Sunday, December 09, 2007

S is for Silverberg

Marco is keen for me to write about a non-controversial science fiction author. I am happy to oblige. If you have taken the ‘Are you Dr Clam?’ survey on the right, you will have come across the question ‘Which of these Robert Silverberg novels have you frequently re-read?’
So I may as well write about those books, and why I have often re-read them (if I can possibly figure it out). This should be non-controversial, if perhaps fundamentally uninteresting.

Downward to the Earth (1969) gets its title from Ecclesiastes 3:21, but I have always associated it with my mis-remembering of Psalm 118:25- ‘Adhaesit pavimento anima mea’ of the Vulgate- as ‘my soul cleaves downward to the Earth’. Silverberg drags me downward to the earth. I find nothing seductive in the godless worlds of Asimov, or Egan, or Heinlein. They are not places I want to live. The actions of the characters are not actions I want to emulate. For the worlds of Foster- long ago- and still, sometimes, in the worlds of Herbert, I feel a stir of longing, but they are safe worlds, and the characters who live in them do not imperil my soul. Robert Silverberg’s godless worlds somehow seethe with all the things I find attractive in godless reality.

Who wouldn’t be Gunderson? Wandering across a planet that he helped wrest from the alien wilderness as the alien wilderness inexorably takes it back. Both phases are terribly attractive to me: the carving of a raw new place, and the decay of an old place. The bits in between, where it is clean and orderly and functional, are booooring. I love the way Belzagor pullulates. It is a riot of living things, things that accurately reflect the intoxicating reality of real living things in the way so many of them are inimical to man. Here there are not just space monsters, but gooshy parasites with all the gooshiness of real earthly parasites. Most sci-fi writers shy away from the raw gooshiness of living things as we know them. Not Silverberg. The Face of the Waters (1991) does this even more. Actually, hmm, it does it so much it is kind of unreadable.
And what are Gunderson’s wanderings about? Sex, drugs, and the pursuit of mysterious knowledge. Things that drag the soul downward. Lots of writers can write about these things without making them seem attractive. But not Silverberg. Ah, forget about Gunderson! Who wouldn’t be Kurtz, leading the Nildoror astray with a perversion of their most sacred rite? Actually, I know he is totally reprehensible and stupid. Nobody with any sense or any shred of decency would behave like him. But there is a creepy attractiveness to him, part of the whole adhaesit pavimento anima mea thing…

There are other things to like in Downward to the Earth. There is the sense that the whole rest of the universe really exists, even though you never hear very much about the rest of Earth’s colonial empire. In Across a Billion Years – which is otherwise fairly forgettable- there is an Israeli character on board the ship, and in the little potted biography he is given at the beginning it says something like he did his degree in Alexandria, and post-docced in Baghdad, but he’d never been out of Israel before. Why is that great? Because it is never mentioned again, and is not important to the plot in any way whatsoever. It is just a superfluous geopolitical detail that makes you feel the rest of the world is really there and the story isn’t taking place in front of a cardboard backdrop.

I don’t find the characters in The Book of Skulls (1972) attractive. There is just a bit of the Generation-X envy- I don’t know how widespread this is, really- of the Baby Boomer generation and their wild sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll adventures. We are the sensible ones. I am happy we are the sensible ones. I like being sensible. But this inglorious and stupid longing to have been part of the great age of stupidity is real.

I actually bought my copy of The Book of Skulls in a great barn of a secondhand bookstore in Tucson with my friend Tim Harrison, who I have been unable to find with Google. We used to make photocopied comic books together, long ago. He worked for the Clinton campaign in 1996 and- last I heard from him- he was tracking to the fanatical left edge of idea space as quickly as I was moving into Clamspace. But that’s not important right now. At the time I hadn’t read that many Robert Silverberg books and I wasn’t that fond of them, but it said on the back cover that the immortal monks lived in the desert outside of Tucson. So I bought it. Inside, I found that the immortal monks actually lived in the desert outside of Phoenix, our arch-nemesis. Oh well. It was not as egregious an example of misleading coverness as the cover of Journey to the Centre of the Earth that I used to own.


Yes, that is a ‘raft’ ascending Mt Etna on the cover. Yes, the characters are wearing space suits. Yes, there are four of them. The cover illustrator obviously flipped it open and read half a page at the end, the slacker.


I think there is a bit of geek wish-fulfillment in The Book of Skulls in that the two weedy intellectual ones survive to the end, and the two jocks die. I don’t think it would turn out like that. Especially as Oliver’s will to live at all costs is made so much of in the bits where we are inside his head. Would he really kill himself over something as trivial, in comparison to thousands of years of existence, as his sexuality? Not from how he’s written. But I guess, in the parts of the book that haven’t been written, I guess he reached the same conclusion that any immortal character in a Greg Egan book would, that the one thing worse than annihilation is turning into something antithetical to what you are now. You can endure a temptation for seventy years. You can repress the darkness. But forever? There is no hope while your soul cleaves downward to the earth.

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980) appeals partly because Majipoor, like Belzagor, pullulates. All those cities and peoples. The continually reiterated vastness of it. Is it just that Silverberg keeps going on about the vastness of it that it seems vast? Is the vastness just in the unwritten story inside my head, and not in the created Majipoor? I don’t know. A lot of the *particulars* of the trilogy are unsatisfactory. But as a tiny bit, seen through a glass darkly, of a world that is 99.999% hidden, it is superb. My favourite of the trilogy is actually the Majipoor Chronicles. A single tale spanning continents will unavoidably shrink a world. But a collection of stories each set in a tiny fragment of a world, that’s the way to make it vast…

The way things are continually named but not described, as if we are familiar with them already? That is splendid world-building. But the world is too creepily lawful, like the one we live in.* I think it would be frustrating to live there. Maybe that is another temptation dragging me toward the earth, the temptation to chaotically create lawful worlds for other people to live in…
I just came across something about how Majipoor was originally conceived of as an overwhelmingly urban world, which explains something that always bugged me, the imbalance between the urban areas and the rural areas responsible for feeding them. There never seemed to be enough of the latter to me. I justified the ‘alternating ribbons of city and farmland’ in western Zimroel to myself by saying that they were actually blobs of urban area on the highway like beads on a string, with lots of farmland to the north and south.
I get the impression I am trailing off into inane geographical pedantry. So I will just… trail off… and finish up with Kingdoms of the Wall (1992) at another date.

Actually, before I go, there is one huge piece missing in the pullulating tropical luxuriance of all these worlds of Silverberg's, and that is fecundity. If I were writing them, they would be seething with children as well. Characters would be getting knocked up all the time.



* Though not as creepily lawful as the Land of Oz. I have been re-reading these books to Miss E and am finding the place scarily totalitarian:

‘Ozma is as nearly perfect as a fairy may be, and she is noted for her wisdom as well as for her other qualities. Her happy subjects adore their girl Ruler and each one considers her a comrade and protector.’
(The Scarecrow of Oz)

‘Isn’t one punished enough in knowing one has done wrong? Don’t you wish, Ojo, with all your heart, that you had not been disobedient and broken a Law of Oz? ‘
‘I – I hate to be different from other people,’ he admitted.
‘Yes; one likes to be respected as highly as his neighbours are,’ said the woman. ‘When you are tried and found guilty, you will be obliged to make amends, in some way. I don’t know just what Ozma will do to you, because this is the first time one of us has broken a Law; but you may be sure she will be just and merciful. Here in the Emerald City people are too happy and contented ever to do wrong; but perhaps you come from some faraway corner of our land, and having no love for Ozma carelessly broke one of her Laws.’
(The Patchwork Girl of Oz)

‘This wonderful Magic Picture was one of the royal Ozma’s greatest treasures. .. If one who stood before it wished to see what any person- anywhere in the world- was doing, it was only necessary to make the wish and the scene in the Magic Picture would shift the scene where that person was and show exactly what he or she was engaged in doing.’
‘Of all the magical things that surrounded Glinda in her castle there was none more marvelous than her Great Book of Records. On the pages of this record book were constantly being inscribed- day by day and hour by hour- all the important events that happened anywhere in the known world , and they were inscribed in the book at precisely the moment the events happened. … For that reason nothing could be concealed from Glinda the Good, who only had to look at the pages of the Great Book of Records to know everything that had taken place.’
(The Lost Princess of Oz)


Asymmetric access to information corrupts. Asymmetric access to *lots* of information corrupts *a lot*.

1 comment:

Marco said...

gee thanks :) I have read most of the Majipoor trilogy and liked them a lot. I must admit I only ever owned one of them and it has got lost/wrecked decades ago and the other two I borrowed from the library, and if I remember correctly, the last one I returned before I had time to finish it, and somehow never remembered to re-borrow it. It might sound like I didn't like the book or something, but I do it a lot with books and especially movies. I (semi-) deliberately fail to see/read the ending such that it maintains an air of mystery to me such that I can ponder (or not) possible endings that would give it closure. I have done it with "Titanic" such that although I know that it sinks (duh), I don't have a picture of who lives/dies and what the point of the main characters were. Interestingly, I was watching "Appollo 13" for the first time with somebody and I told them that I *knew* they were going to make it back, and they like made out that I spoiled it for them :( Like... it's a true story! Sorry, what was I talking about?