Vintage Sci-Fi: “A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire” by Michael Bishop

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is here!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire by Michael Bishop

[Publication note: I am writing now of the original version of the book, which is the one I received through interlibrary loan. Apparently the edition available through e-book now is not that version but rather a total re-write Bishop created in 1980. I haven’t read the re-write yet, but I understand that it is quite different.]

I was astonished by this book. It is surprising and deep on so many levels that it makes it one of the most impressive science fiction efforts I’ve ever read. And it was a debut novel? Incredible. Bishop is in total control of the written word here, and it reads like the work of an established master.

The core plot of the novel seems simple: a pair of human brothers join a pair of aliens to try to earn riches by dissolving a conflict on another alien world (different aliens from the pair traveling with the brothers). The concept of pairing runs strong in the narrative (see the excellent review at Sci-Fi Ruminations for even more on this theme), but is perhaps only the most overt of the many layers found throughout the novel. At multiple points in the book, readers encounter stories-within-stories, as characters tell other stories to various characters. These stories are intricately woven into the meaning of the main plot itself, to the point where it becomes a Gordian-like knot of concepts, ideas, and stories.

The plot itself also becomes increasingly complex, as well. Peter and Gunnar, the human brothers, diverge in surprising ways. At the beginning, it is clear our protagonist, Gunnar, looks up to Peter immensely, but as he discovers revelations about his brother’s true character, he has to re-write his own internal narrative of relationships. The aliens’ conflict, between the allegedly progressive and forward-thinking Tropeans and the “backwards/religious” Ouemartsee, becomes increasingly tantalizing as we see the depths of ritual and how it can define society. In a way, the interactions between the Tropeans and the brothers or even the brothers’ pair of alien allies all becomes a large comedy of manners with the necessities of ritual and behavior taking on larger meaning in light of all that’s happening.

As we are confronted with the alien and baffling rituals of the planet of Trope, readers begin to realize that the concepts of ritual, behavior, and conflict that emerge there are remarkably similar to our own. Perhaps, in many ways, they are mirrors for our own uncertainties, conflicts, and even wickedness and beauty.

The question of the ritual in the novel, in which the Ouemartsee maintain the mythic belief in higher meaning behind it while the larger group of Tropeans rejects the same while keeping all the trappings of ritual, is fascinating. If we reject the meaning or truth of religious belief, but maintain the rituals, what can they mean? Does turning the ritual into merely symbolic deprive it of all meaning? Can a society with a “scientific” worldview have deeper meaning by creating its own rituals? Bishop confronts these questions and even offers answers to some of them which are surprising and thought-provoking.

A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire is an anthropology of aliens, but also a true anthropology of humanity. It asks us what makes us human, and what might be inhuman. Moreover, it shows the importance of ritual even to those who have rejected the mythic meaning that infuses the ritual with objectivity. It’s a stunning work.

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One thought on “Vintage Sci-Fi: “A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire” by Michael Bishop

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    This remains a favorite of mine! Of course, I’m also partial to Stolen Faces (1977) as he reduces his narrative to a stark and powerful 176 pages (unlike this far longer novel).

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