Paul Di Filippo Reviews Michael Bishop’s No Enemy but Time: Revised Fortieth Anniversary Edition

No Enemy but Time: Revised Fortieth Anniversary Edition, Michael Bishop (Fairwood Press 978-1933846194, trade paperback, 326pp, $19.99) August 2022.

Somehow, forty years have slipped by since I first read Michael Bishop’s Nebula-Award-winning novel, scarfing it up eagerly (in its quite appropriately named Timescape edition) as part of my quest to read everything by this intriguing author whom I had first encountered in the pages of Galaxy magazine in 1970. I distinctly recall enjoying the book a lot, and for those subsequent decades my memories of its plot and themes revolved heavily on the aspect that David Pringle praised, when he chose the book for his volume Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels: “its vivid portrayal of the remote past.”

Upon return to the book, I discover that the story of Joshua Kampo, a young Black man during the decade of the 1980s, who finds himself transported—by quasi-scientific, quasi-mystical means—back to the African timespace venue that hosted mankind’s ancestors, Homo habilis, is still there, just as I recalled it: a thrilling, meditative, poignant, farcical, lusty, desperate narrative, one man’s reckoning with his own obsessions, which are also partially the genetic obsessions of our modern species. However, I soon discovered that my memory had elided fully half the book, which is a stirring bildungsroman showing us how Joshua Kampo—originally an abandoned and adopted child christened John-John Monegal—became the young man who ended up back in the early Pleistocene.

Thus I was thrilled to discover a “second” book to pair with my memory of the other half. Bishop’s mimetic accomplishments in depicting the mental and physical maturation of his hero in a thoroughly American milieu, replete with racial injustices as well as marvelous opportunities, is a treasure of 1980s lyrical naturalism. I suspect this aspect of the book did not stick with me because back in my youth, I valued such “mainstream” fiction less than speculative stuff. But in retrospect, we might have to start mentioning this book in the same breath as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and other icons of that era.

Now that I have re-yoked the two halves of the book in my head—alternating chapters move each narrative along, until finally past catches up to realtime—I can discuss the virtues of the whole. But before I do, what’s involved precisely with the fortieth-anniversary revision process? First, Bishop has chopped out 12,000 words. I never missed a one of them, finding the stroytelling just as sharp and rich as of yore. He’s changed the last name of his hero from “Kampa” to “Kampo.” He’s reproduced all the dialogues sans quotes, giving the text a more dreamlike quality. And he’s changed certain comma-offset clauses to italicized passages, again contributing a more distancing effect. But all the basics remain the same.

Very young Joshua is adopted by an American serviceman and his wife who are stationed in Spain. The new lifestyle they give him is culturally jarring, rendering him a perpetual outsider. He grows up having lucid, scientifically accurate dreams of the Pleistocene past, dreams which feature closeups of our hominid—or “Minid”—ancestors. After an adolescent falling-out with his family, when he changes his name, he leads an amiable albeit semi-aimless existence, until contacted by a physicist named Woodrow Kaprow, who has invented a kind of time travel which needs the engine of Joshua’s unique brain. Then he is catapulted back to the past.

Joshua’s one-man mission to catalog the hominids quickly devolves into the full “going native” experience. Benign Stockholm Syndrome of a sort. At last he’s found his people. The small tribe of speechless yet highly intelligent and sensitive Minids with whom he takes up offer him a second adoption, and before too long he’s nearly naked, trooping across the savannah with his mate Helen. The band encounter “mundane” yet thrilling situations, and their daily routines and adventures are parsed with beauty and inventiveness and thickness of detail. Joshua and Helen, against all odds, manage to create a child together, and the infant’s birth is the precipitating event which sends him back to the 1980s. But Bishop does not stop there, extending both Joshusa’s life and his daughter’s into a resonant coda.

The exploration of Joshua’s mentality, the love-story aspects, the realpolitik angle, the vivid recreation of prehistory, the commentary on 1980s society, and the dissection of scientific hubris all blend into a perfectly organic whole. A masterful book.

I might suggest that Bishop’s novel, however unique, throws off deliberate tendrils to many other literary works. One of the Minids is named “Genly,” surely a tribute to Le Guin’s character, Genly Ai, and her whole methodology. John Collier’s His Monkey Wife is cited explicitly. Kaprow’s science of time travel seems to owe a lot to Jack Finney’s approach in Time and Again. But most vitally I’d link this book to Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Silverberg’s Dying Inside. The former of course finds the protagonist expiating sins in the past, just as Joshua suffers in part for the crimes of twentieth-century humanity; while the latter book details how a lifelong talent (in this case Joshua’s lucid dreaming) must eventually vanish, to be replaced by—what?

“Because Woody Kaprow and White Sphinx used my attunement to make me live those dreams, that’s why. I got them out of my system, and for the past fourteen years I’ve been an ordinary person.”

Beyond specialness to normality. Sometimes a bitter bargain and transition, but maybe not always.

Fairwood Press has now resurrected fourteen of Bishop’s backlist in handsome, author-approved editions. This latest volume is kind of an unintentional capstone, perfectly representing as it does Bishop’s core themes and some of his finest writing. Any SFWA committee looking for a Grand Master candidate need look no further than this roster of books and the man behind them. If any honors oversights are committed, our descendants might have to come back in time to rectify them.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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