On the surface, Michael Bishop's anthropologically inclined science fiction appears deceptively simple. In his first novel, and unacknowledged masterpiece, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975), the premise (moving an alien people from a planet) evolves into a vast and complex anthropological tapestry filled with stories within stories creating an almost claustrophobic doubling of characters. In Stolen Faces (1977) the biological mystery of a virulent disease grows, tumor-like, into a brilliantly nightmarish exploration of bodily and societal decay and the gravimetric forces of memory.
Bishop's Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella, "Death and Designation Among the Asadi" (1973) follows a similar pattern. This novella--conceived as a series of notes and transcribed recordings compiled and published after the disappearance of their author, a cultural xenologist named Egan Chaney--forms the prologue to the expanded novel Transfigurations (1979). The mysteries of this powerful text within a text recounting Chaney's trip into The Synesthesia Wild in search of the Asadi, are as unsettling as staring into non-human "eyes that look like the murky glass in the bottoms of old bottles" (15). Although the mysteries are slowly revealed, they remain truly alien.
Highly recommended for fans of anthropological and social SF--especially fans of 70s exemplars of this subgenre. As with most of Bishops' SF Transfigurations is not a plot-driven work.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)
Transfigurations deploys a traditional SF trope: scientist sets off to decipher the nature and culture of an alien species. But under this purely anthropological veneer--hinted at by Egan Chaney's mantra "There are no more pygmies, there are no more pygmies, there are no" (14)--is an intense character study and meditation on post-colonial mentalities that builds towards inevitable conflict. The planet BoskVeld is modeled on the open, uncultivated landscape of the Bushveld of Southern Africa (parts of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe). The Synesthesia Wild, the same continent's more forested wilderness... Both Stolen Faces and Transfigurations drew some inspiration from Colin Turnbul's controversial ethnography, The Mountain People (1972) on the Ik people of Uganda.
The prologue, "Death and Designation Among the Asadi," truly conveys the alienisms of the Asadi. Cyclical rituals, rooted inextricably to the natural forces (the movement of the sun) of BoskVeld, dominate Asadi activities. Possessed by "Indifferent Togetherness" the Asadi mill around clearings, engaging in "brutal" sexual activity and "quirkish staring matches" which seem to be the only indications of social behavior (29). Egan Chaney, treated like the outcast Asadi whose eyes do not swirl with colors, is a deeply conflicted man.
In a desperate move to save a people after the "African Armageddon" that resulted in the complete contamination of the continent, Chaney oversaw the transportation of the dozen remaining BaMbuti pygmies to the New World (114). On their arrival, perhaps due to "homesickness, nostalgia, disorientation" they slowly died off one by one (115). This guilt and confusion generated by his earlier failure boils beneath the surface and influences all of Chaney's actions and conceptions of the aliens. He is simultaneously terrified and intrigued by the Asadi, who often resort to animalistic violence, burning out their own eyes but prolonged exposure to the sun, and even practicing nocturnal cannibalism.
Chaney is unable to decipher all the cryptic clues to Asadi behavior. He tries to return to the settlements on BoskVeld but slips into deep depression, refuses to discuss elements of his discoveries with Thomas Benedict, his principle colleague and friend. Despite Chaney's concluding monologue as he observes another Asadi ritual, "the show is beautiful and grotesque, grotesque and beautiful, but at this stage my principal reaction seems to be one of...well, of disgust" (71), he feels their inexorable pull, the desire to assuage his guild. Before he heads back into the clearing he leaves a note: "I'm one of them. I feel for them" (87).
Soon new forces enter the narrative in an attempt to find Chaney: Thomas Benedict, Chaney's daughter Elegy, a modified primate designed to look like an Asadi, and the interplanetary government. There is more at stake than the discovery of the explorer. The mysteries unravel and clarify. Incredible scenes of decay permeate the pages.
In A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire the nature and rituals surrounding eyes define each group of aliens. The eyes of the diseased are read in order to divine the Final Vision before death. The eyes, after they turn to dust, are carried by the progeny of the diseased: the physical material that conveyed the image of the soul. The Asadi in Transfigurations define social roles via the nature of the eyes: the outcasts have murky eyes and are unable to engage in the central communicative ritual of intense staring bouts, where eyes swirl with incandescent colors, that interrupt the "Indifferent Togetherness" of Asadi existence.
The mysteries of the Asadi are perceived through a variety of lenses: Chaney and his past guilt, Elegy and her desire to find the father that abandoned her, Thomas's drive to discover find friend. Despite the biological explanation for many of the Asadi rituals, their alieness remains unsettling and inhuman. As the expedition sets off again into The Synesthesian Wild, Elegy confesses, "I never thought... never thought I'd sink so low" (214).