Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction February 1988
By Orson Scott Card
The Secret Ascension, Michael Bishop (TOR, Cloth, 339 pp, $16.95)
After weeks of thought, I am still of two minds about this book, and so I
must give it two reviews -- both truthful, yet maddeningly opposite.
Review #1: Bishop's own title for this novel is Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas.
I have little patience with literary homage, and the four-page prologue was as bad
a piece of silly author worship as I've ever seen. But that worshipful tone
disappears the moment the story actually begins, and I urge you simply to skip
the section called "Prelude." It really isn't part of the book.
The Secret Ascension is set in an alternative version of the 1980s, one in
which there was no Watergate and Richard Milrose (not Milhouse) Nixon
managed to impose a kind of fascism on America during four terms in office.
Bishop's greatest strength has always been his ability to create characters
who are believable and believably good people. His knack does not let him
down here. We first explore this darker version of our world through the eyes of
Cal and Lia Pickford. Cal is a former Colorado cowboy now working in a pet
store in Atlanta. He has two secrets: one is his collection of samizdata
manuscripts of the banned science fiction novels of noted mainstream writer
Philip K. Dick; the other, which he keeps even from himself, is the terrible way
his parents died.
Lia, his wife, is a therapist trying to establish a practice. She came to
Atlanta, uprooting them from a decently happy life in Colorado, to be near her
aging, dying parents. This is the kind of character Bishop excels with: good
people who are willing to make quiet sacrifices for others, to take responsibility
Weaving among the living characters in Bishop's wonderful version of
Philip K. Dick himself, dead but still quite busy trying to save the world. Bishop
makes Dick the most funny yet endearing angel since Clarence in It's a
More than any other Bishop novel I've read, The Secret Ascension excels as
a story. There is a tension and danger from beginning to end. Perhaps this is a
product of the justified paranoia Bishop deliberately borrows from Dick; or
perhaps it is because this novel is more visceral, less cerebral than Bishop's
earlier works. Whatever the source of the change, it marks, I believe, an
important threshold in the writing of Michael Bishop. He has heretofore been a
writer's writer, creating beautiful stories that somehow never achieved the level
of intensity to make impassioned readers pass tattered paperbacks from hand to
hand. This time, however, the climax is not just an inward epiphany for a
character; the audience does not have to read the story thoughtfully. In The
Secret Ascension, the world changes in wonderful strange ways, and the audience
can read the book passionately, with sweating fingers, eager to see what happens
next, yet reluctant to leave the present moment.
Imagine: A writer who is already one of the best, taking risks and finding
ways to be better. A damn fine book, boys and girls.
Review #2: Every literary generation has its cheap villains, stereo-typed
characters that will make the audience boo and hiss the moment they appear
onstage. It was the greedy banker in the 19th-century melodrama; in 1970s
science fiction, it was the Big Nasty Corporation; and right now, the most
common cheap villain is a Falwellian or Bakkeroid TV preacher.
But I don't think there's any surer sign of authorial laziness or smugness
than taking potshots at Richard Nixon. He's the easy anti-icon of our time, the
man you can hate without having to explain why.
Bishop's hallmark in earlier works has been his refusal to create one-dimensional villains. He insists on empathizing with the bad guys, so that even
when we know that what they're doing is wrong, perhaps evil, we can still
understand how they justify their actions to themselves.
However, Bishop's version of Nixon is, not a character, but a caricature.
It excuses nothing to say that Bishop is creating an alternate history, or making a
political point, or "just writing fiction." The character is Nixon, Bishop makes a
monster out of him, and it turns his otherwise fine novel into an exercise in
What if a conservative had written a novel set in 1945, with Franklin
Roosevelt, at the beginning of his fourth term, having established a horrible,
repressive Communist dictatorship in the United States, murdering farmers in
the American midwest the way Stalin starved and slaughtered the kulaks of the
Ukraine? Would we not call such a book a cheap, mean-spirited political
And if the book ended with a repulsive scene in which Roosevelt was
revealed to be, not human at all, but a wheelchair-bound monster, Satan
himself, would we not dismiss the author of that book as a dishonest,
Yet to Roosevelt's enemies he seemed every bit as dangerous as Nixon
seemed to his. Roosevelt actually did run for four terms; he really did try to pack
the Supreme Court. But no author, however earnest his political beliefs, could
write a story about FDR so devoid of intelligence and compassion without
forfeiting at least some of the respect of his peers.
The difference is, so many of Bishop's peers agree with him in his hatred
of Richard Nixon that few will take him to task. Those who do will certainly be
accused of liking Nixon (just as those who opposed McCarthy were accused of
being pro-Communist). But as far as I can see, pinheadedness of the Left is not
better than pinheadedness of the Right. It's the same disease -- the refusal to
believe that your opponent might be reasonable, temperate, unselfish, sincere.
Yet when you refuse to admit that your enemy is even human, then it strikes me
that you, not your enemy, are the dangerous one.
Most frustrating of all -- the reason why I'm mentioning this at all, instead
of simply ignoring the book -- is the fact that Michael Bishop knows better.
And in this novel he could have done better. He could have provided some sort
of illumination, as he does in every other work of his I've read: a compassionate
explanation of the human heart. There is nothing in the first two-thirds of the
book that would stop Bishop from enlightening us, not until page 286, where he
begins his downhill slide into cheapness by using the hoariest cliche of all -- to
show us that his villain is really bad, he has Nixon planning to start an
unprovoked nuclear war.
Too many stupid stories have used the stock character of the madman who
wants to blow up the planet. This pseudo-menace might still have a place in
Saturday morning cartoons, but not in a book by Michael Bishop. And it is
indecent of him to suggest that Richard Nixon -- who is, after all, a real human
being, not a fictional construct -- would ever desire the destruction of the world.
How would Bishop feel if someone put him in a story and accused him of wanting
such a thing? The poetic license Bishop was issued at birth gives him the right
to say what he pleases; but I don't think it's right to use the right to deny
another human being's humanity, even in the supposedly harmless realm of
Irreconciliation: Because this book is wonderfully well made, those who
believe in art for art's sake and deny that stories should be judged on moral
grounds will delight in The Secret Ascension. So will those who hate Nixon
beyond reason. But those who believe that it is the moral dimension of stories
that makes them worth selling and hearing in the first place will be
uncomfortable with a book that perpetrates the literary equivalent of a lynching.
Analog Presents: "Thunder and Roses" by Theodore Sturgeon; "Rockabye Baby"
by S.C. Sykes, Bob Sessions, reader (Listen For Pleasure, Inc., 25 Mallard Road,
Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 1S4; 2 audiocassettes; $14.95)
Since I'm commuting four hours a week this fall through a radio-barren
stretch of North Carolina, I thought it was a golden opportunity to listen to
books and stories on cassette. This selection of two stories from Analog caught
my eye, mainly because, though "Rockabye Baby" was one of the best stories of
1985, it is also a very static, cerebral story -- not at all one that ought to work
well read aloud.
I was right and I was wrong. "Rockabye Baby" is a terrific story no matter
what, but the action and attitude of "Thunder and Roses" make it clear how
much better an action story works when read aloud. Unfortunately, "Thunder
and Roses" is so deeply tied to the 1950s that it has lost its immediacy; there are
constant reminders that, although some of the political issues are still alive, the
characters were created to live in a world we have long since left behind us.
Still, it delivers a strong message about acting for the good of humanity
instead of for national pride; and "Rockabye Baby" is still a searing story of a
man forced to choose between keeping his memories or remaining a quadriplegic.
Bob Sessions does a good job of reading, though he sometimes uses funny voices
as a substitute for dramatic interpretation of characters.
I'm a great believer in oral storytelling. The strengths of those
productions encourage me about possibilities, and the flaws point out all the
more clearly how far storytellers have moved from oral language in their written