975) is a novelette that first appeared in the Robert Silverberg anthology Epoch. It features a vivid description of a world populated by sentient spiders that ride the wind by “ballooning” with their silk strands. In our world, spiders do ride breezes and winds, presumably in search of new prey, by paying out a thick dragline into the air.
In the story, spiderlings are raised and trained by human spidherds to act as arachnid versions of homing pigeons. They are intelligent enough to find their home cities after riding squall lines across oceans and deserts, but are subservient to their spidherd masters. Their blood contain antibodies prized across galaxies, particularly for the matriculation of young star-pilots.
We experience the “blooding” ritual of Ethan Dedicos, a boy scout destined for a career of space travel and adventure, should he survive. He is brought to Arachne, this remote planet of spidherds, and told very little about what he is going to be subjected to. His youth is essential to his compliance: like Danny Boles of Brittle Innings, he has his own questions about the traditional order of things, but he is not there to rebel against it.
“We wait, Ethan Dedicos.”
“Why do we wait here, Sej?”
“For transport and because you aren’t to see a friend-face until the blooding’s done. You aren’t to think of Earth or probeship voyagings. We provide now, my people of the salt gardens.”
“And the blooding — what must I do?”
“Survive, of course,” the hag-sage chuckled. “We play old games on Arachne.”
The beginning of the story has a very Jack Vance feel to it, with all the neologisms and weird dialogue establishing this novel setting. The nature of the “blooding” is kept hidden in the beginning, and the absence of action in favor of these anticipatory moves grows a little frustrating.
Soon, however, Bishop stops building up this spidherd society and the action picks up; Ethan wakes up in the middle of a desert with a minimum of survival gear. He quickly realizes that to make it back to civilization, he must hitch a ride on top of one of the spiderlings as it floats in the wind. The high point of the story is the mini-saga of Ethan bonding with his mount and experiencing the pressures and speeds of a squall line from within:
They rode through the mist, at last breaking through into painful sunshine. Beneath them their cloud bank undulated like a wide living fleece; above them the sky was the thin Arachnean scarlet that Ethan had almost forgotten. At unhailable distances Ethan saw several other ballooning spiders. He counted nearly forty, whereas before there had been hundreds. The dispersal, he supposed, was progressing as a dispersal ought.
Ethan comes to understand what “blooding” refers to on this journey, as he his forced to use his spiderling in more ways than as a mount. It becomes an emotionally and physically harrowing experience, and casts a skeptical eye over the reverence this society of spidherds displays for their animals.
Telling the complete coming-of-age tale of an individual within a richly-detailed future society cannot be a simple task, when the individual is only a visitor to that society. I came away convinced that Ethan’s understanding of the people of Arachne stopped at their relationship with the spiderlings (for a short story, this is enough). Bishop often depends on the outsider’s view to attend to both the uplifting and troubling aspects of the people he writes about. Maybe we spend a little too long in the dark at the beginning, but otherwise this story is a solid introduction to his techniques.
“Cathadonian Odyssey” (1974) is a short story that was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction (where it was illustrated on the cover) and appeared in multiple anthologies edited by Donald A. Wollheim. It features some familiar SF tropes (e.g., a downed spacecraft and telekinesis) because, as Bishop recalls in the preface, he was still in the early part of his writing career at the time. I think this story has a tighter approach to the same moral theme as “Blooded on Arachne” — that of the exploitation of intelligent creatures on an alien world, and the feeling of innate wrongness that results from it.
The story opens with a kind of prelude, where a spaceship makes a random stop on a strange but fecund planet of forests and bogs. Bishop tells us that in this future, mankind will still have plenty of knuckleheads with weapons.
The men killed the creatures wontonly, brutally, laughingly. For sport. They were off the merchantship Golden heading homeward from a colonized region of the galactic arm. They made planetfall because no one had really notice Cathadonia before and they were ready for a rest. Down on the surface, for relaxation’s stake, they killed the ridiculous-looking squiddles. Or treefish. Or porpurls. Or willowpusses. Take your choice of names. The names didn’t matter.
After the crew of the Golden return home and make a report on the “beautiful, just beautiful” new planet, an expeditionary ship is sent to Cathadonia. A crew of scientists is sent to the surface in a downcraft, after sensors indicate the presence of life (unreported by the Golden). A malfunction occurs, however, and the downcraft crashes to the surface, leaving one injured survivor – Maria Jill Ian.
We do not get to learn much about Maria’s background, or what specialization made her qualified to be on the ill-fated expedition, but one of the dead in the craft was her husband. She is also disciplined enough to write record her experiences on the strange planet, after realizing she is stranded forever.
After a couple of days resting and in despair, Maria manages to submerge the bodies of the two dead scientists into a nearby pool. She eats the fruit from the trees, and agonizes over her solitude. Soon, however, is her first contact with an indigenous animal:
Something vaguely tentacular plunged from the scarlet-and-gold umbrella of the tree and disappeared noiselessly into the pool.
Maria Jill Ian began to run. She ran westward, inevitably toward another pool, struggling in ground that squelched around her boots, looking back now and again in an effort to see the thing that had plunged.
She saw the silver water pearl up, part and stream down from the creature’s narrow head. It was going to pursue her, she knew. Although it came on comically, it flailed with a deftness that demolished the impulse to laugh. Maria Jill Ian did not look back again.
All of Cathedonia breathed with her, as desperately, she ran.
Bishop packs a variety of visual and tactile details in this passage. We get visual details about how the creature moves, or how beads of water move on it, and how the texture of the planet interacts with her running and breathing. She is experiencing Cathedonia in a completely different way than the destructive visitors from the Golden.
Immediately after this quote, we learn from her journal entry that she has named the alien Bracero, and considers it her friend. It is an odd reference to the Mexican guest worker program that existed in the United States between 1948 and 1964. He quietly follows her as she travels westward, toward the planet’s ocean. Instead of manual labor (Bracero has no arms), he appears to provide for Maria with acts of telekinesis. This starts with dislodging fruit from the trees, but with significant strain he manages to transport the bodies of the two dead men into the pool where Maria has traveled to. By the time the story finishes, more of Maria’s subconscious desires are made manifest in a terrific fashion.
This story has a more conventional SF feel to it, complete with a characteristic twist ending. Bishop made a lot out of how the planet and its inhabitants received their names, and is indicative of maybe being a bit too clever (although some reviewers really like digging into the allusions of names in fiction). The “feeling of innate wrongness” that I referred to above is an obligation of the reader, as we contemplate the accommodative nature of this strange planet after the initial slaughter. It is not exactly subtle, but succeeds as an entertaining story with moral punch.
“Effigies” (1978) is a novelette that first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction and has never been anthologized (except in non-English periodicals) with the work of other authors. However, I found it to be the most compelling of these first four pieces. An admittedly bleak tale, its core idea germinated from Bishop’s gardening experiences.
Theleh is a young woman in a tribe called the Dying People, a struggling nomadic clan of the far future. She hunts (beasts called “iguabi”) and gathers for food, and like all women of childbearing age in her tribe, submits to sexual congress with one of the dwindling number of males in her group. These episodes are called “redemption” and considered obligatory, but rarely fruitful due to the Dying People’s struggles with fertility.
The couplings and hunting expeditions are planned under the guidance of Evmauna, the matriarch of the tribe. Another elder is an older man named Verliss, who has been researching the artifacts of a past civilization for a way out of their hand-to-mouth existence. He recruits Theleh to aid him in an agricultural experiment using technology he found inside an ancient compound (which appears to be a modern laboratory building). She is reluctant to enter the place, but he convinces her, and – this story being told from her point of view – Theleh displays some conceptual familiarity with the furniture and subject matter:
When she reached the old man, he opened a transparent drawer beneath the counter and extracted several pungent-smelling plants. He thrust them within a hand’s breadth of her face.
“Do you know what these are?”
“Wheat-seed stalks, I believe.” Theleh took one from Verlis. Holding it, she reflected that Verlis had lived through the ill-remembered Seasons of Rain. A time when meal had been made from weed-wheat; a time when the iguabi had mated before the people’s eyes and melted like miniature rainbows into the crevices of Hond. A time, the girl told herself, that a person had had some hope —
This indicates that, within a single lifetime, people of the area had at least agriculture to give them a steady food supply. Even Theleh, young but selected by Verlis for her intelligence, seems to know the suspicions she and her peers hold over Verlis’ activities were likely acquired within a single generation. These intervals of time may not match ours: the Dying People shed their entire skin several times during their life, inevitably ridding themselves of some of the age effects brought about by exposure.
The skin-shedding appears to be evidence of manipulation by past scientists; Verlis has recovered some records inside the laboratory, and is surprisingly confident in his own plans. I’ll leave the details out, but Verlis is attempting to replace human generative processes with a vegetable process, and acknowledges the danger of doing such a strange thing in the presence of his people. He therefore obtains Theleh’s aid in getting the rest of the tribe to participate. What remains is a contest between the hope of one educated elder against the growing irrationality inside the minds of his clan.
“Effigies” illustrates a last-ditch attempt to prolong the existence of humankind in the far future. It also features the horrific psychological effect new knowledge can have on those relying on traditions to see them through the daily task of survival. Highly recommended.
“The House of Compassionate Sharers” (1977) is a novelette that was initially published (and featured on the cover) in Cosmos, and made it into multiple “Best of”-type anthologies at the time. The 1970s were at the summit of academic psychology’s heyday — I spent some years working in the halls of a very dated Psychology building — and it’s not surprising that a story about the future of therapy would resonate.
A powerful bureaucrat named Dorian Lorca has been in an accident which required his body to be completely replaced, machine for flesh. His new sensory systems and lack of empathy (which he had previously managed to suppress or deny) makes him feel a total revulsion for the presence of his wife Rumer and other humans. Rumer is an important official of the state and the sole source of Lorca’s wealth and prestige, but his recovery is important to her. Drug treatments, psychological conditioning and the best efforts available on the planet Diroste fail to make him adapt:
She drew back, and I tried to quell a mental nausea almost as profound as my regret. . . To go out from Diroste seemed to be the only answer. Around me I wanted machinery — thrumming, inorganic machinery — and the sterile, actinic emptiness of outer space. I wanted to be the probeship Dorian Lorca. It hardly seemed a step down from my position as “prince consort” to the Governor of Diroste.
As a last, costly resort, an oddly-dressed therapist named Wardress Kifa is brought in from Earth; she questions Lorca’s caretakers and recommends that he return to Earth with her. She runs a therapeutic establishment named “The House of the Compassionate Sharers,” which Lorca suspects has features in common with a brothel. At Rumer’s urging, and because he strangely feels no angst in her presence, he agrees to leave with Kifa.
The House is a large wooden structure hidden in the Rocky Mountains, outside of “Port Manitou” – a likely stand-in for Colorado Springs. Kifa refers to Earth as “where we began,” as the human race, as she and Lorca approach their destination by train – the fact that Manitou Springs is the site of ancient Anasazi ruins, where “we” may have began in the continent, is no accident.
Once they arrive at the House, which requires a long hike through the mountains, Kifa informs Lorca of the rules for her clients:
. . . The Wardress laughed. “I also wanted to ask you to . . . well, to restrain your crueler impulses when the treatment itself begins.”
I stood up and moved away from the little woman. How had I borne her presence for as long as I had?
“Please don’t take my request amiss. It isn’t specifically personal, Mr. Lorca. I make it everyone who comes to the House of Compassionate Sharers. Restraint is an unwritten corollary of the only three rules we have here. Will you hear them?
I made a noise of compliance.
“First, that you do not leave the session chamber once you’ve entered it. Second, that you come forth immediately upon my summoning you. . .”
“That you do not kill the Sharer.”
Evidently, the House is no ordinary place, and its clientele, whether there by medical compulsion or by recreation, are not typical customers.
Lorca is assigned to his room and his Sharer, a speechless male android. He protests that “his sexual proclivities don’t run that way,” to which Kifa informs him that the House is not the brothel he assumes it to be. His subsequent therapy takes on a nonsexual but nonetheless increasingly intimate, form. It’s an interesting piece of speculation on Bishop’s part, this reimagined form of labor-intensive treatment; my own preference has always been for Bishop’s scientists and alien societies, and I found this story a bit less convincing.
The plot turns when a brother/sister pair of wealthy clients arrive, paying for the company of a mouthless Sharer. It becomes evident that they do not respect the rules of the place, or at least the spirit of the rules, and Lorca is eventually compelled to take action. He demonstrates a character arc that lands him in an emotional place very far away from the hospital on Doriste.
I can appreciate the critical acclaim for this story, but it is my least favorite of the four discussed so far (a very strong group, as I’ve hopefully shown). It centers around the “head versus heart” dichotomy, which was a very popular SF theme of the 1970s but feels very dated now (see this review of Eyes of Fire). Perhaps Bishop demonstrated a little too much respect for the principles of psychology in this one.
After the first third of the collection, it’s easy to see how Bishop has earned his reputation as one of the premier SF short story writers of the 1970s. If you’re interested in exploring his writing from the beginning of his career, this collection is an excellent place to dive in. For another overview of selected stories from BoA, including the four discussed above, see this review.