Sunday, March 30, 2014

Michael Bishop "Close Encounters With The Deity": book review

Encounters with mystical, supernatural, or otherwise incomprehensible beings and forces are the topic of Michael Bishop's story collection "Close Encounters With The Deity". Some of those beings are gods, some are aliens, and some are not even creatures, but metaphysical notions. The results are... mixed. These stories might cause you feel a little let down by lack of satisfying endings, but they might also stay with you long after you finished them. They make a good case that a solid ending isn't necessary for a story to have lasting power.

These are not plot-driven stories: in many of them, the main thing that happens is the protagonist's inner transformation. An exception is the story about people who are forced to watch movies, which has a lively plot. Sometimes an inner transformation is accompanied by an outer one, like the story Dogs' Lives. The incomprehensible, mystifying being in it is the protagonist itself, or rather who/what he becomes in the course of his life. His life is shown through his memories of various dogs he shared it with; so in other words, it's about dogs' encounters with a (semi-)deity. Perhaps they were a thread connecting him to the humanity as he became transhuman.

But most commonly the characters do nothing but talk (or merely think) about inexplicable things that are happening to them. Yes, they feel profoundly affected, but they don't take any action. In fact, many times they let themselves be lead "off a cliff" by mysterious forces, at which point the story falls off the cliff as well. The protagonist does not understand, let alone accomplish, anything. Such are the stories Alien Graffiti, and A Spy in The Domain Of Arnheim. In the latter, a guy wakes up in a 19th century hotel room without knowing who he is, and starts taking orders from a voice coming from a gramophone. In some other stories, like Voices, the protagonist's adventure culminates in an encounter with a deity, but hardly anything changes for the protagonist. Well, he may become a tiny bit different inside. Maybe he wanted to meet a deity, and he got it. But what of it? No epiphany follows.

Yet even those stories are interesting in a way, because the characters are interesting people, and their adventures, though disappointing the end, can be intriguing while they last. Nevertheless, both I and the other person who attended the book club where we discussed this book (yes, this was a sparsely-attended meeting) thought the most enjoyable stories were those that delivered a payoff at the end. The examples are:

-- the puzzlingly titled Storming The Bijou, Mon Amour: a story about people who are forced to spend their own lives watching movies. If they dare not pay attention, their souls are erased when law enforcers take a picture of them. The protagonist sets out to investigate what or who is behind the movie projector.

-- A Gift From The Graylanders: a story revolving around childhood nightmares and a threat of nuclear annihilation. As a side note, nuclear annihilation or its possibility is a common thread in this whole collection. That's not surprising, considering the era they it was written in.

-- And The Marlin Spoke. The last one contains both a personal transformation AND a plot. The plot does not tell us what exactly happened, but the suspense in it is resolved so nicely, and the protagonist's quest is achieved in such a fulfilling way that I didn't feel let down.

The last story in the book, "The Gospel According to Gamaliel Crucis", deserves a separate mention -- we spent more time discussing it than any other story. It was singled out in the foreword as a kind of tale that might seem risky for an editor to publish, as it might alienate the audience; but that nevertheless needs to be published, because religion shouldn't be beyond criticism or examination. This novella mimics the Bible in its format, down to numbering of the verses; only the savior this time is an insectoid, female alien named Mantikhoras. She acquires four disciples, and they go about spreading her religious teachings much like Jesus and his apostles.

But... like many stories in this book, it leaves you wondering both what was the point of this particular messiah's coming, and of writing a "remake" of the Bible. It wasn't written for the shock value, because it's told in a sympathetic, non-parodying way. Nor does it say, here is how things would be different if a messiah were an insectoid and the event was set in modern times; nor does it make a compelling case that things would always play out the same. Basically, this story does not try to make any point. I'd say that if you are offering your take on a universally known story, you kind of need a point.

On the other hand, most of these stories are best enjoyed if you don't expect them to have a point. (Love's Heresy may be the only one with a clear message, and the only one that takes a clear stance on religious matters.) Mostly they just show humanity's wish for divine revelations as if in a warped mirror; humans assume that supernatural forces have certain agendas, perhaps to teach a moral lesson, to enact what their holy books say they should enact, but inevitably those forces act in ways that are often cruel, pointless, and incomprehensible to us -- perhaps because there is no secret meaning to comprehend.

I would recommend this collection to a reader who does not expect a plot, but enjoys a different, puzzlingly skewed view of religious and supernatural matters. The stories are highly atmospheric, and the characters really come to life. An example of that is Bob Dylan in The Bob Dylan Tambourine Software story. The image of Bob Dylan that comes through in this story is much like an image of Bob Dylan one can glimpse from his song lyrics (I never heard him speak, so I don't know if there is any correlation with the real person). In this imaginary, alternate-universe interview he explains his motivation for quitting music and instead writing software to facilitate people's religious experiences.

So: peculiar mood, bizarrely imagined situations, well-drawn characters, a view of religion that does not judge or take sides, but calmly observes how weird people's religious leanings can be, to what counterintuitive places they may lead -- all of those are reasons to read this book.