The Fire of Thine Eyes
By Cynthia Felice
1978’s Godsfire was Cynthia Felice’s debut science fiction novel.
Heao, a felinoid sentient, lives in the tableland region of the shadowed highlands. Her country is sophisticated and technologically advanced, but it has not been able to resist a felinoid neighbor avid for conquest. The tableland has been overrun by a cunning military strategist from the shadowed lowlands. Now the tableland is just another province in the King-conqueror’s empire; the tableland’s ruler, Prince Chel, is a mere vassal.
Heao is one of the few surviving tableland scholars; she’s a mapmaker. This will make her of use to the King-conqueror, although not immediately.
Heao and the rest of her felinoid kind live in a shadowed realm under the Skybridge, a vast arc that spans the sky. Although they are aware of Godsfire, a bright source of light in the sky, the orientation of the Skybridge combined with the equatorial region’s almost unbroken cloud cover mean that Godsfire is usually obscured.
Simple geometry would suggest that heading north or south might provide a different perspective on Godsfire. Perhaps it would be visible directly? Heao would seem to be the best choice to lead an expedition out of the shadowlands and into the land of Godsfire. Such an expedition could serve other ends. The King-conqueror dreams of Godsfire related doom. Exploration might help him avoid the disaster he sees when he sleeps (because that’s totally how self-fulfilling prophecies work).
Before any expedition can be organized, Heao’s career and social standing are derailed over the matter of the slaves. The slaves are a mysterious race, found in a heretofore isolated valley. They look like people, save for their odd faces. They are strong. Clearly, the gods intended the slaves to do all the hard work for real people (“humans,” as the felines refer to themselves). Heao disagrees on the grounds that however odd they look, the slaves are clearly people and in any case, slavery is wrong. This is enough to make her a pariah for some time.
After considerable delay, an expedition is dispatched out of the shadowlands. Adapted to continual twilight, the felinoids find the light of Godsfire nigh blinding … even actually blinding. They also find a land already populated, by what appear to be slaves. But these settlements not only free, they are quite technologically advanced. Do not call them slaves. Call them Terrans.
To the felinoids, the Terrans appear to have godlike powers. Too bad for the cat-people that the off-worlders have a low tolerance for primitive aliens enslaving long-lost cast-away cousins1. Worse that the morally outraged Terrans are armed with weapons a primitive might mistake for Godsfire itself.
Heao’s folk live on an Earthlike world with a Saturn-like ring. The ring casts a permanent shadow on the surface of the planet. Why the felinoid natives are only found under the ring is not clear. The Terrans who live out in the sunlight are later immigrants to the planet.
There are enough examples of SF novels told from the perspective of aliens encountering Terrans that there should be a name for this sub-genre. If there is a term for it, I do not know what it is.
Some readers may find the gratuitous nudity on the cover off-putting. The cover art isn’t entirely true to the novel, but it’s somewhat closer to representative than many other covers of the time. For one thing, it tells us that the protagonist is feline and the Terrans are subordinates2.
It’s also clear that Pocket Book believed that their customers really really wanted to look at naked cat-women. At least the US cover is better than the German cover!
Felice does her best to play by the rules, telling the story from the perspective of an alien who, even though quite bright, doesn’t have enough cultural context to make sense of the Terrans and the world outside the shadowlands. Heao can reason that a round world that rotates can explain Godsfire’s behavior. But she cannot understand what a slave means when he talks about colours … because she’s colour-blind, like all felinoids.
Author Felice takes a surprisingly long time to get to the expedition and the revelation that the felinoids have enslaved the descendants of unfortunate starfarers. Conveniently for the cat-people, Terrans have strict rules about not commandeering occupied worlds. Somewhat less conveniently, these rules only seem to apply to worlds that Terrans haven’t already occupied. The Terrans have been living in the sunlit lands for decades and they have no intention of leaving just because they find out that the planet is inhabited by technologically inferior natives with a prior claim. It may be for the best that the novel ends (rather suddenly) when it does, because it does not seem like the next few centuries are going to be pleasant for Heao’s people3.
Felice’s novel was well enough received to earn its author a close brush with what is now the Astounding Award, in some interesting company:
Best New Writer
1 Stephen R. Donaldson
2 James P. Hogan
3 Elizabeth A. Lynn
* Cynthia Felice
* Barry B. Longyear
* Charles Sheffield
Personally, while I thought the prose was fine, the characters were diverting enough, and the author had fun revealing her alien world to the reader, the middle section of the story was glacially slow4. This is a fairly short (by modern standards), competently written, straightforward novel by an author who, unlike a lot of her contemporaries, has a perfectly functional website.
Godsfire is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), and here (Amazon UK). I did not find it at Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, or at Chapters-Indigo.
1: Because I know someone will ask: long range communication is difficult on this planet, the rings mean orbital mapping of the equator is difficult, and the weather near the equator is terrible enough that aside from that one group that got marooned in the middle of nowhere and went primitive, Terrans avoid the region.
2: So, how would the alt-right react to a book in which a male human slave happily serves a cat-woman? So glad you asked …
3: Heao believes that her people can find a way to adapt to and catch up to the Terrans, despite the long head start that the Terrans have. The Terrans believe they are destined to dominate the backward aliens and that Heao should be happy the Terrans are willing to concede the shadowlands to the natives. Heao is optimistic; however, the Terrans know what they’ve done to those of their kind in the past and expect that this colonization will play out in the same way.
4: Points to the author for acknowledging that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Yes, it’s difficult to convince people dependent on slave labour to give it up on principle. Poor Heao fails abjectly in this matter, as one would expect.