A Billion Days of Earth, 1976

Piserchia plumbs the depths of existential despair. Cool sentient rats. Not for the faint of heart.

The most feminist thing about this book is that everyone, male or female, dog-person, rat-person, flying cat-person, God, or barely sentient animal, is equally despicable. It's so far into the future that rats have evolved to human status, with all the parallels possible to our own society. Their world is a dark mirror, a judgement, of our own world--and the verdict: all it deserves is a clean death. Dank, murky, bloody, chaotic, depressing. It is one of my favorite books. It would make a classic movie if anyone had the nerve to do something this dark and anguished. Billion Days of Earth faces nihilism and despair head on, and makes you feel like there's hope, sort of. Well, not the best sounding recommendation, but read on.

Sheen, a flowing metallic blob just born to life, converses with a future rabbit, a "tare". This particular tare happened to be thoughtful, unlike most of the beings on the planet; "It was subnormal in intelligence because it wanted to find sense in this world of Three Million, A.D." Sheen confuses the tare thoroughly by declaring his love for it. Their encounter, and their conversation about love and existence, sets the stage for Sheen's swath of destruction across the planet. The tare tries to put its belief into words:

"One way you can tell what you love is by eliminating everything repulsive to you. You love what's left."

"Nothing is repulsive to me."

"Then you must be very inexperienced. As you go along you'll find plenty to turn your stomach. In fact, most of your life will be spent avoiding those things."

Sheen proves the tare wrong as he loves, hates, understands, seduces and absorbs the egos of most of the human (rat) race.

Is Sheen evil incarnate? Is Sheen just the earth's combination weed eater and garbage collector, consuming the weak? I think I would have to read Billion Days of Earth several more times and live a little bit longer to have anything coherent to say about this. But in any case we get to watch the rat-person society go to hell under the pressure of a seemingly malevolent alien force. If you can count as malevolent a creature who offers you eternal Heaven in exchange for your ego.

Rik, rat-descended person and first class asshole, realizes the world is ending. His wife Aril freaked out, went crazy, and got religion after their son Sten was born a vicious atavism. Not just retarded, dangerous; we're talking a mindless giant baby rat with claws and fangs. Aril is one of the few female characters, and she's not all that likeable. However, she provides definite food for feminist thought.

The Gods, the super-evolved descendents of homo sapiens, are worse than the rat-people; decadent, uncaring, isolated from each other and the rest of the world. Toying around pointlessly--like some academics and exceedingly wealthy people--takes all their time, energy, and tremendous power. They don't give a shit about much of anything.

Jak is Rik's best friend. He is a Leng, a creature evolved from ancient dogs; without the artificial hands of the rat-people, they are relatively helpless. He is oddly monkish; Sheen taunts him with his ancestry, implies he is doomed by his compassion, implies he's stupid because he's not cynical. All the characters in Billion Days of Earth are obvious manifestations of certain personality types, if you haven't noticed.

Most obvious feminist moment: Miss Lune, a sour, spinsterly rat-person who works in the artificial hand factory, suddenly realizes that Rik was right. She was living only for her job.

"You were right," she said. "After the plant was gone I had nothing left but myself. It turned out to be enough. . . It took all this chaos to make me realize I never had anything else. I think it's a crime to sit back and watch your individuality go down the drain, but it's much worse when you approve of it. I'm talking about people in general. You don't get self-respect because someone respects you. Women couldn't see that."

"They'll see it now," said Rik.

"Only if they have guts. I don't know if they can do it."

"Do you care?"

"I'd be a liar if I said I didn't, but I'll tell you something more important than my caring what happens to them--their caring. If they don't care, it doesn't matter what I think."

Miss Lune is far from being scared of Sheen. She has him relaxed in her living room with his feet up, watching TV. They are going to have friendly philosophical discussions after dinner.

This is how I think of Doris Piserchia; serving tea to the Devil while they politely discuss metaphysics. Like Sheen, she has used her life to stretch her mind to encompass humanity in all its frailty, greed, pettiness, energy and beauty.

--Liz Henry, 1995, from Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Utopia.

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- tom moody 3-10-2002 5:10 am