A FUNERAL FOR THE EYES OF FIRE – Michael Bishop (1980)

A Funeral For The Eyes Of FireThis “anthropological SF” book has a somewhat confusing history. In 1975 Michael Bishop published his debut, A Funeral For The Eyes Of Fire. It didn’t sell well, but Bishop continued writing – books like Catacomb Years and Transfigurations. In 1978 David Hartwell of Pocket Books offered Bishop a contract to rewrite his first novel. The result was published in 1980 as Eyes Of Fire, with a cover almost identical to the first edition. To make things even more confusing, in 1989 Kerosina Books published that new version under the exact same title as the debut, something Bishop would have liked to have done in 1980 too, but didn’t, to avoid confusing potential readers. In 2015 Kudzu Planet reprinted the 1980 version, also as A Funeral For The Eyes Of Fire, yet again with another cover.

All that explains why Goodreads at the moment still has just one entry for the two texts. Both books differ tremendously however, and the differences are chronicled quite detailed in the 1989 edition, most explicitly in an afterword by Ian Watson, as well as in the extensive foreword by Bishop himself. Just to be clear, Bishop prefers the second version: he will not allow a reprint of the first book.

The differences are not a matter of rephrasing some sentences and the addition or subtraction of a few scenes. This is not simply a director’s cut like Green Earth. While the overall idea of the plot and the philosophical foundations of the story are more or less the same, the two protagonists have a very different relation to each other, the aliens’ anatomy differs, and the social reality on the planet were the bulk of the story is set, is significantly different. And while the debut had a first person narrator, this is a third person narrative. The fact that nearly all names are changed too isn’t even that important.

Anyhow, it seems like Bishop took the basic ideas of his debut, and wrote a whole new book. Watson puts it like this:

The new novel is far more disciplined and tauter; but where another writer might merely have pruned excesses, Bishop has  not merely reorchestrated but has written an entirely different symphony based on the same themes – and on several new ones.

Just to be clear: I’ve read the 1989 edition, and so this review can double as a review for 1980’s Eyes Of Fire too.

I was intrigued at first. Bishop has a confident voice, and the prologue – a myth from Gla Taus, an alien planet – is awesome. The novel gets tough pretty quickly. Names and concepts are unclear, and one really has to pay attention to get familiar with the social realities on the story’s planets. That’s not necessarily bad: figuring stuff out is at least part of this book’s appeal. Although this is just 228 pages, don’t expect a breezy, fast read.

After a while though, a fear started slowly creeping in: what if all that hard work would not pay off? I started to realize I didn’t really connect with any of the characters. Bishop’s obvious constructions started to bother me: the most important planet is called Trope, for crying out loud. It dawned on me this story might be a bit overwrought. The prose turned out to be more often wooden than poetic.

The debut had four epigrams that Bishop decided to ditch because they were “either overexplicit or pretentious.” In one of them, from Vittorio Lanternari’s The Religions of the Oppressed, “the moral dilemma dramatized in both versions of the book” is spelled out:

In the final analysis, all the endogenous messianic movements, regardless of their cultural level, are impelled by their nature to escape from society and from the world in order to establish a society beyond history, beyond reality, and beyond the necessity of fighting to bring about change and improvement.

The main “moral dilemma” remains the same, and that’s sad, as it is this novel’s biggest problem. That dilemma is presented as one between “introspective, feminine, and mystical beings” and “extrovert, masculine, and literal-minded rationalists”.

To me, that dichotomy is not very interesting, and even unproductive to understand humanity. It’s the same old rehash of the clash between ‘head’ and ‘heart’, and people who oppose head and heart don’t have a clear understanding how our bodies work. The dichotomy, and how Bishop handles it, ultimately boils down to a kind of ill-informed, childish critique of science. It misrepresents how our reason and our emotions are intertwined. They aren’t that easy to distinguish.

Bishop admits his book was highly influenced by The Left Hand Of Darkness, and it’s probably no coincidence Le Guin made a similar analysis in her much applauded The Lathe Of Heaven. In my review of the latter, I’ve already argued why I believe the dichotomy is, well, stupid.

It’s all understandable though, as a kind of anti-Descartian thought has invaded much of the Arts – the early 20th century’s optimistic belief in science proved troublesome: the atom bomb, the rational horror of the Holocaust, climate change, what have you. I guess people like dichotomies, but stuff is more complicated. Bishop tries nuance a few times, but his basic onset remains black and white, and the attempts at gray only make things worse.

People who are familiar with the first book might have questioned their memory when they read “feminine” in the description of the dilemma above. It’s not you: indeed, Bishop adds gender to his new version, but not to its success. The intuitive Ouemartsee from the debut have transformed into the Sh’gaidu from the planet Trope, who identify as female. Tropians are hermaphrodites, and can alter their sex – hello Left Hand. The two factions on the planet are indeed split among a gender line. It might have been okay in the early 80ies, but to me this addition simply boils down to caricature and sexism. Or would Bishop still think women are truly more in touch with their feelings, more mystical, more introspective, more open to telepathy even?

Also the addition of a – brace yourself – autoerotic, homosexual, incestuous sexual relationship with rape overtones doesn’t add a lot. It might seem morally and emotionally complex, but the characters remain aloof – both of how we perceive them, as how they seem to perceive what happens to them.

There’s some merit here, and I should stress that too. Bishop has an interesting imagination, and his sentences at times do work – to great effect even. But the philosophical blueprint dominates the book, and gets in the way of a character-driven, believable story. I’m all for serious literature, but here the balance is off. The pulp side of Funeral isn’t fun enough, and the book’s message is a stinker. In short: dry & slow reading.

I think I would have liked the first version better. Chances are Bishop’s first, fresh take doesn’t suffer from the stiff, contrived vibe this variant of the story ended up with. I will read more of Michael Bishop, but this was a disappointment.

Eyes Of Fire

5 responses to “A FUNERAL FOR THE EYES OF FIRE – Michael Bishop (1980)

  1. This review cleared something up for me – whether Eyes of Fire (1980) was a substantially different book than Funeral for Eyes of Fire (1978). I’m invested enough in Bishop that I’ll most likely seek out a copy of this revision.

    Full disclosure: I was never a big fan of Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness.” I thought it was too long for what it was, but who knows, maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. In any case, the story arc of investigator-being-changed-by-the-investigation must be a particularly challenging one to write in science fiction, since:

    1. the first version of that character has to be relatable
    2. the second version has to be somewhat relatable
    3. the two versions of this character have to be very different because subtle changes won’t do in SF
    4. the main character, in sustaining an investigation of another place/culture throughout the length of the book, needs to be engaging on an intellectual level

    In “Funeral for Eyes of Fire” (1978), I didn’t connect too much with the character in the beginning (Point 1), but I thought “Left Hand …” fell short on Point 4. I suppose my own preferences allow for some remoteness in the initial stages, since I liked Bishop’s novel a lot more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting points, I hadn’t thought about it that way. I agree with both statements on Le Guin and Bishop’s characters..

      I also think TLHOD is overrated as social analysis, as are other important titles of Le Guin’s work (Lathe, Dispossesed). I think Le Guin’s strenght is strong emotions, at least that’s what I found in TLHOD and Earthsea.


  2. Pingback: Blooded on Arachne, by Michael Bishop – part 1 | gaping blackbird

  3. Pingback: Eyes of Fire, by Michael Bishop | gaping blackbird

  4. Pingback: Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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