(2013) Robert Silverberg, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 300pp, ISBN 978-0-575-13006-7
'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic', said Arthur C. Clarke. He had difficulty in portraying that himself: there is no magic in the Rama novels, in any sense of the phrase. When I began reading SF, one of my early favourites was Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, where there was always the ambiguity that the apparently supernatural happening might be the remnants of very advanced technology. It was a disappointment when Vance went back to that world for Cugel the Clever and made the magical elements explicitly supernatural.
Tales from Majipoor is the eighth book set on the giant planet which Robert Silverberg introduced with Lord Valentine's Castle (1979). Its topography resembles the early radar scans of Venus at that time, with a thick crust and three large continents, and a very high mountain on the most northerly. But its diameter is twice the Earth's and as on Earth, one hemisphere is ocean, 25,000 miles across and never crossed by ship. Surface gravity is like Earth's or slightly lower, so its mass must be just four times Earth's, and with eight times the volume of the Earth and twice the radius, any metallic core must be a great deal smaller.
Metals are rare on the surface and in consequence most technology has been lost in 14,000 years of human occupancy, though there are many surviving remnants such as everlasting building materials and genetically engineered domestic animals. What little functional technology remains as transport ('floaters') or weapons ('energy-throwers') is exclusive to the rich and powerful, and doesn't appear in this book. In place of engineering Majipoor society has developed the powers of the mind, and their applications at individual and global levels are the major themes of Lord Valentine's Castle and Lord Prestimion (1999). In thousands of years of mental development, many complex adaptations have arisen – this is a world where the advanced technology is magic.
Unlike the earlier collection Majipoor Chronicles (1982), Tales from Majipoor has no linking narrative thread, only a Prologue explaining how Majipoor is ruled by a double monarchy, headed by the Coronal on Castle Mount and the Pontifex of the underground Labyrinth. The first three stories are snapshots illuminating moments in Majipoor's history: the outbreak of the war in which the Coronal Stiamot forced the original 'Metamorph' population of Majipoor into reservations; the poet who tries to tell Stiamot's story, long afterwards, and finds he must expand it to include Dvorn, the first Coronal; the archaeologist who finds what may be Dvorn's tomb, when his existence is no longer established fact; and the protagonists' human side, the compromises which each of them has to make in order to play the role for which history has earmarked him. The outcome of the second story, 'The Book of Changes' will come as no surprise to anyone who has read Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, but it is none the worse for that.
Then there are several stories about the practise of magic, and how it involves the talents of the other starfaring races who have come to share Majipoor with humans. The last story shows us Valentine himself, years after the ending of his novel, breaking with tradition and leaving the Labyrinth to visit the ruined capital of the Metamorphs – which he has ordered restored, with tragic results. Its outcome bring us back to the theme of compromise which linked the first three stories; 'sometimes even the pursuit of truth has to give way, at least for a time, before tactical realities' (p.277).
There is no overarching theme – these are simply tales of Majipoor and of people making their way in that world, in large events or small. But one of the joys of them is the unforced flow of the writing, the constant awareness that Silverberg is master both of his method and his material. They are a pleasure to read.
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