by Michael Bishop
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 18, 2022
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In 1973, Michael Bishop's novella "Death and Designation Among the Asadi" was published in Worlds of IF magazine. Six years later the novella became the first few chapters of Transfigurations. I had read the novella first, but I'm sure it was not in IF, so likely in the 1974 Donald A. Wolheim edited Annual World's Best SF, several volumes of which I had bought from SFBC, or possibly used. The novel starts with a prologue before the "Death and Designation" chapters, but I can't recall if that was part of the original novella, but probably not. As with quite a bit of Bishop's work, it is anthropological SF, and I was reminded of it during my recent reading of Eleanor Arnason's A Woman of the Iron People. They really don't have much in common, in either theme or style, but both deal with humans in confrontation with alien hominid species. The aliens in each book are vastly different, and so is the human response. The novella was a finalist for Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, the novel for the British Science Fiction Association, as well as Locus. ISFDb.org lists this as the last title in Bishop's Glaktik Komm sequence, the others being two novelettes, and one very short novel (or long novella). I've only read the latter, but have little memory of it now, and the same applied to this novel, which I hadn't read in over 40 years.
The prologue and most of the novel is written in first person from the perspective of Thomas Benedict, an ethnoxenolgist working for the Glaktik Komm settlement on BoskVeld, otherwise known as Denebola IV. He had compiled the notes and recordings of Egan Chaney, his superior and friend, who had closely studied the native Asadi in the forest region east of Frasierville, which was named for Oliver Oliphant Frasier, commander of the first expedition to BoskVeld. Chaney and Benedict are part of the third expedition. Chaney had observed the Asadi for several months, continually refusing to be recalled to Frasierville. He was finally retrieved, and some of his notes and recordings were made during his convalescence in the post hospital. After a few weeks he fled back into the jungle, leaving a note that said not to come after him, he would not allow anyone to bring him back. Benedict had Chaney's work published on Earth as "Death and Designation," and since then no sign of Chaney had been found. Six years later Chaney's daughter, Elegy Cather, comes to BoskVeld to search for him. She brings with her a surgically and chemically altered chimpanzee/baboon hybrid, designed to look as much like the Asadi as she could surmise from her father's writings, and the few photos and films that had been made. The Asadi apparently have no language, either spoken or written. Chaney deduced they communicated with each other through color patterns generated within their eyes, which are large and resemble the bottom of glass bottles.
Frasier's theory was that the Asadi were descended, devolved, from the Ur'sadi, a superior species that had come to the planet from their homeworld which had been threatened by an unstable star. That and every other theory about the Asadi was pure conjecture, with little or no evidence to back it up. Chaney came up with his own theories, as did Benedict and Elegy Cather. None of that matters though, since this is more about character than plot, even though there is a multitude of plot. Chaney and Benedict had previously worked in Africa, studying different ethnic groups, as well as gorilla and chimp communal patterns. Chaney's last assignment on Earth had been with pygmy tribes, now extinct, which continued to haunt him. He was convinced the Asadi needed to be protected against a similar fate, fearing Glaktik Komm's decision would go the way of too many previous colonialistic conquests. Along with echoes of past anthropological mistakes, there is also an air of the theological, not just concerning Asadi rituals, but also about how we as individuals and communities create our own religious iconography. Many alien species in SF books and other media are merely stand-ins for certain human traits, but the Asadi are truly alien and bizarre. I'm not saying there has never been a human culture with similarities, and I won't give any details, but I guarantee you will not anticipate all the revelations. Some might elicit sympathy, but most will likely disgust and repel you. Don't let the latter dissuade you from reading though. Some of the human reactions are as inspirational as they are surprising.
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