Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review of No Enemy but Time by Michael Bishop

Mankind is a creature which occupies itself predominantly in the present.  Smoking, murder, alcohol abuse, poor diet, resource wastage—all of these habits and behaviors alleviate the moment but do nothing to bolster the idea a human is aware of, or concerned with, the long term existence of itself or the species.  Moreover, it’s fair to say that when one does bring in the long view, “recent” history and near future remain the focus.  Our primitive roots left to esoteric niches of science (archeology, anthropology, and the like) available almost exclusively in museum corners and textbooks, dinosaurs seem to get more attention than cromagnons.  But yet our slumped, hairy forbears are an essential part of the evolutionary formula that has brought homo sapien sapien to its current point of existence, for better and worse, and will always be, no matter what humans evolve into.

Extending the scope of genre fiction far beyond its most commonly held parameters, Michael Bishop’s 1981 No Enemy but Time goes back 2 million years in Earth’s history.  Though ostensibly a time travel story, reducing the narrative to that simple code would be a mistake; its content defies genre convention. 

But the novel does begin on such readily accessible terms.  Inspired by vivid dreams of the Pleistocene, Joshua Kempa has put in serious time studying after work and become a self-made scholar of the era.  His dreams, though occasionally invaded by anachronisms, have proven largely accurate when compared to existing research, and have allowed him to be recruited into a time travel project by the loquacious Dr. Blair.  After a short training period in the African bush, Kempa is dropped into the middle of the veldt 2 million years ago.  Among his meager supplies a data transponder, he goes about documenting the flora, fauna, and habilines he finds there.  But it’s when joining a tribe of the proto-humans that his life in the Pleistocene truly begins.

Joshua Kempa is far from the classic Heinlein or Clarke scientist.  A bastard child born to a black Spanish prostitute and an American soldier who visited her brothel, Kempa’s upbringing is not white picket fence and on to the Harvard anthropology program.  Dumped at the gate of an American enclave in Seville as an infant, Joshua is adopted by a family there and brought back to the States.  His adoptive father also military, Joshua moves from base to base as he grows older, and in the process takes notes of his dreams, all the while inquiring ever deeper into history textbooks.  But tragic circumstances and betrayal shift his life’s course; becoming an adult at an early age proves necessary for the troubled young Kempa.  Complementing the prehistoric portion of the narrative, Kempa’s present day narrative is every bit as informative, particularly as comparison to the point to which the human animal has evolved. 

A work that best fits into the soft science fiction category (but very loosely), No Enemy but Time foregoes bogging itself down in useless scientific speculation regarding the technical details that just might possibly perhaps maybe allow time travel.  There is a machine, it works, and Kempa is dropped off in the past—there to start the real story.  The focus on creating a humane base (literally), Kempa’s exploration of the habiline lifestyle is as imaginative as it is indicative of one side of the human spectrum.  Kempa’s present day narrative forming a point mid-spectrum, the novel’s coda forms the future end (more later).  Humanity presented as neither glowing with altruism or riddled with malevolency, Bishop presents a holistic view that contains realistic representation of both virtue and vice; Kempa is man with troubles and hopes, endearing characteristics and animal traits, and whose intentions play out across a scope of possibility, both wanted and unwanted.  His time in the Pleistocene underscoring this humanity, he obtains both sympathetic and symbolic status—a strong indicator of Bishop’s talents as a writer.

But No Enemy but Time tackles other subjects.  There is the obvious relationship of homo sapien sapien to prior evolutionary versions, something Bishop develops via a partnering of Kempa and a habiline female dubbed Helen.  Secondly, and fittingly given Africa is a main setting, is the subject of racism.  From the treatment of Kempa’s biological mother in Spain to the treatment of his adoptive mother in the supermarkets of Kansas, the prejudice each must deal with unsettles the reader, reminding them of the meaning of racism.  Bishop also develops the theme of racism via post-modern colonialism (i.e. commercial, not political takeover).  African countries remain African, their leaders likewise African, but through bribes and gifts of technology and weapons some countries are coddled into giving up resource rights and signing trade agreements for Western businesses to exploit.  These Westerners (in the novel’s case American) treat Africa like a commodity or specimen rather than a living entity home to the cradle of humanity, which in turn confirms our animal past and failure to take the next evolutionary step.  Some people in the novel have taken steps forward (like the sentient step homo sapien sapien took from homo habilis), but Western business remains stuck in primate mode.  Cutting commentary, indeed.

Before concluding this review, a note about the novel’s view of the other end of the temporal spectrum: the future.  Megan, from the highly recommended From Couch to Moon, has some quibbles with No Enemy but Time’s coda.  And rightfully so; indeed it appears incongruous.  The orientation, plot devices, and time stamp are different than the story which preceded it, not to mention skipping it allows the reader to finish on a semi-satisfactory note, the ambiguity of Kempa’s reality floating ethereally in the mind.  But in order to understand Bishop’s complete vision for the novel, the coda remains essential.  Shifting the narrative from ambiguous to unambiguous (i.e. giving it a focus point away from the past toward the future) accomplishes two things: firstly, it draws humanity from across the entirety of the temporal continuum into a whole picture rather than just two-thirds of it (after all, the title is “no enemy but time”).  And secondly, it puts a light at the end of what is a very dark tunnel.  In less allusive terms, this means the state of Africa Joshua is depicted as helping to have built is, in fact, a travesty.  Symbolized by the song-and-dance chimp show, Western interests are draining life from the region rather than imbuing it.  The events which occur after the show offer hope this can be overcome—something symbolized by the fate of Grub and her interlocutor. The coda thus provides the terms the prior narrative was lacking to give certain meaning.  The preceding narrative is wonderful to ponder, but giving it a compass point materializes Bishop’s ultimate vision: where we were, where we are, and where we should/could be. Without it, the formula would only be: where we were, and where we might be.

In the end, No Enemy but Time is a thought-provoking novel about humanity’s pre-human past, its all-too-human present, and the two’s relationship toward humanity’s future.  Story realized via vividly depicted scenes from pre-history and the puzzlingly human story of Joshua Kempa, Bishop does a masterful job relaying what life 2 million years ago in Africa might have been like, and combines it with a poignantly real present-day narrative (at least as it stood in the 80s) describing the life of one man caught in the interstices of culture, place, dream, and identity.  The result: an intelligent, complex story impossible to classify except as something liminally science fiction—just like another novel of similar components, William Golding’s The Inheritors.  One of those books that reveals new layers with each fresh realization, it is a sublimely bittersweet vision that transcends the page.

(For those readers wth slightly more time, I would like to add a footnote to this review and take issue with one comment I found on LibraryThing by user StigE, who states: “The main character and narrator [of No Enemy but Time] drops out of school at 15, yet the narrative voice is that of an old anthropologist. The remaining characters are flat stereotypes. The science is the scifi is of the new age variety. I am not sure what the author tried to convey about bestiality, racism or colonialism but sections of the book where the author touches on these topics made me feel acutely uncomfortable.”  This is failure at many levels.  Kempa, the main character, does not have the voice of an old anthropologist.  He does use a few fifty-cent words, but is never stuffy, overly formal, or pompous in his narration, as one would expect with an “old anthropologist”.  Not to mention, Bishop states all of Kempa’s free time is spent studying the Pleistocene, thus justifying what sophisticated verbiage he does use.  Secondly, the science is not that of the New Age variety. In the foreword Bishop writes he used the latest available archeological and anthropological research in writing the pre-history sections of the novel.  Regarding the time machine, it’s also clearly stated that it’s not an Asimov or Heinleinian construct, i.e. a “technically explainable thing”.  No grandfather paradoxes, it’s a simulacram of dreams—a tapping in of the collective unconscious, as it were.  Jung, as far as I know, is rooted in ideas more transcendent than the New Age.  And lastly, the fact the reader is made to feel uncomfortable is a direct indication of the novel’s success.  We should feel uncomfortable reading of racism and colonialism in the modern world. These are elements in need of being addressed in wider forums, and are not to be ignored simply because they discomfort.  Challenging reading, yes, but important reading.  Apologies for this rant, but I get frustrated when ignorance critiques ideas beyond its ken.)


  1. A thousand years later... lol...

    I love this review. It makes me want to reread No Enemy but Time. I think you're right that Bishop's change in tone at the end is deliberate and full of purpose. The fact that he switches to straight genre style in that final part makes me think he wants the modern-day world to feel less real and genuine when compared to Kempa's Pleistocene lifestyle. I love your linking of evolutionary steps to Bishop's characters: "Western business remains stuck in primate mode." That's a fabulous insight.

    I'm also bothered by the review you cite about Kempa's voicing. If I remember correctly, I thought the narrative was clear that Kempa was a self-educated person, and the juxtaposition of his blue collar occupations and high brow interests were very believable. If high school diplomas were an actual pathway to obtaining academic language, we'd be living in a very different world right now. If only.

    I see more criticisms about this book regarding the rationale behind Joshua's relationship with Helen, but I think this is Bishop's way of toying with the idea of humanity (and beauty) by showing Helen, who is so far back in the evolutionary chain, as more human than modern-day humans.

    It is a challenging, uncomfortable read, but it's just one of those books that will probably twist around in my head for the rest of my life. Must read more Bishop.

    1. I'd be curious of the details you read of the criticism of Joshua's relationship with Helen. Odd certainly yes, but I agree Bishop had an underlying point to make.

      The part that will stick in my head the rest of my life is the very last line of the book wherein Joshua swings like a monkey on a steel bar...

  2. "I'd be curious of the details you read of the criticism of Joshua's relationship with Helen."

    People are most critical of the idea that a modern-day human male would want to get it on with, or could even relate to, a Habiline female. It strikes some readers as being akin to bestiality. One review I remember quite vividly includes a picture of a museum display of a recreated Habiline head, but with lipstick and eye shadow photoshopped over it. (Which I, of course, greatly appreciated the humor behind that, even though I think the reviewer just didn't get what Bishop was trying to do. Still makes me snicker to think about it, though.)