The first two-thirds of Robert Silverberg’s masterpiece Downward to the Earth (1970) is easily in the pantheon of the best sections of a science fiction book I’ve ever read. I found it emotionally engaging and often downright nerve-racking, moody and disturbed, and engages in an intelligent and poignant manner with the issue of de-colonization which was coming to the fore in the 1960s.
However, the work falters somewhat when Silverberg’s a “woman deters you from your quest and has a pair of breasts” mentality (momentarily) kicks in. I swear that every other sentence relating to the one female character (who only appears in a chapter or so) describes her breasts…. Or her scandalous revealing clothes… Or her nakedness… Or her wailing about the dangers of the journey…. And then she exits the narrative, thankfully… And Silverberg’s brilliance returns.
Welcome to Holman’s World and the stories of the few humans that still reside within its decaying hotels, forest stations, and among its natives.
The alien world Silverberg creates is vividly realized and inventive. Holman’s World (Belgazor) is a decaying jungle planet — replete with fascinating flora and fauna — recently relinquished by the Company back to its sentient native inhabitants. Most praiseworthy is Silverberg’s successful tackling of one of the most difficult aspects of sci-fi, the creation of a believable and sufficiently ‘different’ alien species — the elephantine nildoror and the fanged apelike sulidoror.
Gundersen has returned to Belgazor after a lengthy absence. His motives aren’t immediately clear. We learn that he performed a few unsavory deeds when the Company ruled the planet. The only one I can reveal without ruining the plot involves gathering venom from large snake-like creatures (the venom is used on Earth as a pharmaceutical to regrow limbs) and allowing the nilidoror to partake of the venom with the humans.
Gundersen meets up with a few remaining humans on the planet at the Company decaying hotel and notices that the sulidoror, whom weren’t much of a presence when he lived on the planet, are now performing many of the tasks that the Company had forced the nildoror to do.
After taking his leave of the tourist groups which have descended on the hotel Gundersen sets off on a journey to the mist country where nildoror rituals involving rebirth take place. The nildoror allow him to start his journey as long as he promises to come back with a man who committed an unknown crime against the nildoror.
On the way Gundersen meets Kurtz (a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) who has undergone a horrific transformation after participating in the nildoror ritual of rebirth. Silverberg’s descriptions of the horror the planet can inflict on humans is chill inducing and one of the strengths of the work. Despite Kurtz’s condition Gundersen decides anyway to undergo rebirth with the nildoror.
The characterization of Gundersen, the protagonist, is spot on — he’s believable, relatable, flawed, and painfully human. The various other characters which Gundersen meets on his journey are often equally well-drawn (not so much Gundersen’s ex-lover, Seena). The plot unfolds in a deliberate manner enhancing Gundersen’s character (what he choices to reveal to us and when).
What I found most appealing about Downward to Earth was the transformation that Gundersen undergoes regarding the nildoror natives. The nildoror do not produce art, build buildings (the suldoror build sheds for them), or perform agriculture. As a result the Company and its agents were inclined (despite the nildoror’s sophisticated language) to treat them as little more than animals. Gundersen had previously held this belief and vestiges of it remain when he returns to the planet. However, over the course of the novel (and his confrontations with the tourists who occasionally run into him throughout his journey) Gundersen undergoes a wonderful transformation. Although this is a somewhat predictable plot device Silverberg pulls it off in a believable manner.
The world of Belgazor is hauntingly beautiful and dangerous (including diseases which cause a kaleidoscopic array of crystals to emerge from the living flesh, strange parasites that turn their human hosts into husks, etc).
The work’s only blemish is Silverberg’s treatment of the female character Seena (discussed above).
This is a brooding masterpiece of social science fiction.