Visions of Paradise

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Michael Bishop

I fell in love with science fiction during the New Wave years of 1966-1969, particularly Roger Zelazny (Lord of Light is still one of my favorite all-time novels), Samuel R. Delany (who confused me mightily with Babel-17, but by Nova he and I achieved a fabulous common ground) and Robert Silverberg (particularly the beautiful poetry of Nightwings).

By 1970 the New Wave had faded away, but not without leaving behind a powerful legacy. It had not lost the supposed war with the Old Wave, but rather the two sub-genres had merged into a richer form of science fiction than had existed prior to1965. The best science fiction now combined traditional speculation and sense of wonder with rich characterization and superior writing style. My favorite writers of this new, improved version of science fiction included Ursula K. Le Guin, John Varley, George R.R. Martin and, most successfully at least in my opinion, Michael Bishop.

I first encountered Michael Bishop in a short story in Galaxy Magazine–my favorite SF magazine at the time, although fading rapidly under the heavy-handed direction of editor Ejler Jakobssen -- with a story entitled "Piňon Fall" in 1970. It was a warm, lyrical story about three brothers and an old woman who separately encounter aliens landed on Earth and how differently they react to it. It was an emotional story with an intentionally jarring ending, quite a successful debut story indeed.

Bishop burst into the frontline of science fiction writers two years later with the publication of two novellas which made both the Nebula and Hugo final ballot–"Death and Designation Among the Asadi" in Worlds of IF, and "The White Otters of Childhood" in F&SF. The former was a slow-paced anthropological study of a very inhuman alien race, and eventually became the basis of the even better novel Transfigurations, while the latter was a futuristic tale of love and vengeance amidst artificial mutation. For years I wished that only Otters had garnered the nominations so that it might have had a legitimate chance at winning the awards–a fact which was impossible with the young, mostly unknown Bishop competing against himself–but from hindsight I have seen the literary, sophisticated Bishop lose too many Hugo and Nebula Awards to believe he might have won that first year under any circumstances. In fact it was the combined double nominations that were responsible for earning him the reputation he achieved so swiftly in the SF field.

During the1970s Bishop published a series of superb short stories and novellas that earned him numerous award nominations. Best known perhaps were "Cathadonian Odyssey", a tribute to Stanley Weinbaum’s "A Martian Odyssey" that was nearly as fine as the original; "On the Street of the Serpents", a fantasy about an attempt to assassinate Mao Tse-tung, sparked no doubt by the Cultural Revolution taking place at that time; and "Rogue Tomato", another tribute, this time to Philip K. Dick by way of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (and what science fiction author other than Bishop would have the literary audaciousness and overall competence to do tributes to the likes of Dick, Weinbaum, and Kafka?)

The highpoint of the 1970s for Michael Bishop was his series of Domed Atlanta stories which were eventually published as the collection Catacomb Years and the accompanying novel A Little Knowledge. In some ways these stories were a forerunner of cyberpunk in their dark, often pessimistic look at near-future domed American cities populated by lowlives, immortals, and born-again aliens. These stories combined biting satire, traditional sfnal concepts, and high literature, at times revealing a very humorous side to Bishop’s writing (particularly in the novel A Little Knowledge which was also his first exploration into religious themes which became one of the continuing threads of his later fiction). The best stories in the series were the novellas "Old Folks at Home", "The Samurai and the Willows", and "Allegiances".

The early 1980s were the most acclaimed of Bishop’s career with several award nominations and, surprisingly, two winners. The fantasy "The Quickening" won a deserved Nebula Award for its exploration of human nature under the trauma of civilization being suddenly overthrown with every single living person abruptly placed in a new setting somewhere in the world. But the true masterpieces were the Nebula-winning novel No Enemy But Time and the Nebula-nominee novella "Her Habiline Husband". Both involved neanderthals, natural extensions of Bishop’s long interest in anthropology. The novel involved a time travel experiment in which scientific subjects were sent back (at least in spirit, although for all practical purposes they were sent back physically) thousands of years to study neanderthal society, while the novella told the story of the last surviving neanderthal suddenly surfacing in contemporary Atlanta. These were both very mature stories, the former a combination of character and sociology, the latter a very funny satire that was quite serious at its heart. The latter also earned a Nebula nomination but, just as a decade earlier, it was nominated for Best Novella along with Bishop’s "The Gospel According to Gameliel Crucis", splitting the vote and thus virtually assuring him yet another Nebula loss.

Near the end of the decade Bishop published two more outstanding novels, Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (originally published as The Secret Ascension), which was a clever and funny satire written as a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and Unicorn Mountain, a fantasy about AIDS and real unicorns appearing in the American midwest. While these novels did not receive the acclaim of earlier Bishop stories, together they showed his continuing growth as a writer of literature while still remaining firmly in the SF tradition.

Bishop became less visible in the science fiction firmament in the 1990s, but he was still writing and publishing, just in less obvious places. His 1996 collection At the City Limits of Fate was one of his best collections ever, filled with major stories from offbeat locations: "Among the Handlers", an examination of rural religious healing, appeared originally in the book Dante’s Disciples; "I, Iscariot", a superb study of the guilt or innocence of Judas Iscariot in the form of a modern day trial, was published in the semi-prozine Crank!. "Allegra’s Hands" was the most popular story in the book, not surprisingly since it originally appeared in Asimov’s.

Perhaps Bishop’s best novel ever appeared in 1994 and received a well-deserved Hugo nomination, his first novel to be so honored. Brittle Innings was a coming-of-age story set in the rural south during World War II as a young athlete struggles to succeed in minor league baseball. What made the story both SF and richer than it would have otherwise been, was that the novel was also a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, exploring what might have happened to the artificial man had he survived the conclusion of that classic novel and struggled to earn a normal life for himself in the 20th century. And what better life for a big, strong, introverted monster than baseball?

For somebody such as myself who has never outgrown my love of sense of wonder and futuristic speculation, yet has also acquired a corresponding love of great literature featuring rich characterization, eternal themes, and excellent writing, Michael Bishop is the answer to a dream, the writer who straddles both worlds better and more consistently than anybody. This does not mean I don’t love Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson greatly; I do. But my literary heart belongs most of all to the writings of Michael Bishop.

This article appeared originally in Twink.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Journey to the West

In my most recent blog, I mentioned that the first novella in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt was influenced by the Chinese epic novel Journey to the West. But most readers of this blog have probably never read that novel, which is a shame since it is one of the classic fantasies of all time.

Journey to the West (Chinese title Hsi-yu Chi) is the story of a real historical Chinese monk Hsüan-tsang, described in the book as one of China's most illustrious religious heroes. In the sixth century the monk undertook a pilgrimage in quest of Buddhist scriptures. Like many legendary epics, his adventures were told and retold in various forms through the years before being written in this 1600+ page epic form by its Sixteenth Century author. English language translations have been sparse and woefully incomplete until the University of Chicago Press recently published a widely-hailed translation by Anthony C.Yu, a professor of English at the University of Chicago.

The epic is comprised of 100 chapters, the first dozen of which are the story of Sun Wu-k'ung, more commonly known as the monkey king, the true hero of Journey to the West. Born and raised an ordinary monkey, he studies under a renowned patriarch and achieves both immortality and magical powers. Being a typical monkey at heart, he is a classic rogue who uses his powers to challenge heaven itself, causing great dismay among the staid and stately denizens there. Eventually Sun is captured by Buddha and immobilized for five hundred years under the Mountain of Five Phases.

During Sun's imprisonment, Buddha decides to send the Buddhist canon to the Chinese and he chooses the monk Hsüan-tsang to travel to India to receive the scriptures. Early in his journey he selects four disciples to accompany him on his pilgrimage. One of them is the monkey king who is freed from his imprisonment provided he swears loyalty to the elder monk and to Buddhism. The other disciples include a dragon king in the guise of a horse, Chu Pa-chieh who has grotesque porcine features and is known as hog, and the imperturbable Sha Monk.

The pilgrims undergo fourteen hundred pages of fabulous adventures. Their journey is hindered by a series of fiends and monsters, denizens of hell, and lowly beasts from heaven who escape and assume human form. Some of them want nothing more than to consume the elder monk since his holiness has imbued his flesh with the ability to confer immortality. Others are mere hindrances who will not let the pilgrims pass. Several adventures result from the compassion of the pilgrims, particularly the emotional monkey king who stops to provide assistance to people in need. In one instance they help a poor king whose wife has been held captive by a monster for two years. In another they rescue one thousand, one hundred eleven young boys who have been imprisoned in geese cages in preparation for being slaughtered so their hearts can be made into a tonic for an ailing king.

The adventures combine wondrous ideas with fabulous images and sense of wonder. At times I was reminded of Roger Zelazny's epic adventure Lord of Light. But what really raises the level of Journey to the West above that of most classic adventure stories is that the entire novel is rich in various types of humor, ranging from pure slapstick (often involving hog who is a burlesque-type character) to subtle satire (usually involving the monkey king's jabs at the overly-proud and self-righteous figures they encounter). At one point the pilgrims enter a land exclusively of women where both elder monk and hog become pregnant. Later the monkey king lets himself be swallowed by a fiend so that he can attack the monster from inside his stomach.

In spite all its fun, the main focus of the epic is really to provide a satirical look at Chinese culture and tradition. Each of the four main characters represents a different aspect of Chinese society: the monkey king is a classic rogue, challenging tradition and authority with regular impunity; hog is lazy, self-indulgent and gluttonous, always looking for an excuse to divide up the elder monk's supplies and abandon the pilgrimage; sha monk is a non-complaining Confucian, shouldering his burdens ever-faithfully without complaining; the elder monk himself is a self-righteous monk, endlessly pontificating about his devotion and asceticism, but at the least hint of danger becoming a whining, crying child.

Buddhism is obviously an important part of the epic, and some of the references to it were confusing to a non-Buddhist such as myself. Fortunately, translator Yu has provided numerous footnotes explaining phrases and situations beyond my realm of understanding. While some of his explanations referred to points so obscure as to be irrelevant, the majority did clarify my understanding of certain scenes and increased my enjoyment at what was taking place.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the style of the epic. The author was a master craftsman, whose writing style is so enjoyable as to be worthwhile reading for its own sake. I am not an avid fan of poetry, so initially I was not pleased at the frequent shifts in the narrative from prose to short verse sections. But very quickly I discovered that those verse sections invariably illuminated a scene or a situation better than prose itself could have done. For example, battles are invariably described in verse, making it possible to enjoy the special effects and wonder of the battles without being tied down in the gritty details.

I could continue with my praise of Journey to the West, but my point should be clear by now. This is one of the truly outstanding epic novels, as important as such legendary tales as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Despite its age it should be as wonderful and appealing to modern fantasy readers as J.R.R.Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and T.H. White's The One and Future King. Actually it pleases me that Journey has not achieved the prominence in America that both Tolkien’s and White's epics have achieved. Both those epics have been somewhat trivialized by the endless imitations and fantasy trilogies based on them. I would hate to see the fabulous monkey king end up as part of a kid's happy meal at McDonald's. He deserves a much better fate than that.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Years of Rice and Salt

Alternate history has become so popular in recent years that even serious historians have tackled it in books such as Virtual History and What If? Historians generally take the point of view of examining how the changes in historical fact might have affected the “real” world.

Writers of f&sf tend to attack alternate history in two different varieties. Some stories are not much different than the nonfiction type, being sfnal examinations of the worlds generated by the changes. Pavane is probably the prototype of this type of story. In other cases, the historical change is primarily an excuse to tell a rousing story which could not have taken place in our real world. Harry Turtledove’s various series in which the South won the Civil War are the examples here.

Kim Stanley Robinson has always been interested in historical change, but usually in the near-future. His Mars trilogy is an examination of exactly how a possible future colonization of Mars might occur. His very-loose California trilogy are examinations of possible near-futures which might occur under different economic circumstances. Based on these examples, it is not surprising that when Robinson chose to tackle a novel-length alternate history it would be of the Pavane type.

Robinson’s premise in The Years of Rice and Salt is that instead of the Black Plague killing 30% of the population of Europe, what might have happened had it killed 99%? Or even 100%? Considering how less than two centuries after the Black Plague the Renaissance arose in Italy, setting the stage for European domination of the second half of the millennium, Robinson’s premise certainly bodes a different history for the entire world, a history best described by his original title for the novel–A World Without Europe.

Just as Pavane, The Years of Rice and Salt is not a novel per se, but a mosaic of ten novellas, each one examining a different aspect of the world without Europe. Several are basically travelogues describing portions of the new world, while others show how key moments in “our” history might have occurred in his new history. Not all the novellas are equally successful, but that is to be expected in a project of this type.

The first story, “Awake to Emptiness” sets the tone for the book, but unfortunately it is one of the weakest of the stories. Based stylistically on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, it introduces two characters who reoccur throughout the book as spirits inhabiting specific characters during the following centuries. I never understood why Robinson chose this technique, and frankly it seemed unnecessary to the novel as a whole. And since the first novella served primarily to examine the personalities of those two characters, rather than specifically show the devastation caused by the Black Plague, the entire novella seemed pointless.

Fortunately, it was followed by a series of much stronger stories, each of which examined a different aspect of the alternate world some years after the point of change. “The Haj in the Heart” showed how the Islamic Empire, which had been thwarted in “real” history when the Moors were driven from Spain in 1492, grew and spread. “Ocean Continents” was the discovery of America, this time by Chinese explorers crossing the Pacific Ocean.

“The Alchemist” told of the development of modern science by alchemists. While this was the most interesting reading as storytelling per se, it required a major suspension of disbelief in its presumption that two scientists, one of them a fake alchemist, were together responsible for numerous scientific discoveries themselves. If you can accept that, the novella’s depiction of the medieval scientific process, and how science must at times compromise itself with military purposes, was fascinating reading.

“Warp and Weft” was a short look at how Chinese relations with American Indians might compare with European relations with them in the real world. The story had a basic flaw in that the protagonist seemingly understood how the Europeans in “our” world mistreated and ultimately destroyed the Indians, for no explainable reason as to why he knew that or what purpose it served in the story.

Another outstanding long novella was “Widow Kang” which examined relationships between Buddhist Chinese and Muslims, including much discussion of afterlife and reincarnation. This was much more philosophical than the other stories, and it also raised the connecting material involving the recurring spirits from what had seemed like mere gimmick to a level of importance in the stories for the first time (although I still felt it was unnecessary).

“The Age of Great Progress” and “War of the Asuras” were both concerned with political dealings among the Chinese, Indian and Moslem empires. They were interesting, but war and politics are not my favorite reading areas, so these novellas were not as appealing to me as the previous two were.

“Nsara” was perhaps the finest novella in the book, being a story of hope. Following the 90-year war of the previous section, the world was basically subdivided into four political regions, three of them totalitarian–Islam, China, and India–and Yingzhou, the Native American nation. “Nsara” was the story of the birth of the modern world, telling several simultaneous stories. It told how nuclear physics was born to the great fear of the physicists studying it lest the military governments use it to complete the destruction of the world begun by the widespread destruction caused during the 90-year war. It also told how individual freedom arose, slowly and cautiously against totalitarianism, leading to a climactic scene in which the populace of one nation arose against a military coup d’etat, filling the streets by the hundreds of thousands in a nonviolent refusal to accept a military government. I was not sure which way Robinson was going, whether a bloodless overthrow as ended the Soviet Union, or a government massacre as happened at Tiananmen square. I was ready for either ending, but was surprised by what actually happened.

The concluding story, “The First Years,” is an extended meditation on history and historiography. It is actually a fitting conclusion for a book which attempts to revise the entire history of the past 700 years, and I found it fascinating considering that historiography is a subject I have dealt with a lot in recent years in editing the book Nanking 1937: Healing and Memory, which was itself concerned with both history and historiography. This 50 page story was little more than one long expository lump, but since I read partly for learning, and partly for pleasure, I found this lump both fascinating and thought-provoking, a fitting conclusion for a very thoughtful book.

The Years of Rice and Salt will not appeal to everyone. Readers who enjoy historical process should find it fascinating, while those who prefer structured stories might find parts of it tedious.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

My favorite authors

One of the reasons readers trust a book reviewer’s judgement is because they know the reviewer’s taste, so can relate his opinions to their own views. With that in mind, here is a listing of which authors I have the most books by in my collection, as well as my personal choice for the best story or book by each of the authors mentioned.

Robert Silverberg / 42 books / Dying Inside
Roger Zelazny / 32 / Lord of Light
C.J. Cherryh / 24 / Downbelow Station
Clifford D. Simak / 22 / Way Station
Michael Bishop / 22 / Brittle Innings
Jack Vance / 20 / “The Last Castle”
Samuel R. Delany / 18 / Nova
Ursula K Le Guin /18 / The Dispossessed
Isaac Asimov / 18 / The Caves of Steel
Marion Zimmer Bradley / 17 / The Forbidden Tower
Gene Wolfe / 16 / The Fifth Head of Cerberus
Kim Stanley Robinson / 15 / The Wild Shore
Poul Anderson / 15 / Tau Zero
Orson Scott Card / 15 / Speaker for the Dead
Robert Heinlein / 14 / “Universe”
Stephen King / 12 / The Stand
Frederik Pohl / 10 / Gateway
Philip K Dick / 9 / Martian Time Slip
George R.R. Martin / 9 / The Armageddon Rag
John Varley / 9 / The Persistence of Vision
Greg Benford / 8 / Timescape
Brian W. Aldiss / 8 / Helliconia Winter
Kate Wilhelm / 8 / Welcome, Chaos

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Easter Island

I bought the book Easter Island, by Jennifer Vanderbes, partly because of its premise, and partly because the reviews sparked my interest. It turned out to be a good decision on my part, and more proof that instinct is worth trusting when buying books.

In many ways, the book resembled the writing of Andrea Barrett with its strong portrayal of scientists engaged in research and scientific speculation. While this premise might not appeal to all readers, you should know that stories about passionate artists and scientists are among my favorite type of fiction, much more so than my interest in the art or science itself.

Easter Island consists of two strands which are told in alternating chapters. While there are connections in the two strands, both in their parallel development and in references made in one to the other, they are primarily separate stories told on the same theme.

The first story takes place during World War I. Elsa is a 22-year old involved in studying linguistics. She lives with her father and her 19-year old sister Alice who suffers from a combination of mild autism and very low intelligence. When their father dies, Elsa realizes she cannot possibly care for Alice herself, which would cause a crisis in her life except for the intervention of Edward. Edward is a 55-year old bachelor scientist, best friend of Elsa’s father, who offers to care for both girls. The best way to do this in the Edwardian social climate is for him to marry Elsa. Their relationship is primarily formal, with no physical contact for over a year.

Elsa and Alice accompany Edward to Easter Island, where the trio spends several years. Edward studies botany while Elsa studies linguists in the form of ancient native writings which she is trying to decode. There is much melodrama in the situation, such as Alice becoming extremely jealous of Edward who shares a tent with Elsa, while Edward falls in love not with his wife Elsa but the younger sister Alice. Fortunately, Vanderbes restrains her writing so that the melodrama does not become either hysterical or overbearing, and does not interfere with the more important story of the twin scientific studies of Edward and Elsa.

The second story takes place in contemporary times. Greer is a botany student at a midwestern college whose teacher Thomas is a brilliant and renowned researcher. They fall in love, eventually marrying, while he continues serving as her doctoral advisor. For a few years they are involved in a race to discover the first flower (magnolias being the leading candidate) with scientists at another lab. This race is similar to the race for the nature of dna in Watson’s book The Double Helix, and I found it both fascinating and thrilling. However, Vanderbes also shows the dark side of scientific research as Thomas is involved in a scandal and subsequently dies of a heart attack.

In an attempt to regain control of her life, Greer travels to Easter Island to do research on botany. Vanderbes explains through Greer why Easter Island’s isolation in the Pacific Ocean makes it a prime candidate for historical botanical research.

Greer’s adventures on the island are more scientific, with almost no melodrama, although she had enough melodrama during her years with Thomas– perhaps a bit too much, as I found a few questionable scenes in that portion of the novel.

Overall Easter Island is a strong book if you enjoy scientific research. It is not strictly speaking a historical novel, since even the World War I parts only had a few historical references to them. While not as strong as Andrea Barrett’s best works, this book sits comfortably besides them on the bookshelf.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

A visit to Borders bookstore

Traditionally on Friday nights Jean and I go out for supper followed by shopping. Whenever we go anyplace near a bookstore, Jean drops me off while she makes the rounds of other stores. So last night, I spent an hour browsing at Borders while she shopped at Rockaway Mall.

When I visit a bookstore, I generally spent most of my time looking at four types of books: science fiction, historical fiction, history, and travel writing. All of those books offer variations on the same type of sense of wonder, the thrill of exotic cultures and societies different from our own, which has always been the greatest appeal for me in my reading. Last night I found 7 items at Borders that I really wanted to buy, but I restrained myself to only buying 2 of them.

In the Travel section, I immediately went to the classic works by H.V. Morton who wrote the finest travel books combining touristy descriptions with genuine insight into history and culture. His A Traveler in Italy has been on my Recommended Books list for several years. Borders also carries Travelers Tales Books which offer some fabulous books, both classic travel writing as well as collections of essays either on a specific topic or a specific locale. Last night I saw their books Italy and Tibet. I have been immersed in Tibet the past few years while helping Fei Fei edit her own book about that country, and Italy has always intrigued me, a combination of my own family’s heritage and my disappointment at learning absolutely nothing about that heritage growing up except a preoccupation with good food.

Next I visited the music section where I found two classic cds by the Waterboys. They are an almost unknown group who make sprightly folk-rock music. I have several of their CDs, but not their two early classics This is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues.

From there I moved to the fantasy & science fiction section, stopping first at the adjacent graphic novels. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Borders was to buy the Alan Moore trade paperback Promethea. I have loved comics since I was a pre-teenager, growing up on Green Lantern and the Justice League of America. Nowadays Alan Moore is my favorite comic writer, but I draw the line at paying $2.95 for single issues of comics, instead restricting myself to graphic novel compilations. When I browsed the graphic novels last night I was delighted to see that volume 2 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been released in paperback. Volume 1 was wonderful stuff–and don’t even think about the abysmal movie that was supposedly based on it, probably no more than the recent I, Robot was based on Asimov’s book of the same name.

Finally, eventually, I reached the sf books where I saw that M. John Harrison’s Light has been released in an absolutely gorgeous-looking trade paperback. Two types of sf I don’t normally read are space opera and hard-science, because they don’t give me the sense of wonder as future history, or historical fiction of any type, including alternate and historical fantasy. But there are certainly exceptions, such as Greg Benford’s Galactic Center series, and anything by Poul Anderson who straddles history and adventure better than anybody. And Light has gotten rave reviews from such disparate sources as Locus, bloggers Cheryl Morgan and Matt Cheney, and writers Neil Gaiman and Jeff Vandermeer, several of whom have called it one of the best sf novels ever! How could I resist an endorsement like that?

So I let the travel books and cds sit on my lists of recommendations awhile longer, and went home with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Light. Reviews should be awhile in coming though, since with the start of school my reading slows to a crawl.