Michael Bishop, like the almost all authors of the SF genre, is best remembered for his novels. Additionally, recent reviewers of his work have emphasized his novellas as further examples of his best writing, especially among his 1970s fiction (see this and this). “The White Otters of Childhood” is a 1973 novella included at the end of his collection Blooded on Arachne. The other stories in that book were reviewed here and here.
“Otters” first appeared in the highly-regarded Fantasy and Science Fiction, and garnered both Hugo and Nebula nominations. It is split up into several sections, each headed by an epitaph quoting an author who Bishop acknowledged as an influence for the story: H.G. Wells, Thomas Kyd, Saint-John Perse, Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter M. Miller, Jr. Of these names, I have only read Wells and Miller, but the others are certainly important in their respective fields.
My first guess at the inspiration of the title came from a quick search for white otters in literature; although extremely rare, white otters have been spotted throughout history. I assume that their albino coloration makes them especially susceptible to hunters. These animals are featured in a Seneca legend – where they hold the spirits of “witch” women and must be hunted – and we’ve seen Bishop make use of Native American traditions in Brittle Innings.
People taking on animal-like features, or transfigurations, is another major theme of Bishop’s fiction. In “Otters,” generations of living with radioactive fallout has reduced the Earth’s population to about two million persons, many of whom are afflicted with various mutations:
Marina had been born with a left arm that terminated, just below the elbow, in a splayed paddle of flesh. It was a cruel and heartbreaking reminder of our ancestors’ brinksmanship.
Marina is the love interest of the protagonist, an academic and government official named Markerier Rains. Marina and Rains are among the very few people that could be considered educated; she studies the flora and fauna inhabiting the still-wasted planet (which include white otters and sharks). Although they prefer the isolation of a beach hideaway, the traditions of their capital city still guide their behavior:
Her father, a surgeon, might have softened the hard cruelty of her “hand” when she had come of age. But when she came of age, she would have none of his reshaping and plastisculpting. “I am as I am,” she told her father. “I accept myself as I am. Besides, my seawing” — Fearing Serenos, our Navarch, had been the first to call her deformed hand and forearm a seawing — “serves to remind me of where we came from and what we have done to one another.” Moreover, Serenos himself, whose hands and face bristled with a covering of atavistic fur, frowned on surgical remedies.
Serenos is the ruling autocrat of this civilization, but some authority is retained in a council, of which Rains is a member. This enables Rains to marry Marina, even though she was desired by Serenos in the past. Over the years, Serenos has been corrupted by his power, and his methods of dealing with rebellious subjects have evolved from a kind of benevolent exile to putting their severed heads on stakes.
Rains is the designated envoy to a technology superior alien race, the Parfects, who have preserved the remnants of humanity over the years, while keeping them isolated to a chain of islands. Even though he resents this role, as it both keeps him away from Marina and instills him with a deep sense of inferiority, he does recognize that the Parfects are now in charge of the larger world. It is this knowledge, almost certainly, that keeps him inwardly resistant to Serenos’ position of power.
Serenos may be turning into a monster, but he is also cagey. Rains is sent across the sea to a nearby island of exiles, under the guise of diplomacy. While he is away, Serenos rapes and impregnates Marina at the surgeon’s home. Discovering the aftermath of this act of evil allows Rains to come to terms with the evil of Serenos’ regime, and he allies himself with Marina’s father, the surgeon Yves Prendick.
Prendick is also the surname of Edward Prendick, the narrator of The Island of Dr. Moreau, who usurps the mad scientist on the island of beast-men to become their leader for a short time. Thus Bishop intends for us to recollect H.G. Wells’ 1896 masterpiece in a new way. I have seen interpretations of The Island of Dr. Moreau as a critique of organized religion, because Dr. Moreau ruled over his tormented creations through fear and prohibitions against expressing their true (animal) nature. “Otters” suggests something different: our possible damnation springs from the assumption of God’s role by a secular person who rules by terror, as Dr. Moreau did with his weapons and equipment, and as the Navarch does with his ruthless troupe of gendarmes.
Wells’ novel also portrays the vivisection experiments, where captured animals are transfigured into human-like forms, as perversions of scientific progress. Dr. Moreau has convinced himself that he is advancing human knowledge, and his ends justify his terrible means. Likewise, Bishop’s Prendick, at the bequest of Serenos, has been transforming captured humans into animals because the Navarch has instructed him to. When revenge replaces obedience as the prime motivation, Prendick is willing to continue his crazed surgeries. This choice does not comes easily, and only after the tragic events bring about a metaphorical transfiguration within him:
He stared at me for a long moment. Then he turned back to the water and cast meager handful of ash into the sea. Our conversation was over, but Prendick had begun to think. I saw the inside of his head, I saw his emotions running into little wells of intellection, I saw his mind turned into bleached brain coral and from the brain coral into an ambiguous living thing, confined but free. Soon the wind blew across the empty mouth of the amphora, and the low bass notes of emptiness arose.
The political duel between Rains and Serenos drives the plot, but under the quietly watchful presence of the Parfects, it is the actions of Prendick that could ultimately decide the fate of mankind.
“Otters” is from the beginning of Bishop’s SF career, and makes its influences explicit. There are doubtless many plot details, symbols and allusions that I’ve missed, mostly from my unfamiliarity with Kyd, Perse and Niebuhr. Those seeking to learn about the foundation upon which much of Bishop’s fiction is built should track down this novella. It is a compelling follow up to the Wells classic, and an outstanding story in its own right. 8/10.
I’ve only read his shorter fiction–a form in which he excels. Be interesting to see how he does with a novel.
But I’d much rather see real otters, of any shade. Only had the pleasure once–big male, at Savannah Wildlife Refuge.
We saw many sea otters traveling around coastal Alaska a couple of years ago. Especially in the waters around Valdez, actually.
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