Monday, November 25, 2013

Ancient of Days by Michael Bishop

Last month I read Michael Bishop’s “Blooded on Arachne,” a pretty good short story. Joachim Boaz at sfruminations and Jesse at Speculiction both recently gave quite positive reviews to Bishop works. I knew there was a copy of Bishop’s Ancient of Days on the shelf at the Des Moines Central Library, so decided to check it out while in Des Moines last week. It was absent from its place amongst the many Anne Bishop books, and to my surprise there wasn’t even a record of the book in the online catalog. Was I thinking of a different library? I had just seen it here a month ago, hadn’t I? Luckily, I found it while poring over the many shelves of the vast book sale, and purchased it for a mere 25 cents.

Ancient of Days is a novel in three parts. In the first part, “Her Habiline Husband” (yes, as in his award-winning novel No Enemy But Time, an element of this Michael Bishop book is the sexual relationship between a 20th century human and a prehistoric hominid) we meet the principal characters, Paul Loyd, owner of a gourmet restaurant in a small Georgia town, his ex-wife, successful artist RuthClaire, and “Adam,” shipwrecked member of a tribe of homo habilis who have survived in African caves for thousands of years, only to be, unbeknwost to the outside world, enslaved in the 19th and 20th centuries and dragged to the Caribbean. This 70 page section of the 350 page book is partly about the response of 20th century Americans to the appearance of this prehistoric man in our modern world, partly about the personal relationships of Paul, RuthClaire, and Adam, told by narrator Paul.

In some ways “Her Habiline Husband,” which originally appeared on its own in 1983 as a novella and was nominated for a Nebula, is like a conventional, non-SF story. Paul hopes he can get back together with the sexy RuthClaire and is jealous of her relationship with Adam, religious broadcasters and racist bigots object to Adam and his relationship with RuthClaire, the KKK kidnaps the main characters and then the police and the Georgia version of the FBI investigate. One of the remarkable things about the story is the rather mundane reaction most of the characters exhibit to Adam’s appearance: to Paul, Adam is a romantic rival; to the KKK, Adam is a miscegenating nigger; to the government, he is an illegal alien; to black activists, he is the victim of white exploitation. The astounding appearance of this living fossil does very little to change people’s worldviews, an interesting tack for Bishop to take, and not necessarily the one we expect in SF, the genre that often portrays paradigm shifts and aims at evoking “a sense of wonder.”  Instead of something amazing happening and our world being forever changed, something amazing happens and everyone continues on with business as usual.

The more science-fictiony aspects of the story relate to an ambitious young scientist who wants to get his hands on Adam to study; the other characters accuse him of being more interested in Adam as a vehicle to receiving government grants than as a source of groundbreaking knowledge. There is also a joke reference to A. E. Van Vogt (page 32 of this edition) which I got a kick out of. (Van Vogt was a fan of Bishop’s, apparently.) “Her Habiline Husband” also has lots of religious undertones and overtones; among other examples, Ruth Claire’s estate, formerly Paul’s, is called Paradise Farm, and much of Ruth Claire’s art consists of paintings of angels. (After Adam achieves fame, she paints a series on the evolution of mankind.)

Bishop is a good writer and the characters are all interesting, and “Her Habiline Husband” is a good story.

The second part of Ancient of Days, “His Heroic Heart,” picks up the story of Paul, RuthClaire, and Adam some months later. In less than a year Adam has learned how to drive a car, can read and write (via a typewriter) in English, and speak in sign language. Fascinated by religion and concerned about the status of his soul, Adam reads C.S. Lewis and other religious writers and arranges a meeting with a televangelist. Adam has also taken up painting, and has an exhibition at a gallery. Eventually he even has surgery to his jaw that allows him to speak.  Instead of transforming our world, Adam, a great scientific discovery, is himself transformed so to better fit our world.

RuthClaire gives birth to her and Adam’s son, and the KKK kidnaps the child, so there’s a lot of business with ransom notes and police detectives and phone taps. This police procedural stuff doesn’t interest me very much, and Bishop doesn’t make it particularly tense or exciting.  (In general, Bishop's writing makes little emotional component, at least in this book.)

Bishop addresses various 1980s controversies, and as one who lived through these controversies I have to admit I found these parts of the book a little tiresome. Bishop and his characters offer opinions on the Muriel boatlift, public funding of the arts, obscenity in art, defense spending, 24-hour cable news, televangelism, and performance art. Even the Cabbage Patch Kids get a mention.

“His Heroic Heart” is even more like a conventional piece of mainstream fiction than “Her Habiline Husband,” and is twice as long. It is well written, but the story is sort of mundane, and it doesn’t deliver the sort of things we look to SF for; it is simply the story of a sophisticated middle-class mixed-race family in the U.S. South being preyed upon by racist working-class jerks. I suppose the SF element is provided by Adam and his religious awakening and evolution; there are hints that he has the potential to be a Christ-like or Gandhi-like figure of great wisdom who is willing to forgive those who have trespassed against him, but this sort of thing takes up few pages. I was disappointed.

The last section of Ancient of Days, “Heritor’s Home,” is 100 pages long. Adam and RuthClaire have left Georgia and now live on a tiny Haitian island, where they are in contact with the last living group of homo habilis, a tiny doomed tribe of four individuals, none of whom will reproduce. Scientists hope to study the habilines, and Adam and company try to keep the habilines hidden from them. Paul and his new wife go to Haiti to visit, and there is a lot of material about her jealousy of RuthClaire and Paul’s jealousy over his wife’s former boyfriend, one of the intruding scientists. Adam’s religious beliefs and practices have shifted; he is now acting as a voodoo priest, which gives Bishop a chance to tell us all about voodoo. In fact, the book climaxes with a six page voodoo ritual and then a 13 page surreal scene in which Paul communes with his Pleistocene ancestors and a voodoo god.

I found much of “Heritor’s Home” boring; sadly, Ancient of Days gets worse as it proceeds.

As I have suggested, Bishop is a good writer and his characters are complex and interesting. However, Ancient of Days, which feels quite long, is lacking in the plot department, and collapses at the finish line. The anti-racist thriller melodrama, the tepid satire of the Reagan era and of ambitious scientists, the sexual jealousy stuff, and the musings on religion add up to a barely acceptable story, something I can recommend but not very enthusiastically. Readers may want to read the 75 page novella “Her Habiline Husband” and stop there.


  1. Wonderful review. What's the joke about Van Vogt? He seems to have been a butt of many a joke -- Malzberg ridiculed him pretty hilariously (as I think I've mentioned) in Herovit's World.

  2. Van Vogt is quoted on the book's jacket praising Bishop, so I think they were buddies.

    The joke: To show how little one of the interfering scientists knows about art, Bishop points out thzt he thinks Vincent Van Gogh is the writer of "popular science fiction extravaganzas."

  3. I have Her Habiline Husband kicking around somewhere. Will have to dig it out sooner rather than later... :)

  4. Currently reading A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire -- absolutely wonderful... He need to read his novel Stolen Faces (1977).

  5. Hopefully I will stumble on some of Bishop's titles the way I found those three R. A. Lafferty paperbacks recently.