Monday, July 7, 2008

Review - No Enemy But Time

No Enemy But Time
by Michael Bishop
1982 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

You know a novel is dated when its reformers have become monsters. I found the positive references to Robert Mugabe in the book ironic given recent history. Not that this has a whole lot to do with the quality of the book but it stood out to me.

When I picked up No Enemy But Time I noticed it was published by Timescape Books and I became concerned. A publishing line based on a pretentious, poorly attempted fusion of mainstream fiction and traditional science fiction? I had a bad feeling but then I had second thoughts. How could I start basing a first impression of a book from a book by another author? Just because a large publisher used a lousy book as the launching point for a line doesn't mean that every book in that line is going to share the faults of that book. Should I assume that ever book from Dan Brown's publisher is an overhyped mess written to the level of ten year olds? So having chided myself I abandoned those preconceptions and started reading.

Then I hit page four.

As a note to any potential authors reading this putting a thinly disguised metaphor intended to excuse your novel's choppy structure in the first few pages is a very bad idea. Nothing says I'm a self-important writer with delusions of artistic grandeur but little actual talent than wrapping up things in unnecessary metaphor.

After being told that the novel will be randomly shuffled like a deck of cards and that I should just go along with it because minor details like a narrative arc don't really matter I did something that I don't usually do: I started keeping notes on all the flaws and things that got on my nerves.
Typically I don't keep notes because I'm reading these books mainly for my own pleasure and just relating my opinion on them but for a book to take such a deadly misstep immediately I knew I was in for a Hominids-esque crawl. I stopped this when I got annoyed with stopping every page or two to note a new problem.

Sufficed to say I hated this book. It recounts the life of a man who dreams of Africa a hundred thousand years ago. A process is invented that allows people who dream of distant times to soft-of time travel to them. Exactly what "sort-of" is rather confusing, involves spoilers, and goes well outside the scope of this review except to say that it involves a deus ex machina that isn't really consistent with the other ways time travel is used in the book. As he travels to the distant past he follows a pre-human tribe and gets involved in a sexual relationship with one of them. The chapters detailing the time travel are intersped with scenes from his life before he went on the trip; sometimes these flashbacks play off of the events in the previous chapter but more often they're just random sequences.

One of my pet peeves is on full display in this novel as the research time travel trip to the dawn of humanity is so fundamentally unprepared for even the elementary aspects of this research. He isn't carrying so much as a pad and pencil to take notes on, lacks any kind of camera, and takes only the barest of supplies. When the communication device for contacting the future immediately fails he plunges on to intentionally spend weeks out of contact rather than going right back through the open hole in time which they can reopen at any time so they can double check things before proceeding.

On a particularly creepy note when the narrator encounters one of the female members of the tribe he follows the descriptions make it clear that even though the other people aren't quite human (or even homo erectus) she's sexually attractive. It makes it obvious that this woman will be the love interest despite the fact that it's dancing on the line of beastiality.

Continuing my lessons of what not to do as a writer do not make your main character a smarmy, self righteous jerk who is always morally and intellectually right. Do not make them the focus of the book so they can constantly put all the lesser beings in the book (which would be everyone) in their place with a few words. Do not make the conflicts in your novel be about how everyone else is wrong and that obnoxious main character is always right.

If the plot wasn't bad enough the writing carries similar flaws. For example, at the beginning of one chapter the tense changes from present tense to past tense in an attempt to demonstrate the time travel division but this isn't carried over to any other divisions between past and present in the novel which just makes it feel sloppy. Bishop alternates between using first person and third person view completely unnecessarily between chapters.

This book is terrible on so many levels. The plot is painful. The characters are among the worst I've ever read about. If that wasn't enough the prose feels like the results of a college English major trying to write the most important book ever. Avoid this one like the pages are printed on pressed ebola virus pulp.