No Enemy but Time by Bishop, Michael, 1982
I'm always surprised at the alternating good and bad press that Michael Bishop's masterpiece novel No Enemy but Time receives. Note even the big critics, like Aldiss, Clute and Pringle can't decide whether or not they like this book. In my opinion its one of the best 50 full length SF novels that are available. It tells basically two stories in one. The first is the story of the birth, rearing and coming-of-age of a man named Joshua. The other is the story of how Joshua dreams himself back to the Pleistocene era and lives among a group of Homo Habilis who are starting the next step on the evolutionary ladder. Save for the fact that this book does not hardly concern itself with the south at all, it is essentially a southern Gothic novel with SF content. An SF/African time travel Gothic, if you will. Four out of five stars.
No Enemy but Time is the story of an African-American man who is born with a gift and a curse. Joshua was a spirit-walker. Most nights in his dreams he was able to travel to East Africa of 2 million years ago and visit various groups of hominids there. The two stories that make up this novel are interwoven among each other throughout the book. Together they basically tell the story of Joshua's life, with the dividing line being his trip to the Pleistocene. Joshua was born to a mute Spanish whore who was afraid to take him out of the hovel he was born in. Locals called her "bruja" (witch) and spat upon her. She realized that if the boy was going to have any chance at a normal life, he could not grow up with her. So she took him to an American AFB and left him in the care of some girls she found there. Adopted by an air force family, Joshua was moved all over the United States, like a typical air force brat. As he grew up Joshua never felt at peace, or as if he belonged anywhere. He was an undersized black boy in a family of latins and whites growing up in the south and mid-west, and that made him feel like an outsider. He was always smarter than those around him, especially after puberty. And he always dreamed of things that he could not tell anyone. Joshua's life story is certainly not an overly tragic one. Its pretty normal, actually. But Bishop uses even the good things that happen to Joshua to point his character on the way to where he wants and needs to be. How many of us have during our lives had a rough goal, but been tempted by temporary comfort to derail our wishes and dreams, just for chance to extend a moment of pleasure longer? For those of you who didn't allow the distraction to occupy your thoughts for too long, are you gladder now that you could break free?
The other part of the book tells of his travels back in time by dreaming. Because of his dreams he grew up to became an expert on the early Pleistocene era. But since he was a steeplejack, nobody knew it. When he dreamed, he did not actually go back in time. Rather, he created in his mind an exact duplicate of that era, right down to the microbes in the water. A good third of his sleeping hours he spent wandering there, examining flora and fauna. He studied all he could and followed the careers of the experts in the field. One luminary was a white African from a nation called Zakaral, basically Kenya, named Blair. Blair's and Joshua's paths crossed on a tour Blair was doing through Florida, and the two began to compare notes. Joshua told Blair about his spirit-traveling, and Blair recruited him for a mission for the USAF to test a technology for the air force that would actually send Joshua physically into his dreams. Joshua went into a machine, and woke up 2 million years in the past where he met a group of hominids, ingratiated himself to them, and was ultimately accepted. He fell in love with a woman who he named Helen, after the beautiful wife of his African teacher, then had a child by her. Helen died in childbirth, but Joshua was able to bring the child back to his own era where he raised her, and discoverd that she has the same curse as he. The only difference was, she dreams of the future.
Of all the novels I have reviewed to date, this is probably the one with the best internal flow. Bishop's style is called by some cold and scientific. He is given to short descriptions with often scientific terms that have a very objective sound to them. But on the whole, Bishop really does imbue his character Joshua with a passion for his situation. Joshua is by nature a loner. When he approached Helen, he described what he saw, and stayed away from describing what he directly felt. But his description of her is so complete, so minute, that you are left with the conclusion that he must love her, because nobody who was not in love could notice that many things about another person. It is truly amazing how Bishop had Joshua's collective anthropological observations add up to passion.
His descriptions of the hominid band that he falls in with are at the same time scientific and and full of love for the brothers and sisters who adopted him. Helen, was tall, beautiful, strong and tender at the same time. Roosevelt craped himself uncontrollably every time he was surprised. Genly was a tremendously strong beta-male who got a hold of Joshua's pistol and accidentally shot himself in the chest. Alfie was the alpha male who spent most of his time chasing as much tail as he could possibly service. Joshua's journey through the Pleistocene takes approximately two years, and Bishop doesn't miss a single bit of the environment. From gradually changing seasons and migrations of herds to other groups of hominids and wild flora and fauna, to homo habilis society, culture and yes, technology, this book seems to have one of the richest backgrounds in SF.
You may be thinking that for an SF novel, there doesn't seem to be much SF content, and you would be correct. The machine that took Joshua back in time could manage the time dilation, but not the spacial problems, so it instead amplified his dreams and inserted him in them. The book may read more like a fantasy, and it probably is, but I still love it, despite the ambivalent feelings I have for fantasy in general. Bishop never tried to describe the holes inherent in the plot, such as how Joshua was able to bring a dreamed daughter into the physical world, but the book really doesn't suffer for any of that. The descriptions of the veldt and the creatures on it are simply amazing, detailed, rich and as full as can be, but there is nothing very SF about them, other than there is a modern human there with them. Spirit-traveling certainly belongs in fantasy, and not SF. But this book clearly is anthropological SF. Others have tried and taken on this subgenre to pretty lofty heights, such as the late Chad Oliver and Ursula K. LeGuin. Bishop does give LeGuin a big run for the money with this book though. The themes that Bishop examine are anthropological too: He tries to answer really age old questions questions such as who am I? Why am I here? What is my place in life? What is a family? How do I know where you belong? and how did I change when I got there? He does it by examining a group of humans in two different settings, one in current time and the other at the dawn of the human epoch. I doubt there will be many of you who are not moved by it.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell