Thursday, December 19, 2013

Stolen Faces (1977) by Michael Bishop

In the 1960s and 1970s a certain sort of anthropological science fiction came to prominence.  It is one of my favourite kinds of SF.  Three authors I've seen grouped together as seminal practitioners of this movement are Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and Michael Bishop.  It was a development of SF from its Gernsbackian pulp roots in more technological and physical 'hard sciences' into new explorations of more sociological and cultural 'soft sciences'.

In light of this shift, it's fascinating to see that the term 'astrogation' (navigation in outer space) is shared by the books of my previous and present reviews.  But whereas in Saberhagen's book (Berserker, 1967) such a skill and profession was central to the action of the plot, here in Bishop's tale it is a reference to something off stage.  In fact, the protagonist of Bishop's short novel is indeed an astrogator, but one who has been suspended for insubordination and is serving out a punitive post on a colony planet in which he has no interest, barred from the 'slip-fix' moment of interstellar space travel that he has come to love (and is perhaps addicted to).  Lucian Yeardance (a shift to more indigenous-sounding names is often a feature of the movement) is performing an obscure role in a position he is in no way qualified for.  In this way, the very setting and situation of the story serve to disorient SF from earlier expectations.  There are brief references to time spent on starships, plying the galaxies, but all the present action of the novel takes place in one season spent confronting an alien culture up close.  And the results are gruesome.  Stolen Faces in this sense serves as an emblematic example of a mutation SF was experiencing during this era, a perhaps painful deepening of engagement with the complexities of multiculturalism and the Other.
This inherently bewildering and difficult confrontation and deepening was inevitable given SF's whole modus operandi - to extrapolate and explore the alien, be it a future version of ourselves (on this planet or among the stars) or 'contact' with extraterrestrial forms of life (sentient and otherwise).  If the genre was to mature at all, rather than merely pastiche itself indefinitely, it would have to endure this transmogrification, no matter how agonising, and emerge stronger.  Authors like Ray Bradbury in his Martian Chronicles telegraphed birth pangs of this shift and authors like Le Guin and Tiptree helped midwife the actual birth.  Bishop comes just a bit later to nurse this new thing into its first stages of growth.

I like Bishop's novel for being a meaty hybrid of 'proper SF' and the American New Wave SF of the likes of Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany.  These latter authors tended to mute the sense of actuality or 'realism' about space travel and colonisation of planets and the like in favour of sheer literary experimentation of style and form and in favour of philosophical speculation.  Their stuff is good fun. I've loved that kind of SF since I first encountered it and have a natural tendency to prefer it over all others.  But Bishop's novel, written in a rich but economical prose style, weaves such 'literary' concerns with the older (and abiding) concerns in SF of 'worldbuilding':  making a solid planetary place that can really be inhabited by the imagination long-term.  Bishop goes into almost no details as to the 'how' of the technology or physics or biology of the world of this novel, but he assumes these things so firmly that the reader can feel the solidity of the premise.  It's a freaking nifty and impressive trick (and I think Gene Wolfe is its main and most profound practitioner - and, for the record, it's precisely where I felt Le Guin fell down in her celebrated SF novel The Dispossessed, which is why, so far, I find her science fiction writing disappointing compared to her far more satisfying and powerful Earthsea fantasy series).

The 'alien' people of Bishop's story are fellow humans, but from a civilisation on a planet previously unknown to the protagonist.  There is an effectively creepy specimen of the fauna of the planet whose ubiquitous presence serves as the main visual metaphor for this impenetrable alienness:  roving land mammals called Pequia that are horse-like but with 'oddly segmented bodies', giving them an unnerving giant spiderish quality, and which are disturbingly strange-eyed (having 'narrow octopus eyes').

The big-city society (on the edge of which Yeardance and his interns live, in a medical camp beside the quarantined reserve of a diseased community made up of a small freakishly disfigured population) is self-consciously modelled on ancient Aztec culture, a conceit of the city's founder.  This pleasantly baroque milieu (surely inspired by previous eras of pulp) could have been more fully evoked to enriching effect, I think.  But Bishop still uses it to original, telling, and ultimately chilling purposes. The city's Aztec theme is really a thing of style and pageantry to the sophisticated urban community that sublimates dark undercurrents of their collective psyche and by which they maintain their strange and unjust relationship to the outcasts on their borders.  A grotesquely outré dinner performance during Yeardance's one visit to the city, narrated at some length, provides a horrifying glimpse into this.  It's one of the best scenes I've ever read.
This is a slow-build of a novel, but it's also a short one and it delivers a denouement worthy of the unease it induces from its earliest pages.  Bishop is not afraid to write a downbeat ending if his story requires it.  The gruesome climax was somewhat expected in its general terms, but its specific impact on the protagonist came as a shock and, for me, couldn't but help evoke associations with Flannery O'Connor's own novel of the cultural grotesque, Wise Blood (1952).  This is especially troubling since Yeardance (unlike O'Connor's Hazel Motes) is one of the more noble characters I've encountered in fiction, in that very fallible and flawed sense that makes him believable and likeable.  He has a principled compassion and sense of justice that motivates him despite personal failings.  (Yeardance very much reminded me of the protagonist Silk in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun tetralogy.)  And still he, even in his admirable intentions, is skewered on mysteries and corruptions he has no power to truly resist in the final analysis.

(Interestingly, writers of post-Lovecraftian New Weird fiction often cite New Wave SF, Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison in particular, as part of their root system.  I've never heard anyone mention Bishop in this connection, but this novel's dark grotesquery and downbeat outcome show he could easily be considered a certain sort of prototype to New Weird fiction as well.)

Theological underpinnings to the novel come very subtly in as the impulse toward charity is put to the test of a self-destructive cult which itself is engendered by systemic societal injustice.  The outcome is ambiguous at the very least, if not outright negative.  I don't think we are meant to perceive such charity and justice as categorically defeated or relativised. But we are meant to be humbled in the face of human darkness and frailty and (as, incidentally, I think is ultimately the case with Cormac McCarthy's work, too easily misunderstood as sheer nihilism), we come to realise that if there is an answer, it must come from beyond us.  And this is where theology is more explicit in the novel too:  the dysfunctional community of self-loathing pariahs express their need for worship and sacred ritual in truly awful perversions.  And in their own words they express a longing for a priest who will confer to them actual forgiveness of real sins in addition to medical aid.  They try to make Yeardance such, calling him 'maybe-priest' and his medical facility a 'maybe-church'.  It is because he is not that mediator or messenger of divine absolution (again calling to my mind O'Connor's novel) that he must fail and fail so horrifically (thus also serving as a bleak counterpoint to the more effective and liberating priestly service of Patera Silk mentioned above).
I suspect this is a minor novel in Michael Bishop's canon and in SF's canon in general.  Yet it was one I found very worth my while.  Indeed, more so than some canonical SF works (such as the aforementioned The Dispossessed or, to take an example from the earlier era these works mutate from, Robert Heinlein's The Door Into Summer).   I look greatly forward to familiarising myself with the rest of Bishop's oeuvre.

Up next:  The Jewels of Aptor (1962) by Samuel R. Delany.


  1. Replies
    1. So honoured that you read it, Michael! I'm sincerely excited to get stuck in to all the rest of the good Bishopian SF/F ahead of me!