All cities are built on voiceless narratives (5/5)
Buying Michael Bishop’s Catacomb Years was a wise investment, albeit an impulse buy at the second-hand bookstore. This is the only Bishop novel, or collection, I own. Originally, it was going to stay stacked in my to-be-read pile for 3-4 years in the future (hey, I have a lot of catching up to do in my library) but the alluring cover proved too much… that and Joachim Boaz manhandled me from 8,700 miles away into reading it for his collection of guest posts on the work of Michael Bishop.
You’d be a dullard if you weren’t initially struck by either the premise or the cover art: As history barrels forward in a the manner of a drunkard, American cities like Atlanta eventually cap themselves in domes under the idea of Preemptive Isolation, only to suffer the pangs of dying from its onset of birth. Along with the novel A Little Knowledge (1977), pristinely reviewed by Heloise Merlin, these two books complete Bishop’s Urban Nucleus series.
Rear cover synopsis:
“They were the great years. the years after the U.S.A. was dissolved, after he domed cities were sealed, after the aliens from 61 Cygni had arrived… before they had converted to Christianity!
As rich and outrageous as Faulkner crossed with Heinlein, Michael Bishop’s Future History of the Urban Nucleus of Atlanta chronicles a New South of Near-Future people by born-again aliens, jumpsuited glissadors, child-embodied immortals, Mall guys, fall guys and two improbable lovers looking upward toward the stars. Its publication is one of the major SF events of the decade.”
Two things strike the reader when they learn that Catacomb Years is a collection of stories about a city under a dome: (1) The Why and (2) The How. As for the history WHY the domes were constructed, the book contains (1) a 5-page dated chronology covering the span of time of the stories and (2) a 4-page “Prelude: The Domes”. As for HOW… well, like I said, you’d be a dolt if you didn’t think seven stories of a domed city would be intriguing… but Bishop doesn’t play his fiddle for dolts; he has smartly written humanistic stories of people in the city rather than of the inner workings of the city-cum-Urban Nucleus called Atlanta, itself.
In writing humanistic stories, Bishop takes the high path and ignores the common narratives of the elite (affluent or influential), the powerful (administrators or politicians) or the controversial (pop stars or prostitutes [same thing, right?]). Ignoring these obvious narratives, Bishop instead hits upon the voiceless narratives of the common man in uncommon events—the muted accounts, the unheard secret history of the Urban Nucleus.
Each of these voiceless narratives has consequential ripples in the remaining stories, much as one rock can produce a lake-wide wave pattern. Though spanning generations, the momentum of the city’s subcutaneous reality-in-the-flesh builds to form its own dome of understanding around the Nucleus. With death, with suffering or with hope for renewal, these panels of the city’s geodesic narrative dome frame the city justly.
So, like Bishop’s exclusion of using the horse and pony show to impress the reader, I’ll just say what’s needed of the passing lives in Atlanta.
If a Flower Could Eclipse (1970, novelette) – 4/5 – Isolating himself in the corner of his classroom, the precocious Emory Coleman secretively toils away on his drawings down in black, his favorite color. Observing him through the glass are Fiona Bitler and Dr. Greer, his teacher and the behavioral psychologist, respectively. Considering Emory is the son of the man who assassinated Mz. Bitler’s husband, the situation is odd even before the two disappear together. 29 pages
Here, three individuals struggle to cope with the expectations of their respective role: Emory should be social and obedient yet his nature is reclusive and condescending; Fiona Bitler and Dr. Greer should both be objective in their study of young Emory, but personal needs blur the distinction between professional interests and emotional interests.
Old Folks at Home (1978, novella) – 4/5 – Zoe Breedlove’s own daughter volunteers her for a gerontological study. Though initially dismayed at her unsympathetic attitude toward her own mother, the Geriatric Hostel offers more than Zoe had dared hope. Adopted by, but not yet married into, the Phoenix septigamoklan (an elderly marriage grouping of seven), Zoe spends days and years among her kind in interests, kinship, and love. 49 pages
Unlike an assisted care facility or whatever you want to call a prison for the elderly, the Geriatric Hostel’s program doesn’t simply doll out the meds and swap bedpans every so often. In the septigamoklan, similar to a group of responsible children left on their own, they form a bond amongst themselves and even indulge in eccentricities for the intrinsic need for happiness.
The Window’s in Dante’s Hell (1973, shortstory) – 4/5 – Dead bodies in the urban Nucleus are better left to the unemotional servo-units, in which they simply dispose of the body into the city’s Level 9 recycler. An elderly body’s death stirs up curiosity and morbidity in the city’s Biomonitor Agency, resulting in Ardry and his boss’s son descending the levels to see the dead body. Rather than shock, they experience interest and sadness in the woman’s obsession with an old sci-fi TV series. 17 pages
Ignoring death is to be scared of our shared finality, the one common trait that makes us human: we live, we die. When Ardry and Newlyn come upon the dead woman’s home, the presence of her corpse isn’t as haunting as the elaborate mockup of a starship bridge—an eerie reminder than the death of history walks as a zombie in the minds of others.
The Samurai and the Willows (1976, novella) – 5/5 – Inhabiting Level 9 by trade and inhabiting the same level by choice, Georgia Cawthorn and Simon Fowler, respectively, share a room but not much else: He, a lithe Japanese figure with a fixation on samurai philosophy and bonsai pruning; she, an Amazonian glissaor of crass approach. Their physical proximity develops into a mutual interest and eventual, though slowly evolving, emotional interest of opposites attract. 45 pages
Impassioned by the art of patience and sacrifice, Simon writes of his daily philosophical struggles and toils selflessly with his bonsai trees. Perhaps the extrinsic looks of nobleness endear him to his toiling, but it’s his internal friction which catches him by surprise. When he sacrifices his vanity for a want, his hesitation is a blow to his esteem, so he must sacrifice one last thing.
Allegiances (1975, novella) – 4/5 – Contrary to popular belief under the dome of Atlanta, life still exists and even thrives in the Open. Newlyn Yates, now of the Biomonitor Agency with extended powers, enlists Clio Noble and a Native American, with the alias of Alexander Guest, to emerge from the Nucleus in order to procure two individuals of repute: Emory Coleman and Fiona Bitler. Having been in the open for some thirty years, they have privileged knowledge. 49 pages
Unbeknownst to most in the Urban Nucleus, the world beyond the Dome –itself a shield of ignorance—is fit for life. Once, the expansive roadways of Georgia served automobiles but in the year 2071, these same concrete arteries are chocked with verdant brush—an additional veil of ignorance keeping the domed citizens from knowing the truth about the US, Earth, and aliens.
At the Dixie-Apple with the Shoofly-Pie kid (1977, shortstory) – 5/5 – Julian had always been fascinated by the idea of aliens and so he wrote stories about them. When he learned that they really do exist, he wrote a story based on what he knew of the aliens and the Urban Nucleus: The Dixie-Apple Autumn Savings Sale is a draw enough for most, but the lone alien exhibition causes curiosity to soar, including Cullen, Bayangumay and her kids, one of which is about to run wild through the orderly store. 16 pages
This metafictional morsel allows Bishop to betray his assumed ambition—common man in uncommon events. The Autumn Savings Sale is a significant event for the commoner, but the relevance of the store’s rigid of aisle-passing rules and lax pricing system is insight into the more common inconveniences of Atlanta’s citizens and commentary on our own seasonal shopping habits.
Death Rehearsals (1979, novella) – 5/5 – Julian and his priestess wife live only doors down from the room where two dying aliens lay side-by-side. He is charged with their care—observing the two-year drawn out swansong in their cold tomb-to-be. Meanwhile, a poetic flyer penned by Leland Tanner stirs his soul; he offers the romantic aging man a place in his home and lands him a position at the Geriatric Hostel, where Leland finds work, love and too much truth. 69 pages
Leland Tanner (the same chief scientists from “Old Folks at Home”) is now, himself, an elderly man in need of similar company. To express his sorrow, he illegally prints a sheet of poems and, in doing so, meets the current director of the Geriatric Hostel, who he hopes to woo. Disappointingly, his only recourse for companionship are the dying aliens down the hall. Though he seeks personal closure, a more significant closure looms over all.