Monday, June 21, 2010

1982 Nebula - NO ENEMY BUT TIME by Michael Bishop

I’m starting to notice some patterns in the non-Hugo winning Nebula novels. 1) They tend to have oddball plots, 2) They usually have distinct (eccentric?) authorial voices and/or utilize writing gimmicks, and 3) They don’t seem to age very well. No Enemy But Time fits this description perfectly. It may have looked daring and provocative to the Writers Association at the time, but now, to me, it looks like a trainwreck.

We’ll start with point three: The main character is a sarcastic, angry, stereotype-bustin’ black man – which would be fine, if it didn’t feel so distinctly like Bishop had already cast Richard Pryor in the film version. In other words, it’s a slightly modified ‘80s stereotype rather than a real path-breaking portrayal. Also, Clan of the Cave Bear became a smash hit in the early ‘80s, and now we get a few faddish sf books with prehistoric settings.

Point number two? Well, there’s non-linear storytelling, which makes sense in a time travel book I guess, but this is no Slaughterhouse-five. The main character, Joshua Kampa, has “spirit visions” that allow him to travel through time. This will eventually enable him to visit early hominids in Africa, but it also allows him to revisit his life…which is full of picaresque details including a mute Spanish prostitute and the sort of adoption story that Orly Taitz fantasizes about in her most demented dreams. The writing style as a whole is full of awkward references. Again, it’s as if Bishop is trying to do his version of a Richard Pryor character, but all of his slang comes from watching too many World War II movies. We get choice metaphor-mixing sentences like “a randy young male might well find a nubile femme fetale among the unattached ingénues of the other band.” On one page the main character ponders if H. habilis females are “love slaves of an estrous cycle” and gives us a description of chimpanzee females who “flaunt such gaudy carnal corsages.” I wouldn’t call this prose unimaginative or boring. But, I wouldn’t call it pleasant either.

Oddball plot? Check and double check. Joshua travels back to the Pleistocene (a million or so years ago, and falls in love with a Homo habilis he calls Helen. Yeah, one of these:

Okay, that's a little weird. However, we are told though that Helen is an evolutionary step forward. So, I imagined her more like this:

Yep, it’s still weird. And, while this book has some interesting things to say about race, in the end, it’s a novel about a black man who has sex with something that looks like an ape. I found this somewhat disturbing on several levels.

And, the plot only gets weirder as the story goes on. You know you’re in trouble when the author admits to using a ridiculously improbably dues ex machina in the text (Bishop tries to play this off as postmodernism . . . but I don’t think he succeeds).

I’m okay with weird, and maybe even a little disturbing, but there just wasn’t much here to grab my attention. Add in a dated, over-written prose style, and I found reading this a fairly miserable experience.

Also, it’s odd that Bishop gets so many simple facts wrong. At one point, he challenges Richard Leakey on the size of a gorilla’s manhood (which, in itself, gives you a pretty good sense of the novel’s tone). It’s pretty clear that Leakey was right about this easily observable fact. It’s a dumb thing for Bishop to get wrong and an even dumber thing to bring up, but it nicely illustrates Bishop’s misguided, self-congratulatory, and pointless irreverence.

This is The Wanderer bad. It might even be as bad as the novel whose name shall not be spoken.

Grade: D-

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