1970, 1970s, colonization, ecological, evolutionary transcendence, Gollancz SF Masterworks, Locus Award nominee, New Wave SF, postcolonial, psychological, religion, Robert Silverberg, science fiction, Soft SF
This about does it for my Silverberg collection, since I’ve run out of novels. I do have a couple of novellas and short-story collections I might get around to reading, but that’s about it. Downward to the Earth is from Silverberg’s (first) high-water period—from around 1967 to 1976, when he won a stack of awards for his novels and novellas—and a few years before he gave up writing altogether (though he returned, of course). I’ve heard a lot of good things about this novel, and I can now say that almost all of them are true.
I didn’t intend to end up with this novel; I won it in an eBay lot because, of all things, it cost half as much to buy one of the books as part of a lot rather than on its own. When I noticed one of the other novels was a Silverberg, and one of his better works at that, I pulled it and and placed it near the top of my reading list.
Years ago, Edmund Gunderson worked for the Company on Holman’s World, a lush jungle planet with two sentient native species: the nildoror, large elephantine herbivores, and the sulidoror, a race of hairy simian-like creatures with powerful claws. Neither had the means to make or use technological devices or buildings, and so most of the Company employees considered them little more than talking animals, using them as beasts of burden for manual labor. Times, and opinions, change. After nearly a decade living on Holman’s World, Edmund ends up leaving when the Company relinquished control of a planet it never really owned.
Now, Edmund is returning to the planet with a group of tourists, a planet renamed Belzagor by its freed native inhabitants. The Company’s dilapidated facilities cater to small groups of tourists, as the human imprint on the planet is slowly reclaimed by the jungle. Edmund wants to make amends for some of his misdeeds while working for the Company and get a different view of the native cultures. He hopes to trek into the jungle to witness the nildoror ritual of rebirth, stopping on the way to see the few friends and former coworkers who decided to stay behind.
And so begins an epic journey: one man’s trek, both physical and psychological, through inhospitable jungle wilderness. Edmund travels with a group of nildoror, and through conversation, begins to realize more of his past mistakes than he thought possible; it’s as much an eye-opener for Edmund as it is for the reader. There’s a sharp contrast, here: the peaceful and wise nildoror, the mysterious sulidoror, the few ex-Company workers who stayed behind, and the limousine-liberal tourists, who preach for relinquishment to the natives… until they see the nildoror for themselves: dirty, simple, uncivilized elephants. (As we already know, looks are deceptive.) The novel is a fascinating character piece, and Edmund’s journey of enlightenment makes for a fascinating and thought-provoking read.
If you haven’t guessed it already, the novel is something of an homage to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with its jungle-centric journey of discovery for a former colonial overseer. Conrad’s novel was dark and moody; Silverberg’s is also brooding, and just as deep in its commentary on human nature. Silverberg even includes a character named Kurtz, who is Edmund’s dark parallel: Kurtz leads Edmund astray, treated the natives worse than anyone else, and ends up with the Edmund’s girlfriend, Seena. Edmund later finds that Kurtz undertook a similar journey, and its numerous revelations—and the novel’s finale—continue to parallel Edmund, a compare/contrast object lesson in personalities.
The homage to Heart of Darkness, the allusions to Kipling, the plot where a white Company overseer overcomes the guilt and loneliness from his earlier misunderstanding and abuse heaped on the planet’s inhabitants—yes, this is very much post-colonial literature, soft-spoken only in that it hides behind the veneer of science fiction. What brings it home is a throwaway line from one of the human tourists, in the middle of the novel: “Well, at least in Africa we were dealing with human beings…” My, the path of progress: I can picture somebody in the future of this universe, centuries later, saying “Well, at least the nildoror had physical representations of their form and weren’t gaseous blinking light like those beings of pure mentality” or something equally bizarre, to reflect another such paradigm shift yet to come.
It’s a sad, but accurate, comment on humanity that Silverberg is making through this novel, and from a science fiction standpoint, I find it fascinating; SF works best when it reflects contemporary society, and here, it’s dealing with something quite timely; to quote Billy Joel, “Belgians in the Congo.” Silverberg’s handling is remarkable. The nildoror and sulidoror are fully developed aliens, thinking and acting very different from either humans or animals, and despite their animal-like appearances, have fine-crafted cultures, belief systems, and societies. The more Edmund lives with them, the more he’s shamed as his understanding increases, and the more sympathy we have for him and these alien species. As an allegory for Earth-based colonialism, it’s downright potent.
I find that it’s hard to resist making comparisons to Avatar: corporate greed, abuse of the native population, the Dances With Wolves-style acclimation into an alien culture and ensuing enlightenment. The similarities are only in the basics. Avatar took the Dances With Wolves tropes to clothe an old-fashioned space opera, with romance with a native princess and swashbuckling action, leaving it probably the best Star Wars prequel we’re ever going to get. (I’d have added on “…best Barsoom movie…” before I saw the new trailers for John Carter. We’ll see.) Downward to the Earth took the same principles on a cerebral path, a deeper work contemplating dense concepts. It doesn’t rely on action scenes or gimmicks; instead, it’s the perfect example of the ’60s/’70s style of introspective Soft SF. It’s downright literary.
If you’re like me at all, you probably noticed that hilariously ’70s cover and wondered what it had to do with the price of rice. Around two-thirds of the way through the book, I found out it is indeed relevant and not just Signet’s art department having a bad trip. It depicts Edmund’s former lover, Seena, and the transparent purple amoebae-thing that she wears as clothing… when she bothers to wear clothing at all.
Needless to say, there’s a cross between Edmund rekindling a past flame, and the archetypal “your past/civilization tries to entice you from continuing on your quest” thing, where Silverberg describes her breasts, as often as possible, in the most stilted way imaginable. What struck me most is how awkward it all is. (Protip: “loins” and “buttocks” make me think of cuts of meat, not a pretty lady. Just sayin’.) While Seena has some interesting revelations, her main purpose is so Silverberg can describe her breasts and/or opaque amoeba dress in the most clinical means possible. The prose has this strange distance to it, walking around the issue; it makes me wonder about the point of her nudity. Something about the breakdown of “civilization” to animal lust on this planet, perhaps; that’s the best I got. On the plus side, it doesn’t last very long, so I may be blowing this out of proportion.
Out of all the Silverberg I’ve read so far, this is the closest to his best, and jumps to the front of the line of favorites. It’s a moving and thought-provoking story with an exotic setting, featuring a pair of detailed and realistic alien species. Progress is in gradual steps, a slow, brooding, philosophical journey through Belzagor’s native cultures, watching Edmund and the nildoror develop. The novel has a quiet confidence as it works its way towards a stunning finale; the conclusion is foreshadowed, but was still unexpected, a perfect ending which expounds on everything the novel had built on. Silverberg’s hand at pacing and developing all this is nothing short of masterful.
Downward to the Earth was one of the best books I read in 2011, and I can’t recommend it enough. Buy this book. Read this book. You owe it to yourself.