What I’m Reading: Michael Bishop – A Funeral For the Eyes of Fire

This used to be Michael Bishop’s first novel, before (as he explains in an Afterword) he completely re-worked it and it became his seventh. I actually did read the first version way back when (and even might still have my copy lying around somewhere), but have to confess that I don’t remember much about it except that it was all rather weird but that I liked it. Which, as it happens, would also sum up my impression of this rewritten version. (A word on the title: the novel was called A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire at first released, then shortened to Eyes of Fire for the new version, but the original title was restored for the re-release of the re-written version. The SF Gateway edition I have been reading manages to use both of those titles. As I like the long title better (like young Michael Bishop, I’m a sucker for poetic titles), I’m going to stick with that one.)

A Funeral For the Eyes of Fire is classic “anthropological” Science Fiction (set in quotation marks because the anthropos here is, of course, alien), strongly and unabashedly influenced by Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Which means that there is not much in the way of “hard” science in the novel, but that instead it explores different ways of being in all the many kinds of ways this might imply – using the imaginative license the SF genre grants to devise societies, cultures, religions, genders and whatnot unknown to present-day man, but of course all ultimately reflecting back on what it is to be human. To ensure that (and to make certain the novels do not get too strange for a reader to follow) the central character in this kind of Science Fiction tends to be a human, an explorer or ambassador who for some plot reason or other is forced to cope with an alien world and its inhabitants.

Bishop follows that pattern and weaves some Shakesperian tragedy into it, with rather fascinating results. It takes a bit of time to get into the flow of events, not just because the reader gets thrown into things with almost no introdution, but also because of the novel’s central consciousness and supposed identification figure, Seth Latimer. In some he is like the standard protagonist of this kind of SF – mostly average, somewhat naive and very passive, a foil against which the strangness of the world he find himself placed in, can be offset (which interestingly, and in a totally off-topic aside also describes the hero of the classical historical novel from Walter Scott onwards). But although Seth is human, to us contemporaries he seems very strange, almost alien himself – he is a clone, for starters, an interstellar merchant travelling with his “original” and an older clone twin, and the glimpses we get of their relationship hint at something quite different from the burgeois core family we have grown used to. Which makes sense, of course – it’s not really to expected that humans several centuries in the future would be the same as they are today. But it soon turns out that Seth and his “family” are still the characters most familiar to the reader and that Bishop is taking us on a very strange journey indeed. Seth’s travels take him to two planets and three different cultures, each suceeding one more bizarre than the one that came before. Even for this particular subgenre of Science Fiction which by its very premise abounds in bizarre inventions, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire is something exceptionally rich and strange.

With the emotional distancing due to the protagonist’s weirdness, the effect of reading the novel is not so much that of experiencing a tragedy by Shakespeare than of watching a Noh play as a Westerner – there is undoubtedly something very fascinating about the slowly unfolding, almost ritualistic dance on the stage, but also a considerable detachment – we never quite figure out what it means, and while we are captured by its bizarre beauty we also always are at some remove from it, never get quite involved. Which I’m fairly certain is the effect Bishop was aiming for. The distancing is not total, however – A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire does not attempt to explore what actual aliens might be like (as for example Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris does), but in the moral dilemmas that its characters have to face remains firmly centered around human, even humanistic concerns. And in that sense, it also is anthropological Science Fiction, literally and without quotation marks.

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11 comments

  1. No no no no no no — this is the heavily ABRIDGED version — the one published in 1980. Read the original, only in paperback form… I’m writing a review currently. A masterpiece — but all the added layers that were cut in the 1980 and later editions is what MAKES it a masterpiece and not a run-of the mill anthropological SF novel. The original is a work of literature –he is utterly in control of his narrative. Everything is meaningful and necessary.

  2. The reason I was so adamant is that it’s really bothering me why it was cut in the first place. I need to read his own introduction in the 1989 re-publication of the 80s cut.

    Regardless, you are in the perfect position now (having read the 1980s version) to read the 1975 first edition. I know that massive digressions (which are still relevant) in the form of stories — a la the myths in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness that have barring on the themes being explored — that are downright fascinating and add such complexity to the story.

  3. Oh lol. Bishop himself is quite determined in the Afterword, he somewhere says that under no circumstances would he allow the original version of the novel to be reprinted. I wish I remembered more from my reading of the 1975 version, but that was so bloody long ago… also suspect that it was one of the first novels I read in English, so likely missed out on all the subtleties.

    Guess I’ll have to do some digging then and find out whether I still have the first version. Even granting that this might be the better one, I still think the later version stands very well on its own, though.

  4. Ooh this sounds even more intriguing now. I liked the sound of the book initially – I loved The Left Hand of Darkness when I read it for the first time a couple of years ago – but it’s always fun to have the extra spice of debate over which edition is best. I shall watch the development of this discussion with interest. 🙂

  5. Well, you know me – although it turns out that I do still have the paperback of the original version, it will likely be a long time until I get around to reading it. I’ll add a link of Joachim’s review in the comments here once it’s up, though (if he doesn’t do it himself).

  6. That’s what I assumed… Well, I have no clue why. Everything about the original version seemed perfectly balanced. Every interior story referred in some perfect way to the characters, themes. It was gorgeous.

  7. Well, it wouldn’t be the first case of an author who grossly misjudges his own work – from Goethe who thought the Farbenlehre was his most important book to Kafka who wished his novels to be burned after his death… Bishop is in good company there, I suppose. 😉

  8. Thanks for the kind words.

    I have Stolen Faces and Catacomb Years waiting to be read. I am so transfixed by his strange visions that I’ll probably read them in the next two months or so. I have no idea why it took me so long to write a review of A Funeral… A daunting task, that’s for sure.

  9. Well, it was worth the wait, so I’m not complaining. 😉 – Also looking forward to your upcoming reviews on the other Bishop titles – I stocked up on them myself during the recent SF Gateway sale, but it’ll likely be some time before I get around to reading any more myself…

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