There are many who would take utopia to have static meaning: society achieves a state of perfection and there exists until the end of time (oh, you Christians…). Human dynamism and its trend toward perpetual change, however, would hint at said impossibility. Seemingly unable to plateau, the presentation of a static society thus makes for ironically interesting material. 1976 saw the release of two novels addressing the very idea: Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry and Michael Bishop’s And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (later renamed Beneath the Shattered Moons).
Ingram Marley is assistant to a magi named Gabriel Elk. A magi who stages neuro-dramas for the aristocracy on the island of Ongladred on the planet Mansueceria, Elk is able to get around his society’s restrictions on cultural performances by choreographing shows with reanimated bodies of the dead using leftover technology few, if any, still understand. Buying a corpse of a beautiful young woman in the early going, a new show debuts a few days later. Featuring a poetry reading, it incites strong political discussion amongst the bourgeois of Ongladred in the dinner discussion that follows. Ongladredan culture living under the perpetual threat of imminent collapse, when an attack from raiders does occur a few weeks later, Elk and Marley are called upon to employ their technology in defense. Trouble is, is the defense too late? Has Ongladred shot itself in the proverbial foot with its cultural practices?
As the title hints, And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees is an ambitious novel hovering in the regions of creativity, culture, technology, and societal evolution that does not readily explain itself. Bishop housing his commentary in a fair amount of symbolism, it’s a short but dense novel that packs a wealth of ideas and images that become something unique for the manner in which they are combined.
While I would not say And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees is a bad novel, it does suffer a bit of the sophomore blues. Perhaps a touch forced, Bishop’s arcane prose, while wholly enjoyable on a word by word basis, does not always complement the story being told, confuscating some scenes that would have been better rendered in a more lucid hand. Moreover, the complexity of the ideas does not always complement the simplicity of the plot. There are moments the two achieve synthesis, and still others where pulp sentimentality leaks too strongly through the literary representation. That being said, it’s better to come up short on the side of ambition than to have not tried at all; the novel, strictly in terms of ideas, remains a more enjoyable offering than the majority of production line sf on the market—yesteryear, 1976, or today. And this is all not to mention that the questions it raises regarding the relationship of creativity to social evolution remain relevant. All in all an intriguing novel well worth the time despite the shortcomings.
For a much better review, see Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.