Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review of The Samurai in the Willows by Michael Bishop

An abstract experience, describing Michael Bishop’s 1976 novella The Samurai and the Willows is not an easy task.  A writer conscious of every word put on paper, the narrative requires attention to glean full meaning.  The effect a desired one given the themes at work, lines such as “…she was damn glad to get away from that flute and fiddle, from the posturing zombie on the grandstand. It was OK for a while, but she didn't have Tyger-boy's knack of making what was ‘just mental’ into a kinetic showplace for her instincts. She kept looking at what she was doing and wishing she could shake off her skin and emerge into an unclad rioting of the blood.”, and another line “Seymour Glass, who loved the haiku, who lived when a man could let a cat bite his left hand while gazing at the full moon” are good representations of the prose used to tell the story.

Not allusive for the sake of being allusive, there is a tale pushed sporadically along by the prose of The Samurai and the Willows. Set in a futuristic Atlanta after an unnamed apocalyptic event has forced humanity to dome the surface and emigrate to levels underground, the novella tells the story of Queequeg, an eighteen year old rollergirl postman, and Basenji, a “thirty eight-or nine” year old horticulturist specializing in bonsai.  Queequeg full of life and a possessing a keen sense of fun, she is confronted by the brusque silence of Basenji’s past when the two come to share the same cubicle on level 9.  By the end of the tale, however, the two affect one another in powerful ways.

Touching upon some interesting ideas, The Samurai and the Willows has three main thematic prongs.  First is the evolution of culture and art.  Basenji condescending of Queequeg’s youthful view of what is aesthetically valuable, Bishop devotes part of the novella’s discussion to the importance of art, as represented by bonsai.  (There are no descents into the minutiae of the craft.) Secondly, Bishop looks at the theme of guilt and aging.  Though Basenji’s mother passed away year’s prior, a weight still tugs at his heart thinking of the woman and his relationship with her in the years leading to her passing.  Lastly, Bishop utilizes his knowledge and experience of Japan to imbue the story with its culture.  The samurai aspect metaphorical rather than actual, the window upon our Pacific neighbors is opened a little wider through the narrative.

An interesting read for its prose alone, The Samurai and the Willows is likewise recommended for its cultural and personal concerns.  A product of the New Wave movement, the era’s fingerprints nevertheless remain light.  Bishop poetically, subtly working his ideas into setting and character, it’s an accomplished hand telling an accomplished story.


  1. AH, I just reviewed Bishop's And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (variant title: Beneath the Shattered Moons) (1976). Recommended... Do you really think it's New Wave? I find his experimentation, or at least in And Strange, less about experimentation and more about beautiful images and just solid literary writing...

    All of these futuristic Atlanta stories were collected in Catacomb Years (1979) -- and he wrote a novel, forgot the name, set earlier about the city as well....

    1. Unfortunately, I cannot comment upon Bishop's novel work as I've yet to read one. The novella above and a handful of other short fiction are all that I've consumed. I dislike this state immensely; I see a variety of styles and themes in his writing that interest me greatly. The potential intrigues me.

      Whether or not Bishop's oeuvre is New Wave, I will leave it to you to comment upon as you have far more under your belt by the author than I. But while I agree there is room to question the categorization, I think there is enough evidence to get away with calling The Samurai in the Willows New Wave. It's written in a non-standard style; it's preoccupied not with space ships and laser fights but cultural and personal concerns; it was written during the timeframe most associated with the movement; and that it wants to be taken seriously all parallel my idea of New Wave sci-fi.

      Whether right or wrong, I usually throw literary science fiction written during the counter-culture movement into the New Wave bag as, generally speaking, I think their aims are largely the same. Feel free to enlighten me to the error of my ways. :)

  2. I would not consider Michael Bishop to be an author of the New Wave, a movement which took place in SF chiefly in the late sixties and early seventies, years before his first works began to regularly appear. (A movement, I might add, that was completely obliterated by the commercial success of bestseller SF novels in the space opera mode and the rise of the Fantasy novel series.) Bishop's work has been influenced by some of the main proponents of the movement, most certainly by J. G. Ballard, probably by Thomas M. Disch. ''The Samurai and the Willows" bears the smeared fingerprints of both. But you are correct that the aims of Bishop were in line with the New Wave movement, creating stories in which the characters are more important than the gadgets, in which plot was less important than narrative and style. That's not to say his works, especially the novels, aren't heavily plotted. It's just that the plot doesn't drive the narrative as it does in most hard SF.

    1. Having read more of Bishop's fiction since writing the post above, I can see your and Joachim's point. Therefore, I will say that The Samurai in the Willows is a New Wave-type story The overwhelming majority appears to have been influenced by its ideals (style, humanism, etc.), yet there likewise seems to be hints of reaching out, searching for more, looking for a means to enfold other elements - genre and otherwise.