Transfigurations by Michael Bishop


Mad Mountain Man
Jun 29, 2010
Scottish Highlands
Transfigurations is an SF Masterworks book comprising an initial section which had originally been published in a magazine in 1973 as a report on a First Contact situation. This was later added to in 1979 to make it into this full novel.

Humanity is engaged upon colonising the planet BoskVeld despite it having an indigenous primate analogue species that appears to be a devolved form of a once highly intelligent and technological species. No one really understand them or how they devolved and all attempts to do so have so far failed.

I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t; it is badly written, none of the characters are in the least bit sympathetic, the science is appalling and the moral attitudes throughout even worse. The prose is enough to make normal purple prose look bland – The stars looked like microscopic screw heads rotated into the hidden template of the universe. – and that’s a moderately restrained example. I just felt like I was drowning in similes! However, this is nothing compare to the pain of the dreadful science. I hate any invented aliens that are meant to be highly intelligent and technological and yet the author has given them a highly impractical mechanism of communication. Scent/pheromones and skin pigmentation are two of the favourites. Yes, there are some animals that use such means but for high level communication they are desperately impractical. Scent is slow to propagate and colour only works when you are directly looking at the other creature. Neither is practical for an advanced intelligence. Bishop makes this worse with communication by changing iris colour requiring the aliens to have to stare fixedly at each other’s eyes to have a conversation. Please! Evolution is way better than that!

Then it turns out (this is not really a spoiler) that they can actually photosynthesise through these same eyes - Each neo-Ur’sadi was a living factory capable of supporting itself anywhere on the planet – so long as it had access to sunlight and water. – the idea that a motile animal could even begin to get sufficient energy for life from photosynthesizing light through such a small area as their eyes is ludicrous and Bishop seems to have forgotten that plants don’t just photosynthesise light; they must also draw up nutrients through their roots to process using the energy. Not very practical for a motile ape analogue. And don’t even get me started on the cannibalism aspect. Or the mostly messed up view of synesthesia - Maybe it was the noise of their flashing that sliced through my dreams and woke me up. – this in reference to light reflected from lamp posts.

As for the moral attitudes They seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable to take a genetically enhanced Earth ape that is intelligent, self-aware, fully capable of understanding normal and scientific conversation and communicating itself by sign language and then treat it like and animal, including cosmetic surgery to make it look like the native alien apes. I suppose at least it’s not misogynistic; my usual problem with ‘classic’ science fiction. Then follow this up with a mostly indifferent to xenophobic attitude to the aliens (the first intelligent aliens yet found) and it just goes from bad to worse.

I finished this book somehow, in the vain hope that it was going to improve, but that’s several days of reading I’ll never get back. I found almost everything about the book implausible and, frankly, unpleasant. Possibly there is some deeper meaning that I’m missing. Maybe I can’t see the wood for the trees. But, for me, I’ll never find the wood plausible if the trees that make it up fail to be plausible.

2/5 stars

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