Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In Michael Bishop's 1982 Nebula Award winning novel No Enemy But Time, Michael Bishop sent his protagonist back in time to fall in love with an Australopithicus afarensis. In his 1985 novel, Ancient of Days, Bishop reversed the process to bring an Homo habilis named Adam into modern day Georgia to fall in love with RuthClaire Loyd, a modern woman. This allows Bishop to examine modern reaction to this type of relationship, something which he could not do in No Enemy But Time.
Ancient of Days does not work quite as well as No Enemy But Time because rather than tell the story from Adam's or RuthClaire's viewpoint. Instead, he examines their relationship through the eyes of Paul Loyd, RuthClaire's ex-husband. As the relationship grows, so too does Paul. Beginning the novel hopeful that he can re-claim RuthClaire and espousing the many of the racist attitudes frequently encountered in parts of the South, Paul grows to accept Adam's presence and even look upon the habiline as a friend.
Racism and relationships are not Bishop's primary goals in Ancient of Days, however. His main purpose, as it was in No Enemy But Time, is to examine what it means to be human. Non-speaking primitive Adam is more compassionate that the Ku Klux Klanners who attack Adam and RuthClaire. Similarly, Adam's quest for spiritual meaning demonstrates his own inquisitiveness as more than merely a survival instinct.
Bishop's writing shows a knowledge of prehistoric anatomy and, as much as possible, culture. He portrays his primitives with characterization and individuality while retaining the flavor of a pre-Homo sapiens species. Although much of this characterization and individuality is probably anachronistic, it works within the confines of the twentieth-century science fiction novel. Had Bishop failed to provide these aspects of Adam, his novel would also have been much less rich in texture. Unfortunately, in order to give Adam these characteristics, he had to make Adam a near genius in order to acclimatize to wearing clothes, learning sign language, reading and writing. The ease and speed with which Adam acquires these skills seems just a little to convenient. Furthermore, Adam's ability for complex and abstract thought is greater than many modern people's.
More importantly than showing Adam's humanity, Bishop can use the habiline's virtues to explore the social and individual problems of modern man. The members of the KKK and Paul Loyd's passive racism are only some of the social ills which Bishop targets in his work. Ambition, jealousy, nosiness and pettiness all come under scrutiny in Bishop's novel. Nevertheless, Bishop is not writing social satire with Ancient of Days. He's merely exploring the stated goals and ideals of modern man and looking at how man fails to live up to them. Although he does a good job, at the same time, Bishop falls into the trap of the noble savage, portraying Adam as less flawed because he comes from a more natural state than the twentieth-century.
There are some places where Bishop's novel is not convincing. T.P., the child RuthClaire and Adam have together, seems to age extremely quickly. When T.J. is taken out in public, RuthClaire and Paul both seem more than willing to allow anyone to take the infant from them, despite feeling the necessity to have a bodyguard present.
On the whole, Ancient of Days works well. Bishop has written a good book which takes a serious look at the serious topic of what being human really means. Although Adam is an habiline in the novel, he could just as easily have been an Asian, African, Native American or any other minority trying to find their place in an America dominated by caucasians. Bishop also has a talent for creating likable main characters, even when they are not acting in particularly admirable ways.
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