I have a member of the Science Fiction Book Club on and off since I was in college, which means that over the years I've wound up buying a lot of accidental books, books that I only own because I failed to return a monthly selection card. Even now that I do all my business with SFBC over the net, I still occasionally fail to reject the current selections in time. Witness the package of books I brought back to the Slocum post office Saturday to return them to sender. (Normally, I would've just handed them back to the postmaster when he delivered them to me a week ago, but I wanted to check to make sure they weren't something I'd actually ordered.)
Occasionally one of these accidental books will turn out to be something I really enjoy, such as John Varley's Red Thunder, which I probably never would have given a second look if the postmaster hadn't plopped it into my hands. I also wound up with a lot of Pratchett this way. Still, most of what I've accidentally gotten over the years has tended more towards Star Wars tie-ins, random CJ Cherryh novels, or middle volumes of
very seriousfantasy quadrilogies (you know, the one about some ordinary folk who get dragged into some sort of quest by a wizard with the fate of the world on the line, that one?), along with random books by random authors. Most of these were packed into boxes during various moves where they stayed for years and years, awaiting the day when I would finally have enough shelf space to display them.
That day finally did arrive at Casa Machina. In the process of going through all those old boxes, sorting the accumulation into stuff that I might be interested in reading someday, and would therefore be shelved, versus stuff that was never, ever, going to be cracked open, much less read, and therefore headed for the Salvation Army drop off, I stumbled across a copy of Michael Bishop's Transfigurations. I knew Bishop from Brittle Innings, a book that wondered whatever happened to Frankenstein's monster, and discovered that he was playing first base with a Class C minor league baseball team in Georgia during WWII. I liked the book so much I even used it as the inspiration for my first Buffistas Frankenmix. Transfigurations was written in 1979, and I got it as a new release, so it's been sitting patiently in a box through some seven moves or so, going all the way back to my divorce. Yikes!
Anyway, I finally got around to reading it some twenty-seven years after acquiring it, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's based on a novella Bishop wrote called "Death and Designation Among the Asadi," which was structured as a monograph written by the assistant of an anthropologist who spent several months living amongst the natives of the planet Bosk'veld. The Asadi are remarkably similar to humans biochemically, but their motivations and way of life appear to be so totally alien as to be incomprehensible. They aren't merely humans with funny noses. They don't communicate like humans, and they don't appear to form recognizable family or social units, other than that everyday they all gather together as a mob in a clearing, and then scatter to the winds at night. There is archæological evidence that they were once technologically advanced, but now they seem to be total primitives. They also don't seem to have any reliable source of food. The anthropologist is absorbed by the mystery, and ultimately disappears shortly after returning with his observations. The novella's primary tenet is that real aliens defy comprehension because they
The novella takes up the first third of the book, and is used in much the same way that Tolkein used the appendices to LotR. The rest of the book jumps forward several years to focus on an expedition formed by the anthropologist's daughter to search for him. She enlists the assistant to help take up the search, and as a side project, to try to make sense of the Asadi. They eventually succeed at both, although the solution to the Asadi mystery is to a large extent merely plausible speculation by the characters based upon the barest of facts, and that evidence wasn't gathered with the strictest adherence to the scientific method, either. Bishop even acknowledges this as the characters discuss how they are building detailed stories out of the flimsiest of gossamers. Still, it seems to hold together, especially once the answers to the second mystery are factored in. The solution they come up with isn't especially warm and fuzzy. In fact, it's downright alien, but that's the point.
The world building is excellent. The society the characters inhabit is different, but recognizable, and Bishop shows rather than tells, so it all feels plausible. Well worth reading if you can find a copy.