Blooded on Arachne, by Michael Bishop – part 2

This article continues of my overview of the first collection of Michael Bishop stories, Blood on Arachne (1982). In Part 1 I found the first four stories to be all worth reading, with “Blooded on Arachne” and “Cathadonian Odyssey” being especially strong, and “Effigies” being the most memorable short story I’ve read so far this year . Here, I’ll look at the next six stories (the ending novella will have its own article).

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“In Chinistrex Fortronza the People Are Machines” (1976) was written for the Thomas Disch & Charles Naylor anthology New Constellations. Bishop rewrote the Hans Christen Anderson tale “The Nightengale” into far-future SF terms, using the fairy tale motif to carry the story’s appeal. There are also, as pointed out in this enthusiastic review, puns and references for those familiar with classical poetry.

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Jerry Fargo cover for Harper & Row. isfdb.org

I, unfortunately, am not familiar with much poetry, and much of the charm of this story was totally lost on me. The actual plot – a completely mechanized planet is given a Homunculus of an ape, and general disorder ensues – is not nearly is important to the reading experience as the stylizations and literary devices. I was out to sea on this one.

Best, then, for me to leave this story with a typical quote describing the mechanized planet:

By religion, then, the people were deists, for God of course was the transcendent Watch Maker who had wound them all up and then benignly left them to their own devices. Organizationally (you and I would say “politically”) in each and every one of the planet’s several autonomous corporate bodies, the people were mechanostatists believing in the divine right of ‘chines and therefore practicing a pert, ta-pocketa-pocketa obeisance to whichever august automaton had evolved to a probity of operation and control so dependable that it never, no never, broke down.

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“Leaps of Faith” (1977) first appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, and reflects what has been described as a shift in Bishop’s focus to the Southeastern United States as settings for his stories. His novels Catacomb Years and Brittle Innings also take place in Georgia, and No Enemy But Time splits its story between Africa and Pensacola. This story takes place in the fictional (I think) Kudzu Valley in rural Georgia.

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Chelsey Bodenstell cover for Mercury Press. isfdb.org

A pest-control professional named Heinz Jurgens makes a long trip out to Kudzu Valley from the city for a remote house call. There, he meets “Shot” and Miriam Mayer, an unusual couple who cannot yet afford a pest service, but wanted someone to give them an estimate. They have dumped a pesticide in a moat-like fashion around the house to get rid of a flea infestation. Poor Heinz sees immediately that his afternoon is wasted, but as a low-ranking employee of RidPest, Inc., decides to inspect their progress for free.

Heinz is presently plagued by two things: chronic migraines, and the deathly boring nature of his job. We also learn of alcoholism and a family he has left behind in Germany. As Miriam shows him around the house, he fantasizes about establishing a deeper connection with her:

Heinz is climbing a windless face of Mount Blanc. Below, Shelly’s Ravine of Arve is mistily visible. Behind him comes Miriam Meyer in fur-lined galoshes and a thermally padded laboratory smock. She carries a thermometer in one hand and with the other sweeps over the snow a box containing a microphone and a miniature amplifier. “It’s six degrees Celsius,” she shouts at him excitedly, “and the microphone’s picking up activity from the substratum.” . . . Gleams of a remoter world dance enigmatically in the eyes of Shot Meyer’s wife, and with a crowd of homeless fleas leaping all about them in the Alpine cold, Miriam’s amplifier cackling like a Geiger counter, Heinz takes this vibrant, sympathetic woman in his arms and kisses her deeply…

There are several passages that are either fantasy, like the above, or recollections of Heinz’s life as a family man, which I suspect are some combination of truth and illusion. The last, bourbon-fueled encounter between he and his wife is an ambiguously described event, reflecting a possible deflection of blame. We also see, before he leaves, Heinz relating his recent religious conversion to Miriam – is this level of interaction sufficient for him? Are Shot and Miriam’s lives any different for the episode?

Heinz’s struggles pursue the question: How do people manage to turn their lives around, when they are struggling and lacking confidence? It’s an area left unexplored in most of SF fiction, with its focus on the movers and shakers of the future. True, Philip K. Dick usually uses more or less ordinary people as protagonists in much of his fiction – to great effect. But something extraordinary happens to these characters to get the story moving. Here, Bishop maximizes his use of Heinz to make a compelling narrative, with the brevity of the story making further speculative elements unnecessary.

I also like the story for its depiction of Miriam as a “freelance researcher,” in her terms. She does science, but in an unsupported fashion and almost certainly destined for obscurity. She studies and breeds fleas with the kind of obsession that withstands this kind of solitude; the fact that she has found her calling makes her thrive in a way that Heinz could only aspire to. Maybe the academic world has no place for her — women in science had few opportunities, especially outside of the major cities and famous universities — but she has her family and her fleas.

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“On the Street of the Serpents” (1974) first appeared in the strangely-titled David Gerrold anthology Science Fiction Emphasis. It tells the story of the assassination of Mao during a visit to the city of Seville, in the year 1992. This would have made Mao 98 years old at the time; the actual Mao died in 1976. Mao ruled China as the Chairman from 1949 until the end of his life, just as Fransisco Franco ruled as the dictator of Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. Any 1960s to early 1970s SF story that included the very common trope of life-preserving medical advances could have speculated on the likelihood of these two men holding onto their power for many decades to come; something that Bishop’s novelette finally did.

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Dean Ellis cover for Ballantine. isfdb.org

The tale starts with a flashback of life in Seville in 1962, where a American writer (names Michael Bishop) lived as a teenager with his military father and second wife. Alienated, he spends some of his idle time with the young girl Nisei, the daughter of another immigrant couple in the same apartment building. They play linguistic games with each other, making sayings out of Japanese, German and Spanish, the tongues of Nisei’s parents and current surroundings.

This friendship ends abruptly, when Michael comes back from a bar, carrying glass bottles of seltzer water and wine, and spots a naked Nisei at the top of the apartment stairwell. He is startled and trips, in a scene recalled in detail:

The wine was red, it smelled sour, and the tall enamel stairwell in which I finally regained my feet seemed a shaft dropping me into another dimension. Sopping wet, I looked up again and saw the Taniguchi’s little girl staring at me with unabashed horror. I called her name, and she began to scream, an eerie wail that echoed icily up and down the well. For, after all, I stood there in broken glass, my elbow and chin actually bleeding and my cotton T-shirt drenched in the merciless incarnadine of my father’s sour wine. No wonder she fled inarticulate, sobbing, up the cold steps. Perhaps she paused at the top to look back down at me — I don’t know, for only a moment later I head the foyer’s grating unlatch and felt a hand on my elbow, my uncut elbow.

At my shoulder stood a tall man in uniform.

The uniformed man is a young police officer with a unique birthmark on his face. He is only there to help Michael back to his father’s apartment. Some time later in the summer, he sees the man again, this time at a bar sitting at a table with Nisei. Michael meets the two of them again in a different scene of violence towards the end of the story – in 1992. Between the curious stairwell incident and the 30-year reunion is a brief recollection of world events, family life, a teaching job and a writing career that never bloomed.

Michael returns to Seville in 1992, a divorced and disaffected man who has cashed in his savings for the trip. He returns to his old neighborhood, near the Street of the Serpents, and makes the acquaintance of a blind seller of lottery tickets. The dictators of Spain and China are scheduled to visit this street in the coming days, and only licensed street-merchants will be allowed past security to take their usual places. Michael makes an arrangement with the man that reveals the depth of his dedication to, as he puts it, “ensure that my life did not conclude on the distorted periphery of the new lens.”

He also makes use of his old apartment, now condemned as uninhabitable, as shelter. Once again on the roof of this decrepit building, he meets Nisei, who eventually tells him her life story. Through marriage, she became familiar with Mao and his use of nascent technology to continue living past his natural age of death. This gives Michael the critical piece of information he needs to carry out his dramatic mission. The officer with the birthmark, now a high-ranking Franco guardsman, is there to manage the messy aftermath.

Clearly, the coincidences in the story amount to an unlikely account on the part of the narrator. Michael is explaining the events that led up to his actions in 1992 on The Street of the Serpents, possibly inventing Nisei and the officer with the birthmark as a way of obfuscating his true collaborators. The fictional Michael Bishop seems to have used, and embellished, something from the life of the real Michael Bishop, to explain his actions. It creates an interesting, autobiographically enriched version of the classic unreliable narrator.

Recently, I criticized the novel Anarchaos (not too badly, I still liked it) for its lack of explanations leading up to the final climactic act of political violence. My more favorable view of Bishop’s story makes me think I prefer unreliable but detailed descriptions over excessively brief descriptions. Or it could be that the protagonist is more relatable here.

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“Piñon Fall” (1970) was, Bishop’s debut story, first published in Galaxy. It describes the strange arrival of alien beings, looking like tall and delicate winged humans, in a rural area of Northern New Mexico. Native Americans there traditionally harvest the piñon trees (a kind of pine, whose cones have edible nuts) through careful observation: the nuts are most easily collected when allowed to dry on the tree and fall.

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Gaughan cover for UPD Publishing. isfdb.org

Three boys of a local indigenous family are out collecting nuts when they discover an alien on the ground.

Whatever he was, he lay crumpled in a sculpted drift of snow without a single vesture of clothing upon his body. The snow only partially covered him, and by the man’s naked flanks the oldest boy could see a delicate orange powder. All three boys halted to stare at the man and to watch their breaths vaporize like skinless balloons.

They help the strange visitor recover by giving him nuts to eat and one of their coats. Unfortunately, another “first contact” takes place in the yard of the boys’ hated, racist neighbor. She takes an altogether different approach toward the large coconut-like thing that has landed on her property. The implied outcome of this action has the flavor of a Philip K. Dick ending.

It is a focused, maybe over-stylized short piece that impresses with its details.

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“Rogue Tomato” (1975) is a bizarre story that first appeared in the Robert Silverberg anthology New Dimensions 5. Science fiction writer Philip K. discovers that he has been turned into a gigantic tomato. He is also in space, orbiting around a strange star. What follows is a novel and surprisingly eventful life as a planet-sized vegetable.

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“Spacemen and Gypsies” (1971) is a short story that was first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction. It forms a speculative link between the Roma people of Southeastern Europe and space travel. It’s a very far-fetched story that has an interesting premise, which was explored much more fully in the Robert Silverberg epic Star of Gypsies. Western spacemen visit the Moon and encounter a Roma caravan, and the events that follow are consequences of centuries of mistrust and discrimination. The ending does not quite match the rest of the piece, but one can view “Spacemen and Gypsies” as an appetizer for the Silverberg novel.

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Vincent Di Fate cover for Mercury Press. isfdb.org

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Merely judging by the depth of my own overviews, “Leaps of Faith” and “On the Street of Serpents” left the greatest impression on me. I also can easily recommend “Piñon Fall” as a worthwhile take on the First Contact trope. The collection also includes “The White Otters of Childhood,” an interesting 1973 novella that can also be found in his book Beneath the Shattered Moons – I will review it as a separate post. The rest of Blooded on Arachne gets a high recommendation: 8/10.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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4 Responses to Blooded on Arachne, by Michael Bishop – part 2

  1. fredfitch says:

    Ah, the other shoe finally drops. You’ve convinced me I need to read more Bishop. (You will never convince me the ending to “Anarchaos” isn’t perfectly explained and set up. That story you compare it to sounds more surrealist than noir, and nobody can explain surrealism, even surrealists.).

    In Ex Officio, Westlake’s 1974 political thriller set somewhere in the Mid-tolate 80’s, Mao has only recently died. I think so little was known about his health (or anything else relating to him) that his death came as a surprise to most.

    The first story sounds like something Stanislaw Lem would have written. And he did, in fact, use quite a similar idea in a story that appears in “The Cyberiad”–the English translation appearing in ’74. Maybe the poetical stuff is there to distract from that. A case could be made that all genre writers are crime writers. 😉

    (Difference is, of course, Lem greatly prefers machines.)

    Lots of metatextual stuff–Bishop makes himself a character in his story, and he turns Philip K. Dick into a planetary nightshade.

    If there’s one thing SF does better than any other genre, it’s satire. And that tracks–Swift, Rabelais, Voltaire, Thomas More–all proto-SF authors. Only without the scientific gloss, for the most part. Not enough science for them to use as a pretext for the fantastic things they want to write about–to show us ourselves in a funhouse mirror that tells the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Yes, the premise of that story is very Cyberiad-y. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Cyberiad … the last book of Lem’s I read may have been The Star Diaries, about two years ago. It was great but was like a series of heavy meals, in an intellectual sense. I tend to read Lem regularly, but with long intervals in between books.

      The Tomato story is interesting as “recursive SF” because that kind of story is usually about the travails of writing and publishing (or, maybe that’s because I’ve read so much Malzberg), but Bishop hones in on the Thinking aspect of it. It’s a story about imagination itself.

      Speaking of Proto-SF, you might want to check out (here I go again) Brian Aldiss’ “The Billion Year Spree,” his critical survey of early SF and proto-SF. He put out a revised edition of it called “The Trillion Year Spree,” but both titles can be hard to find outside of university libraries.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        We’ve got one, but at our sister library in Manhattan.

        Lem, to me, reading him as a kid, felt like a less depressed Kafka, with lots of math and science.

        It was fun watching him poke fun at his own rigidly controlled society, under the pretext of writing about robots, or a post-apocalyptic America. And sometimes he was just enjoying himself.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: “The White Otters of Childhood” by Michael Bishop | gaping blackbird

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