THEY REALLY couldn't be less alike, but we'd better mention them in the same breath anyway: No Enemy But Time (Timescape, $15.95) and Quest for Fire (at your local movie house). As Michael Bishop's strikingly intelligent new science fiction novel does deal with the origin of homo sapiens in deepest Africa, it might seem to be jumping on the bandwagon created by Jean-Jacques Annaud's enormously popular new film, in which a hairy blond hominid looks for the secret of fire and finds the missionary position. Lightning strikes. Evolution leaps. A star is born.
All of which may be great fun, but it reduces the long drama of human evolution to a kind of spastic cakewalk, making light of the anguish and nonsense of the joys. Though much of No Enemy But Time is actually very funny, none of these strictures really applies to it, for Bishop knows his paleoanthropology, knows about the painful slowness of any genuine evolutionary progress, and also knows that when we attempt to focus a dramatic spotlight on the lifestyles of "Homo Habilis" or "Australopithecus Afarensis," it is all too likely that what we are illuminating is ourselves. The eyes that stare at us out of the deep past are our very own eyes.
A fundamental precept of the modern philosophy of science--that knowledge of the world is after a fashion only self-knowledge told in a different narrative voice-- lies at the heart of much of Bishop's best work in the past, but never more clearly or cogently than in No Enemy But Time. Though parts of it are indeed told in the third-person, which is the usual way we go about describing the external world, it soon becomes clear that the novel as a whole actually consists of its hero's memoirs, and that every event recounted comes to us through the obsessed consciousness of Joshua Kampa, late 20th-century drifter, time traveler, lover of a protohuman female, dead now for 2 million years.
Born of a deaf-mute Spanish whore, raised under the name of John-John Monegal in the American high plains by the couple who have adopted him, Joshua spends his youth and young manhood trying to make sense of the dreams that have haunted him since infancy. He learns that these "hallucinations" are astonishingly accurate reconstructions of what life must have been like in Africa at the time of "homo habilis," according to the best theories available in 1985. Eventually he forces himself upon the eminent anthropologist whose African discoveries have most closely confirmed his dreams, and finds himself immediately co-opted into an international time travel project.
Designated "White Sphinx" in honor of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, this project is based on the discovery that individuals like Joshua actually dream genuine echoes of the past, time travel itself being a technologically- enhanced form of dreaming, in which the dreamer can actually visit the promised land and return with physical proofs of the trip. After guiding his machine into the Africa of 2 million years ago, Joshua engages there in a kind of profound dreamwork, for it is his dual intention to investigate the nature of man's roots, and to come to terms with his own.
In the world of dreams, knowledge of the world and self-knowledge may be the same thing, but Bishop avoids any easy reduction of his complex, glowing, crystal-clear novel to a tale of self-delusion. In chapters that alternate the real past and the real present, No Enemy But Time gradually builds into a work of thrilling significance both as science fiction and as a study of character. In his anguish and his raunchiness and his weird autodidact's slang, Joshua Kampa is a creation of the highest order, and No Enemy But Time could be a shoe-in for an award or two.
For years now, Barrington J. Bayley has been cultivating his patch in near obscurity, publishing at least 10 novels and two story collections without ever making the impact his work merits. Though The Pillars of Eternity (DAW Books, $2.25) isn't likely to make that breakthrough for him, being shorter and a touch more perfunctory than usual, all the same it's a typical Bayley marriage of space opera and metaphysics. It's an easy introduction to his work. Tortured by memories of a supremely painful accident, gloomy space freighter Captain Joachim Boaz, whose bones have been replaced by a skeleton of silicon chips, and whose name represents the two pillars of eternity of Solomon, ranges the galaxy in an effort to bring time to a halt, or at any rate to nudge it a little. Because time is cyclical, so that he'll have to suffer his terrible accident all over again the next time the universe occurs, Boaz is determined to jar the pillars just enough to dodge the eternal return. Despite a galaxy-wide tyranny bent on recycling itself forever, he succeeds, with a great bang.
Speaking of recycling, Isaac Asimov has been persuaded by his publishers to reassemble all of his robot stories into one omnibus volume. The Complete Robot (Doubleday, $19.95) collects everything from "Robbie" (1940), which was the first robot story of this the most famous series of robot stories in the world, down to "The Bicentennial Man" (1976), which is the last of any significance, and just about the best story Asimov has ever written. (This may not be saying a great deal. It has become clearer and clearer over the years that Asimov is a much better novelist than storyteller, and that his best treatments of the robot theme are in two novels, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, which are not included here.)
The trouble with most of the short stories lies in Asimov's fidgety preoccupation with the famous three laws of robotics, which he concocted round about 1940, which have been an imaginative inspiration to roboticists over the years, and which read as follows:
1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.
As take-off points for speculations about how to construct an artificial intelligence with feet, the laws are fine stuff; but as any close analysis of the wording would show (and has often shown), they are full of some very deep semantic pitfalls indeed. Unfortunately, Asimov has been unable to leave these pitfalls alone, and most of his robot stories are dramatized seminars about one loophole or another. So many are the loopholes, and so devastating the consequences of any robot taking advantage of them, that many readers (myself included) would do almost anything to avoid living next door to one, three laws or no three laws.
Certainly robots are in our collective future. And maybe next door, too. A more up-to-date perspective on our fate is provided by John Sladek in volume one of Roderick (Timescape/Pocket, $2.75), a very very funny, very long novel (volumes two and three are in the press) about the birth, infancy, education and adventures of a young robot.
In his January science fiction column for Book World, Peter Nicholls characterized Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun "as a new literary form, the continuously recursive picaresque." Difficult words perhaps, but very handy if one wants to describe a book like Roderick. On the surface it's a traditional picaresque novel, with a few twists. Manufactured at the University of Minnetonka with the aid of funds stolen from NASA, Roderick is soon orphaned and packed off in a box to a small American town; there he is raised by humble foster parents, taught human ways by watching soap operas on television, kidnapped by gypsies, and seems about ready to take off for the big city as part one closes. But, as Nicholls says of Wolfe, "just as in an Escher picture, . . . the surface elements . . . rearrange themselves in a most disturbing fashion in the reader's mind." As Roderick becomes more and more human, the human characters who surround him become more and more mechanical. As he develops something like a free mind, rather like Huckleberry Finn's, his human associates become increasingly imprisoned by their obsessions, which are usually mercenary.
As Roderick tries to make sense of human life, and fails, the surface of his world dissolves into a jangle of clockwork puns and conundrums. But under that surface, a calmer, cooler order begins to take hold, and as the further installments of this hilarious, painful, profoundly speculative novel appear, we may find Roderick joining forces with free intelligences like his own. For it begins to look as though Sladek is trying to tell us something vital. In a godless world where people behave like cuckoo clocks, he may be telling us that it takes more than a human to be free.