1970, 1970s, Bantam, Ditmar Award nominee, first contact, genetic engineering, Hugo Award nominee, Locus Award nominee, Nebula Award nominee, New Wave SF, Open Road Media, religion, Robert Silverberg, science fiction, slave uprising
From nothing, and out of nothing, came Krug… Krug the powerful, Krug the wealthy. Simeon Krug the designer of androids—living simulacra that appear human except for the red skin and powerful strength given them when they were squeezed out of a genetic soup of industrial chemicals into the mold of a man. And it’s on the backs of his android servitors that Krug will build his great tower, a modern-day pyramid and wonder of the world—a tower of glass that will stretch over a thousand meters into the Arctic sky, a communications tower that will be one of the greatest achievements of any human. This tower Krug will use to communicate with a strange signal being broadcast from deep space, which a few scientists understand to be from another intelligent species. Here we are, Krug will announce from his tower. We are humans, we are worthy, we are not alone, come and speak unto us. Thus Krug has decreed. Thus shall it be.
Meanwhile. Krug’s close associates continue to parade through the tower as it continues to reach for the stars: lawyers, senators, diplomats, the astronomer interpreting the strange extraterrestrial signals, the androids… and Krug’s son Manuel, who stands out as the lone semi-disappointment to his stern father. Having lived all of his life in his father’s shadow, the billionaire playboy’s not content to just lounge around with his beautiful but frail wife, mind-swap in drunken “shunt”-room parties with his friends, and carry on an illicit affair with female android Alpha Lilith Meson. Manuel has always wanted to stand out and be his own man without actually doing so; Manuel likes to plan big, and has great drive and ambition, but his entanglement to Lilith reveals how easily manipulable he is. As Krug’s fascination with the tower grows, and his desire to make contact with the aliens becomes an unhealthy obsession, his relationship with Manuel and his associates becomes strained—all except his relationship with his androids, tirelessly working to build him his future.
Meanwhile. All androids live a hard life of constant servitude and yearn to be free, but while a token few advocate for political action, others spend every night praying to Krug the Creator for redemption. The religious cult that has sprung up to glamorize and canonize Krug—without his knowledge—hopes for an end to the plight of the androids, that they’re being tested by their dedication and hard work for Krug to see if they are worthy. Krug’s lieutenant and left hand Alpha Thor Watchman is one of the high-ranking officials of the new religion, unwilling or unable to see Krug’s failings, comparing their plight to that of the Jews under the Pharaoh, or black slaves in early America. Unfortunately for the androids, most humans see them not as life, not as equals, but as property, as things. Stability erodes as the tower becomes all-consuming in Krug’s mind; Thor assents to take more desperate measures, agreeing to let Lilith’s relationship with Manuel to get at Krug. But this may not get the androids where they expected to go on their route to freedom…
As you can see, there’s a lot of plot-threads here—Krug’s tower, his drive for first contact—and a lot of complex relationships between the characters. There’s a bunch of minor threads that I’m overlooking, too—the role instantaneous teleportation plays in creating a globalized world, for example. Or that one of Krug’s assistants was born in vitro, an origin differentiated from the androids because he is made of his parents’ genetic material and not of synthetic chemicals grown in a vat. The most important element is the androids. It’s a timely topic given that the book was published in 1970, but while I expected some connections to be made with the Civil Rights movement, they were few and oblique—it’s used as a similar but distinct metaphor. Instead, the main questions raised are about the androids—are these things that live, think, and talk simple constructs just because they were DNA strands spit out of a factory? The humans don’t think so, but that the androids are capable of organizing their own religion seems to show otherwise.
Tower of Glass is full of great ideas, but that doesn’t make it a great book—that isn’t to say it’s bad, as pretty much everything Silverberg wrote between ’67 and ’76 was worth reading. Much like its characters, the novel aims for the stars but comes up short, failing to reach the high points of Dying Inside or Downward to the Earth. The story moves fast and touches on interesting ideas, perhaps a few too many ideas for one novel as they end up feeling rushed or shallow. And I’ve become convinced that Silverberg was at his best when he wasn’t trying to write women or bad sex scenes; we spend a lot of this novel with Lilith, and she’s less a woman and more a stereotype of one. Silverberg’s writing is fast and strong as always; it’s more character-driven, and all the characters have their own distinctive identities and voices, particularly Krug, a kind of blue-collar brute who hides his self-aggrandizing behind a dream of dragging humanity into a galactic conversation with extraterrestrials.
Tower of Glass is an ambitious novel full of wonderful ideas, a subtle and insidious black comedy offering a critical view of human drive and ambition—a futuristic retelling of the tower of Babel. This one’s full of fascinating concepts, and its central concepts are fantastic—using the androids as a stand-in to observe racism, caste systems, ghettoization, and other elements of oppression, as well as their use of religious significance to define things that are not understood. All told it’s a good read and engaging story, even if its reach does exceed its grasp—its brevity and over-abundance of great concepts diffuses its focus. Fans of ’70s/New Wave SF, or of Silverberg in specific, should enjoy this one. And if you haven’t read any Robert Silverberg novels from this era, that’s something you need to fix posthaste.
Title: Tower of Glass
Author: Robert Silverberg
First Published: 1970
What I Read: Open Road Media ebook, 2014
Price I Paid: $2 (Kindle #ebookdeal)
MSRP: oop hc / oop pb / $7.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 0575070978 / B00J90BYWK