Eyes of Fire, by Michael Bishop

Eyes of Fire (1980) is a remake of Bishop’s first published novel, A Funeral for the Eyes of FireEoF was meant to be the replacement, and the only version to exist in post-1980 editions. I read the earlier version a couple of years ago, and it has been my least-remembered Bishop story. This is possibly due to an overcrowding of characters and settings, and it seems EoF is more methodical in introducing the various players and alien societies.

eof_bishop_szafran

Gene Szafran cover for Pocket Books. isfdb.org

The plot of EoF is actually quite simple but surrounded by layers of indirection. My paperback edition contains a map and a roster of characters to manage the initial chapters.

  • Seth and Abel Latimer are two “isohets,” meaning that they are clones from the same progenitor. They have a relationship that appears to be something like twin brothers, where there is an expectation of matching principles and emotional states, but they are also regular sexual partners.
  • Günter Latimer was Seth and Abel’s progenitor; they are clones of this older man, who served as an envoy to the Jauddeb.
  • The Jauddeb are a humanoid race governed by strict religious customs. A recent misunderstanding led to Günter being lynched, but his clone-successors are tasked with continuing his diplomatic mission. The Jauddeb “liege mistress”, a kind of queen, appoints Seth as her envoy to another planet — Trope. Seth will be able to return to his ancestral home (Earth) if he is able to facilitate a trade  between the Jauddeb and the Tropeans.
  • Porchaddos Pors and Clefrabbes Douin are two Jauddeb officers that accompany Seth on his way to Trope — Seth was manipulated by the others, including Abel, to be the point man in the negotiations. Pors and Douin are developed as significant secondary characters throughout the story, adding to the outsiders’ perspective for the events on Trope.
  • The Tropeans are divided into two societies: the dominant “masculine” civilization is ruled by the chief magistrate, Ulgraji Vrai, and the outcast “feminine” settlement is overseen by a high priestess named The Pledgechild. Both leaders haven been granted their leadership positions by ingrained traditions.
  • The “masculine” Tropeans (the J’Gosfi) wish to relocate the others (the Th’Gosfi) from their settlement, preferably off-planet. The Th’Gosfi are openly nonconforming with the laws of the planet, and have persevered through many episodes of harassment and violence to remain in the agrarian homestead. The are openly mystical whereas the religious expressed of the J’Gosfi appear mostly secular. However, the magistrate Vorai forms an immediate bond with Seth so that Seth represents his interests on a diplomatic mission to the Th’Gosfi. He needs the Th’Gosfi to peacefully allow themselves to be resettled off-planet.

The above only covers the various indirections within the setup, not the bulk of the plot itself: Seth is a cloned human commissioned (through his clone-father) to serve the interests of the Jauddeb leadership, then sent to Trope by the Jauddeb leader, and then sent by the Tropiard chieftain to another isolated population, where he forms yet another personal bond with the leadership.

All of this is laid out quite clearly in the first half of EoF (I seem to remember A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire being a tougher read in this regard), but it eventually begs the inevitable question: where is all of this going? Essentially, the novel is the story of Seth, as ambiguous of a character here as in his namesakes in our own history. In Genesis, Seth is the younger brother of Cain and Abel, born long after Abel’s death. Not much is written about Seth in Genesis, but Noah is a direct descendant — making Seth, by virtue of the flood, a father of all surviving mankind. In Egyptian mythology, Seth (or Set) takes Cain’s role of the murderous brother, killing and dismembering Horus out of a jealous rage. Seth is depicted is a man with the head of a jackal-like “Seth-creature” in Egyptian art, and it is now thought that the Seth-creature is an intentionally fictional beast. Seth is also a figure in Islamic traditions, and one of the temples destroyed by ISIS was dedicated to Seth. In EoF Seth is given a central role in the histories of various cultures, almost magically — as a character, he is hard to pin down because we are always shown the impression he makes on alien beings.

Though a cloned twin of Abel, Seth does not share a telepathic link or deep empathy with him. Unlike Abel, Seth is able to detach himself from the memories of finding Günter’s body.

Abel fixed Seth with an outraged, uncomprehending stare. “He was our isosire, Seth, and I’m your brother. How do you remain immune to what happened to him, immune to my suffering of what he suffered?”

Seth removed his hand from his isohet’s ankle.

“It happened to you, too!” Abel informed him for the upteenth time. “You and I went up that tower with Günter Latimer, but the truth of that still escapes you. For you, Seth, it was an external rather than an internal occurrence. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be!”

“I’m supposed to have nightmares in living, bloody color?”

“Yes!”

“And wake up screaming?”

“Yes!”

So it is Seth that must be the one meeting the Jauddeb elite, some of whom were undeniably responsible for inciting Günter’s lynching. Like in Genesis, Seth carries out the task that was at meant to be at least shared with Abel, but in this case his brother is incapacitated psychologically.

The Jauddeb liege-mistress has Seth join her in a small pool of water, something Günter had done many times with their host-family (needlessly encoded as the Clefrabbes geffide):

Bathing with the Clefrabbes geffide had seemed a natural thing, a strengthening of the social bond between host and guest — but this, despite the kindness in Lady Turshebel’s eyes, seemed designed either to humble him or test his resolve. Both, maybe. And because Abel had earlier said that getting back to Earth depended on how he conducted himself here, Seth was afraid. What was he being tested on? What did they want of him?

EoF continues a pattern in Bishop’s fiction of using pools to conjoin the themes of death and knowledge. In the novella “The White Otters of Childhood” people are transfigured into aquatic animals as a form of retribution. A shipwrecked explorer travels among shallow pools on the surface of an alien planet in “A Cathedonian Odyssey,” after she submerged her dead companions in an improvised funeral. The end of the later novel Brittle Innings features a major character, who is possibly an inhuman monster, enter a pond to recover the body of an illicit lover. The drowned woman represented his most intimate connection with humanity. In EoF the pool marks the occasion where Seth inherits Günter’s diplomatic role, and starts to act on his own accord (at least, apart from what he thinks Abel intends him to do).

Once the setting shifts to Trope, the predominant symbol is the pair of eyes used by each of the natives. These eyes are living crystals, shielded from view in the urban “male” society but openly visible in among the exiles. When a Tropiard dies, the eyes are harvested for use in an elaborate burial ceremony. Despite the overtly technological culture of his dominion, the magistrate Vrai gives Seth an amulet containing the remains of the eyes of his predecessor in power, perhaps the most valuable icon on the planet. Bishop featured eyes in his more famous novel Transfigurations, and the use of eyes in EoF does have the feel of a “dry run” to it. Transfigurations is also an explicit combination of novella-length works, whereas in EoF the distinction is incompletely hidden.

Other major components include the intersex nature of the Tropiards and the resultant detachment from the traditional (Cartesian) mind/body duality.The unlikely bonds formed between Seth and the various alien figures of power come from the same place — they presume to understand Seth’s motivations after interacting with him physically. Sexually underdeveloped, Seth is mistaken as a simpler and therefore trusted individual. The feminine outcasts of Trope, and their occasional state of pregnancy, are persecuted under various taboos.

Tropiards have the ability to change their biological sex, but that’s part of what makes them aliens. Neuroscience, among many other branches of biological medicine, has established all sorts of irreversible differences between the sexes, but many now take issues with science as a “gender identity” issue. A critical review by borgmans stresses the sexual events and the mind/body theme, and it’s hard to argue with his point that the characters are difficult to identify with. I take a more favorable view of EoF, having focused on Bishop’s invitations to look deeper into Seth. Ultimately, he represents the ambiguity present in characters shared across religions.

EoF is not my favorite work of Bishop’s, but it has an appreciable depth and scope. Later novels, such as Brittle Innings and Transfigurations, to build their abstract themes throughout the events of their stories, whereas EoF relies heavily on exposition. Nonetheless, EoF uses indirection, myth and character in interesting ways to make a statement about what makes us prepared to engage the unknowns of the world around us. 7/10

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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3 Responses to Eyes of Fire, by Michael Bishop

  1. fredfitch says:

    It might be said that all genre fiction hails from the planet Trope. 😐

    Published eleven years after The Left Hand of Darkness, and while I recognize this is a very different take on people who change sex, I can’t say your synopsis made me want to read it. I’ve covered a bit of Bishop’s short fiction, and that’s probably his strongest suit. In a short story or novella, he’s got all the room he needs to develop his offbeat ideas, but for a novel, you need characters that pull you in, keep you interested. As Donald Westlake said, writers train for distance.

    A clone society has been approached many times, of course. My favorite take on that would be Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Short and bittersweet. I vaguely recall the late Harlan Ellison once accused her of being a better writer than him. And nobody ever accused him of being a suck-up.

    Not to be critical (and even less, PC), but there have been some astounding revelatory female authors, in SF and related genres, who fairly tower above all but the best of the men. Since fixed gender is still a thing on our planet (trope-ridden though it may be), it would be illuminating, perhaps even consciousness-expanding, to discuss them here. In the not too distant future. Somewhere in outer space. (Go Gypsy!) 😐

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Agreed on Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang; it definitely lives up to its reputation as one of the SF masterpieces of the 1970s. Her Juniper Time is also really good, and The Clewiston Test is interesting, if light on plot. I have a few more Wilhelm titles and imagine at some point I’ll highlight her work. In fact, someone with enough dedication could put together a “Wilhelm Review” blog — she really did write a lot across two genres.

      However, cloning isn’t a particularly important trope in Eyes of Fire, as far as I can tell. It makes Seth human, but not quite as human as a character in a non-genre work, and his clone-twin relationship with Abel is there to draw a line in the “nature vs. nuture” argument carried to further extremes on planet Trope. Just so many SF elements in this book.

      Like

  2. pete says:

    Other reviews have been all over the board for Eyes of Fire and its predecessor. I found it to not be one of Bishop’s masterpieces but definitely worth reading for those interested in his work. Too many different “tropes” on planet Trope for such an elusive protagonist, maybe. Still, the way characters get repainted through different cultural legends is effectively spoken to.

    Like

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