Friday, 18 October 2002

Michael Bishop: Ancient of Days (1985)

Edition: Tor, 1986
Review number: 1126

After the death of Philip K. Dick, Michael Bishop seemed to be the author most willing to follow in his footsteps. He has written a direct tribute (Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas) but, more importantly, has taken on the question more central to Dick's output than any other, "What does it mean to be human?"

Ancient of Days is explicitly (at least, for a novel) about this question. It concerns a surviving member of the species homo habilis, an ancestor of modern humans thought to be long extinct, who turns up as a refugee on the American coast near Atlanta, Georgia. There, he is hidden and befriended by an artist (RuthClaire Loyd) living on a remote farm; eventually they marry. Taking the name Adam, he sets out to find his identity, embracing theology and art, fathering a child and eventually undergoing surgery so that he is able to speak instead of being forced to use sign language. With his gentle, but slightly alien outlook, Adam is a figure reminiscent of Michael Smith in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

Like Smith, Adam has to face a variety of difficulties and misunderstandings
These include the jealousy of RuthClaire's former husband, the narrator of the novel; intrusive attempts by anthropologists to treat him as a scientific specimen; a tele-evangelist who tries to take advantage of Adam's instant celebrity and interest in spiritual matters; and, most seriously, attacks by the local Klu Klux Klan, who find his marriage to a white woman disgusting. Bishop makes his point by contrasting the actions of Adam and his enemies - it is our behaviour which makes us human, not our genes. Adam is revealed to be human in the ways that matter, with his attackers exposed as lacking in human virtues. (The narrator is mainly just confused rather than having an abiding hatred for Adam.)

The attacks on Adam brigh real tragedy to the novel, especially as it explores the stupid inhumanities of racism. Its major flaw is that Adam is made far too saintly to ever really come alive as a character (something which could also be said about Michael Smith), though the other characters go a fair way to making up for this. It has strangely never been as well known as its companion novel, No Enemy But Time (which features a time traveller joining a group of homo habilis), but to me Ancient of Days is one of the best science fiction novels of the 1980s.

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