Fiction Reviews

Downward to the Earth

(1969 / 2014) Robert Silverberg, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, xi +255pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21192-6


This is a welcome reprint as part of Gollancz's SF Masterworks series of Robert Silverberg's Hugo short-list nominated, 1970 novel first serialised 1969 in Galaxy magazine.  It was one to two Silverberg novels that were Hugo short-listed in 1971 but Robert Silverberg withdrew it from the final ballot lest it draw votes away from his Tower of Glass: back then the Hugo voting by Worldcon registrants was 'first past the post' and not sequential preferential counted in knock-out rounds (the Australian system) which slightly helps more popular secondary preferences compared to slightly less popular but overall majority first preferences.  (And in case you wondered the 1971 'Best Novel' Hugo went to Ringworld which back then it was clear, even prior to the Awards ceremony, that that novel was the favourite to win. Having said that, while Ringworld scores on SF concept terms – an astronomically large 'big dumb object' – Downward to the Earth scores on allegory.)

It is 2240AD and humanity had reached Holman's World: a life-bearing planet.  The thing about Holman's World is that unlike any other – and apparently defying biological understanding of evolution – it sported two intelligent species: the elephant-like Nildoror and the furry, bipedal Sulidor. The Nilodoor largely live in the lowland jungle and the Sulidor controlled the mist-laden uplands, though significant numbers could be found also in the lowlands.

The significant thing about Homan's World was the venom of large snakes as it had a biomedical use in tissue, and even limb, regeneration. The venom also had a hallucinatory effect on humans and the Nildoror.

Because of this biomedical treasure, for many years Holman's World was run by the Company. However, as it became clear as to the true extent of the Nildoror – and less so the Sulidor – sentience, humanity returned control of the world to the Nildoror. Homan's World became Belzagor.

Eight years later, after relinquishment, former Holman's World Company man, Edmund Gundersen has returned to Belzagor ostensibly on vacation but as a kind of personal pilgrimage (and it is initially hinted, possibly to excise old ghosts) as well as to look up old friends and colleagues.

The Belzagor he finds is not the Holman's World he knew. The human population is now down to a remotely scattered few hundred. The human technology infrastructure is largely succumbing to the ravages of time.

As part of his trip Edmund Gundersen wants to visit the Sulidor-controlled mist uplands but needs permission of the Nildoror to do so. The Nildoror agree, only on provision that Gundersen does something for them: to try to bring back a human who has transgressed a local custom…

This edition has two introductions: one by Pat Cadigan, written especially for this SF Masterworks edition, and a very illuminating preface by Silverberg himself written for a 2012 US edition.

Downward to the Earth is in effect Silverberg channelling Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness mode and Rudyard Kipling; indeed, Kipling is referenced early on in the novel and there is a common character name and character circumstance from Heart of DarknessDownward to the Earth is a post-colonial critique of culture clash. Silverberg realised that such a subject was ideal for SF where it can be examined – distance removed – through the prism of a remote alien world.  As such this novel is still very relevant to today.  We all need to continually revalue our perceptual-based understanding on the basis of the stream of new information and knowledge gained.  Occasionally, this necessitates something of a re-birth.

Jonathan Cowie

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