Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #63 of 107: “The House of Compassionate Sharers” by Michael Bishop
“The House of Compassionate Sharers” by Michael Bishop first appeared in the science fiction magazine Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy in May 1977. David Hartwell was the editor. This is a science fiction magazine I have no memory of ever seeing or reading. Although checking my digital files, I see I have all four issues. Bishop had stories in the first and last issues. (There is so much science fiction to read, and so much science fiction history to study.)
“The House of Compassionate Sharers” was selected for three best-of-the-year anthologies (Wollheim/Saha, Terry Carr, and Gardner Dozois). Meaning, this novelette was well admired in 1978. I’m not sure what to think of the story at the end of 2021.
Dorian Lorca is a monster to himself. After an accident, he is rebuilt with metal and plastic which alienates himself from his own body. I should sympathize with this posthuman man, but I never do until almost the end. The story is about compassion and transcendence, but it mostly struct me as decadent. It is creative, especially the made-up words and imagined far-future settings. But the story feels alien to me like Dorian feels about his body. Bishop could have intended this, but I’m not sure. Here’s how it starts:
In the Port Iranani Galenshall, I awoke in the room Diderits called the Black Pavilion. I was an engine, a system, a series of myoelectric and neuromechanical components, and the Accident responsible for this enamel-hard enfleshing lay two full M-years in the past. This morning was an anniversary of sorts. By now I should have adjusted. And I had. I had reached a full accommodation with myself. Narcissistic, one could say. Which was the trouble. “Dorian? Dorian Lorca?” The voice belonged to KommGalen Diderits, wet and breathy even though it came from a metal speaker to which the sable drapes of the dome were attached. I stared up into the ring of curtains. “Dorian, it’s target day. Answer, please.” “I’m here, my galen.” I arose, listening to the quasi-musical ratcheting that I make when I move, a sound like the concatenation of tiny bells or the purring of a stope-car. The sound echoes through the porcelain plates, metal vertebrae, and osteoid polymers holding me together, and no one else can hear it. “Rumai’s here, Dorian. May she enter?” “If I agreed, I suppose so.” “Damn it, Dorian, don’t feel you’re bound by honor to see her! We’ve spent the last several brace-weeks preparing you to resume normal human contact.” Diderits began to list: “Chameleodrene treatments, hologramic substitution, stimulus-response therapy. You ought to want Rumai to come in to you, Dorian.” Ought. My brain was—and remains—my own, but the body Diderits and the other kommgalens had given me had “instincts” and “tropisms” specific to itself, ones whose templates had a mechanical instead of a biological origin. What I ought to feel, in human terms, and what I felt as the occupant of a total prosthesis resembled each other about as much as blood and oil. “Do you want her to come in, Dorian?” “I do.” And I did. After all the biochemical and psychiatric preparation, I wanted to witness my own reaction. Still sluggish from a drug, I had no idea how Rumai’s arrival would affect me. At a parting of the pavilion’s draperies, two or three meters from my couch, Rumai Montieth, my wife, appeared. Her garment of overlapping latex scales, glossy black in color, was a hauberk revealing only her hands, face, and hair. Rumai’s dress was one of Diderits’s deceits, or “preparations”: he wanted me to see Rumai as little different from myself, a creature as well assembled and synapsed as the engine I had become. But her hands, face, and hair—well, nothing could disguise their primitive humanity, and revulsion swept over me like a tide. “Dorian?” And her voice: wet, breath-driven, expelled through moistened lips. I turned away. “No,” I said to the speaker overhead. “It hasn’t worked, my galen. Every part of me cries out against this.” Diderits said nothing. Was he still out there? Or had he tried to bestow on Rumai and me a privacy I didn’t want? “Disassemble me,” I urged him. “Link me to the control systems of a delta-state vessel and let me go out from Miroste for good. You don’t want a zombot among you, Diderits—an unhappy anproz. You’re all tormenting me!” “And you, us,” Rumai said. I faced her. “As you’re very aware, Dorian, as you’re very aware…Take my hand.” “No.” I didn’t shrink away, I merely refused. “Here. Take it.” Fighting my disgust, I seized her hand, twisted it over, and showed her its back. “Look.” “I see it, Dor.” I was hurting her. “Surfaces, that’s all you see. Look at this wen.” I pinched the growth. “That’s sebum, fatty matter. And the smell, if only you could—” Rumai drew back, and I sought to quell a mental nausea almost as profound as my regret….To venture out from Miroste seemed the only answer. Around me I wanted machinery—thrumming machinery—and the sterile, actinic emptiness of vacuum. I wanted to become the probeship Dorian Lorca, a clear step up from my position as prince consort to the governor of Miroste. The Big Book of Science Fiction (pp. 637-638). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
This is a great setup, but Dorian is sent to Earth, to a rather strange place which is called the House of the Secret Sharers. The leads me to imagine the retreat is for transhuman beings who must integrate their old and new selves. But Bishop mystifies things, even suggesting that the house is also a bordello. Thus, the mood shifts to the kinky, and I wonder if the treatment is like sex therapy. Back in the 1970s, there were all kinds of strange therapies, encounter groups, psychological theories, so this story fits well with the times.
Bishop keeps showing us how disturbed Dorian thinks and feels.
My body was a trial. Diderits had long ago told me that it—that I—was still “sexually viable.” But this promise I had not tested, nor did I wish to. Tyrannized by vivid images of human viscera, human excreta, human decay, I’d been rebuilt of metal, porcelain, and plastic, as if from the substances—skin, bone, hair, cartilage—that these inorganic materials mocked. I was a contradiction, a quasi-immortal masquerading as one of the ephemera who’d delivered me from their own short-lived lot. Paradoxically, my aversion to the organic was another human (i.e., organic) emotion. So I fervently wanted out. For over a year and a half on Miroste, I’d hoped that Rumai and the others would see their mistake and exile me not only from themselves but also from the body continuously reminding me of my total estrangement.
Will this be how cyborgs will feel? Bishop assumes the replacement parts will make us loath our flesh, but I would think it would be the other way around.
Once Dorian meets his sharer, the story takes a bondage twist. And I’m afraid it gets a little too weird for me.
Yes, two light-sensing image-integrating units gazed at me from the sockets near which my thumbs probed, and even in this darkness the Sharer, its vision sharper than my own, could discern my blind face staring down, futilely trying to create an image out of the information that my hands had supplied. I opened my eyes and saw only shadows, but my thumbs felt the cold metal rings gripping the Sharer’s photosensitive orbs. “An animatronic construct,” I said, rocking back on my heels. “A soulless robot. Move your head if I’m right.” The Sharer continued motionless. “All right: a sentient creature whose eyes have been replaced with an artificial system. Lord, are we brothers then?” I had a sudden hunch that the Sharer was very old, a senescent being owing its life to prosthetics, transplants, organs of laminated silicon. Its life had been extended by these gizmos, not saved. I asked the Sharer about this hunch. It slowly moved the helmetlike skull housing its fake eyes and its aged compassionate mind. Uncharitably, I considered myself the victim of a deception, the Sharer’s or Wardress Kefa’s. Here, after all, lay a creature who had chosen to prolong its life rather than escape it, and who had willingly employed the same materials and methods that Diderits had used to save me. “You might have died,” I told it. “Go too far with these contrivances, Sharer, and you’ll forfeit suicide as an option.” Leaning forward again, I let my hands move from the Sharer’s bony face to its throat. Here a shield of cartilage graded upward into its jaw and downward into the silken plastic skin covering its body, internalizing all but the defiant skull: a death’s-head with the body of a man. I could take no more. I rose from the stove-bed, cinched my gown, and crossed to the room’s far side. It held no furniture but the bed, so I assumed a lotus position on the floor and sat thus all night, staving off dreams. Diderits had said that I needed to dream to sidestep both hallucination and madness. In the Port Iranani Galenshall, he had had drugs administered to me every day and my sleep period monitored by an ARC machine and a team of electroencephalographers. But my dreams veered into nightmares, descents into klieg-lit charnel houses. I infinitely preferred the risk of going psychotic. Someone might pity and then disassemble me, piece by loving piece. Also, I had now lasted two E-weeks on nothing but catnaps, and I still had gray matter upstairs, not chopped pâté.
The story continues along this path, into a deeper strangeness. We meet two clones who are sick and disturbed, but we want to gawk at their trainwreck lives. Thankfully, the story eventually becomes positive, and I forgive it for taking me through scenes I didn’t want to see.
Here’s the thing about science fiction. Writers can write about anything they can imagine. So, why did Michael Bishop imagine this? Was he just feeling in a Dangerous Visions mood? Ellison’s anthology had wowed me in 1969, but it was disturbing. That was often true of the New Wave fiction I tried.
The 1970s was an exciting time for me personally, but in many ways, it was a downer of a decade. Often when I watch movies from that era I find them distasteful. I enjoy gritty film noir from the 1940s and 1950s, but I find the dirtier aspects of the 1970s dreary and depressing to remember. The 1970s has an anti-nostalgic taint with me. It’s like watching the HBO series The Deuce. For me, the 1970s was classic rock and computers. Now that I’m going back and picking over the science fiction stories, I don’t remember any feel-good stories. Is it any wonder that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was so popular.
But what’s the difference between “Fondly Fahrenheit” and “The House of Secret Sharers” when it comes to choosing between two disturbing works of science fiction? Why does Bester’s story leave me admiring the dazzle of science fiction, and Bishop’s story leaves me thinking science fiction is a bit grungy?
James Wallace Harris, 12/25/21