Mar 5, 2017

A Journey Towards Redemption or Damnation | Downward to the Earth

In the late 1980’s I used to visit my favourite library almost daily, and there in the science fiction section, books by Robert Silverberg dominated. As far as I recall, I would have read most of the titles that library had collected but 30 years on, I have no recollection of any of these stories. I can remember loving the fantasy aspects of Lord Valentine's Castle and the archaeological detective work in Across a Billion Years but then the rest of the stories and titles seem to have been lost in a fog of memory. There are flashes of other stories, an alternate universe where the Black Death killed off 2/3rds of the European population which enabled the Aztecs to discover and colonise Europe as The New World. There was also one about a human slave, with three eagle tattoos who was travelling through an interstellar empire on some sort of task. Suffice to say Silverberg wasn’t a one story author, I could count on reading a fresh story, whenever I picked up one of his books.

Any theme or aspect of science fiction / fantasy that you could think of, Robert Silverberg wrote the book - a whole lot of books.
Pat Cadigan

It’s been well over 20 years since I’ve read anything by Silverberg, so I was excited to be presented with Downward to the Earth for Christmas. After saying I was a big reader of his books in the late 80’s it was doubly surprising to find out that, first, this is a critically acclaimed novel which comes highly recommended by mavens of the science fiction genre. And secondly, I’d never heard of this title before!

I was amazed at how Silverberg was able to create a detailed and realistic world in which to base this story. The fact that he was able to express this world in a 300 page novel as good or better than some of the world building I’ve seen in 900 page novels, is staggering. I love stories that can create a fantastical but believable world, especially ones which hint that the storyline, we’re following as readers, is just one of many other stories happening consecutively within this universe.

I loved the prose, or way this book was written. Silverberg has a way with words especially when he’s describing the landscape and it’s inhabitants. Captured by this world is a recurring phrase used several times in relation to the story’s protagonist, Gundersen, and I too found myself being captured by the world described. Especially as Silverberg was describing the Mist Country. I could feel the mists’ cold touch on my face and see the random swirls and patterns made by the air currents, it was… captivating and I was drawn into the story. It’s difficult to explain but there is a beauty in Silverberg's writing that seems to be lacking in the modern science fiction stories (almost poetic).

Probably the most intelligent science fiction writer in America.

Ursula K. Le Guin

The famous amoeba dress,
So it was no surprise to find out that Downward to the Earth was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1971. Silverberg actually declined the nominations because he had another book, Tower of Glass, on both ballots which he thought might have a better chance of winning and didn’t want a second book dividing his votes. Silverberg later says ‘The manoeuvre was pointless, for Larry Niven’s Ringworld easily captured both awards, as everyone knew would happen.’

This book was inspired by Silverberg's visit through East Africa and The Heart of Darkness, but it’s focus is on the journey of forgiveness and redemption taken by Gundersen. He is haunted by a single event in which he returns to atone for. The narrative follows his quest for that atonement through a native ritual called rebirth and along the way Gundersen and his travelling companions discuss themes like post-colonialism, sapience and transcendence as well as trying to understand an alien culture and adapt its lessons to ourselves as humans.

Silverberg makes his points concisely and poignantly in Downward to the Earth, and the journey was enchanting, but I was disappointed with the finish. However that could just be me, a lot of reviews thought it finished off in a way that kept the themes resonating within in the reader's' minds. I highly recommend this book and will leave it up to you to decide what you think about the ending.

Where Silverberg goes today, science fiction will follow tomorrow.
Issac Assimov

Modern, whimsical cover,
I love this one.
Have you read Downward to the Earth? If so let me know what you thought?

One reviewer said Downward to the Earth could be considered as Christian allegory because it beautifully illustrates the pain of guilt and loneliness, the desire for redemption, the relief of forgiveness and liberation, and the pleasure of unity with like-minded souls.

 While I agree with most of that I would not call it a Christian allegory, but that is the topic of a whole blog post in and of itself.

Do you think it could be considered a Christian allegory? I'd be interested in your reasoning for or against?

Interested? Get yourself a copy and support Wolfsbooks.

Downward to the Earth

by Robert Silverberg

The world in this book has two seemingly distinct intelligent beings living on it. One is elephant-like, the other large hairy ape-like beings. They have no technology but they have language. At one time the Earth controlled the planet and used these beings to work for them. A few years after relinquishing control, a man who was once a manager there (Gunderson) returns to atone for his sins against the native beings. This story is about his quest for that atonement through a native ritual called rebirth.

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