Roger Zelazny’s 1966 This Immortal is a post-apocalyptic story which puts humanity on the stand and adjudges its value. Dashes of comic book violence tossed in to spice up the noir mood, the novel displayed multiple facets of the genre. Taking precisely the same idea yet shading the sensationalism with symbolism, Michael Bishop’s 1973 novella The White Otters of Childhood is likewise a quality read that critiques humanity’s worth.
The year 5309, mankind has somehow survived a second holocaust, its 2 million remaining souls living on the island of Guardian's Loop in the Caribbean. An alien group called the Parfects, aloof of human concerns, live beyond the seas silently watching and ensuring humanity does not extend beyond the island. Markcrier Rains, employee of the Sunken Library, is called upon to be an ambassador amongst the Parfects for a year. But it’s upon his return to the island that the story really starts. Falling in love with a friend’s daughter, he does so in the knowledge the island’s Navarch, a hairy man called Fearing Serenos, is likewise in love with the beautiful, disfigured woman. Rivalry, hatred, scorn, and revenge unraveling in the aftermath of the wedding, the island of Guardian’s Loop is never the same, the Parfects overseeing all.
Beyond the the vicious cycle of violence, Bishop utilizes the idea of biological modification—something easier to swallow given so many of the island’s inhabitants are less than physically perfect specimens in the aftermath of the second holocaust—to express a fundamental part of mankind’s behavior. Something of H.G. Wells Island of Dr. Moreau interwoven into the proceedings, on the surface the surgeries feel cheesy, yet do possess a symbolic sub-text that links to wider ranging ideas.
The White Otters of Childhood is not an uplifting story, for lack of a better expression. Criticizing humanity’s repeated failure to see beyond its own nose, Bishop, like Zelazny (and Gene Wolfe in the Book of the New Sun for that matter), utilizes aliens as objective overseers—a proverbial eye in the sky—capable of determining our species fitness for civilized existence. Not overdone, the Parfects play little role in the story. The evolution of the anti-hero Markcrier’s character playing the strongest role, it is in the contrast of the denouement that the reader finds the novella’s message - a slingshot as it were.
In the end, The White Otters of Childhood is more quality literature from Michael Bishop. One of science fiction’s most quality writers of short fiction, this is a strong novella exposing the darker side of human nature in mimetic and symbolic fashion. Given the motif of revenge in a strange, futuristic environment where not all is lasers and space ships, the plot bears strong semblance to a Jack Vance story, whereas thematically and metaphorically, it is more in line with the work of Brian Aldiss, Zelazny, Wolfe, or Wells—the culmination resulting in great material that can be read more than once.