Transfigurations by Michael Bishop
Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is one of science fiction’s landmark works. A philosophical and psychological study of a man confronting the inherently unknowable, the imagery, events, and overall experience of the novel lodge in the mind, begging questions for which one uncomfortably has no immediate answer. So strange and haunting, a person can only think of the main character’s experiences as the most figurative representation of ‘alien’ possible.
Bringing the idea closer to home corporeally but no less existentially is Michael Bishop’s “Death and Designation among the Asadi” (1973). The premise so fertile, he revisited the novella years later, extending the story into the novel Transfigurations. Layers upon layers, it possesses the same quest for understanding in an irrational scenario as Solaris, but adds an anthropological element, tying in evolutionary and biological aspects. No less uncomfortably thought provoking, Bishop’s novel is likewise a classic of the genre.
Transfigurations is the story of Thomas Benedict. Living on Bosk Veld, he is in regular contact with a friend, the anthropologist Egan Chaney, who is in the field studying the mysterious aliens who inhabit the planet. Chaney’s notes become more erratic as his experiences with the monkey/lion Asadi become increasingly bizarre. Benedict begins to fear for his friend’s life. As the Asadi openly copulate, have staring contests with psychedelically pinwheel eyes, participate in randomly violent acts, appear subservient to a flying homunculus, and disappear into the jungle as soon as the sun sets every day, Benedict’s fears are well-placed. Jaw-dropping descriptions of a sacred pagoda are the last words he gets from Chaney, then all communication is suddenly cut off.
It takes the appearance of Chaney’s daughter on Bosk Veld, a young woman named Elegy and her chimpanzee biomodified to look like an Asadi to motivate Benedict to enter the mysterious jungle and find his friend. Benedict likewise becomes subsumed in the desire to explain the behavior and doings of the Asadi, and he soon finds himself stepping in familiar footsteps. With Chaney’s notes as a guide and the fresh discoveries of Elegy and her chimp opening doors, the mysterious pagoda lies ahead.
Merriam-Websters online defines ‘transfiguration’ as: 1: a change in form or appearance: metamorphosis, and 2: an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change. It’s fair to say all of the above occur in Transfigurations. The Asadi life-cycle is something one must discover for themselves to fully appreciate the title. Suffice to say there are enough similarities to make the reader squirm and enough differences to make them think. One aspect of the definition is taken on their position in the evolutionary chain. Again, better discovered by the reader lest the story be spoiled, it is ripe with commentary and reflection on human evolution. Most importantly, it defies one of the most commonly held assumptions underlying the term ‘evolution.’
At the personal or spiritual level, Bishop lays bare the human soul with a scalpel-sharp edge. Anthropology taking into account not only the biological aspects of human life but also customs and behavior, the experiences had by Chaney and Benedict in a culture entirely different — ostensibly inexplicable, in fact — have a profound effect on their own perception and behavior. The differences in understanding, and most particularly reaction to said understanding, are the most telling aspects of the novel. The pagoda holds different meaning for all who enter, from Chaney, to Benedict, to Elegy, to Kretzoi the modified chimp, and to the Asadi themselves. While it’s possible to overlay a narrow Christian agenda onto the resulting ‘transfiguration’ scenario, this would be to selling the core concept far short. Certainly more existential in portent, Bishop’s aims are the roots of life and death across the millennia.
In the end, Transfigurations is a multi-dimensional story of enigmatic alien encounter. Layers finely fitted to layers, Bishop offers a view under the physiological, psychological, and existential rocks of confronting the unknown and species evolution in a tale of anthropologists being sucked into the inexplicable alien race they are researching. The Asadi are bizarre to the point of inhuman fascination, and Bishop’s skilled hand vividly describes their lifestyle, and, most interestingly, humanity’s reaction. Time and knowledge swirl together to create a feeling of unease yet determination for something more, something inexplicably beyond. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is a precursor to the novel ideologically but on stage Bishop’s creation is as unique as can be: alien truly means alien.