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Writing Fantasy

  
The Science of Wonder
  Book Reviews by Jamie Todd Rubin
September 2012

Title: Downward to the Earth
Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: TOR/Orb

I have been a Robert Silverberg fan for many years. He produced my favorite novels during a period between the late 1960s and mid-1970s. These include Up the Line, perhaps the best time-travel novel ever written, as well as emotionally powerful novels like Dying Inside and On the Inside. It seemed to me that I had read most of Silverberg's novels from this periods, but I was pleased to discover I was wrong. TOR recently re-issued Silverberg's 1970 novel Downward to the Earth -- one I had not yet read. And so I took the opportunity to read it for this column.

What relevance does a 42-year old science fiction novel have today? It is a fair question and fortunately, in Downward to the Earth, Silverberg focused on timeless themes that makes the novel a surprisingly modern read.

The novel centers on Edmund Gunderson, a former employee of an organization that once administered the colonization of the planet Belzagor. It was discovered, after humans arrived, that there were two intelligent species on the planet: the Nildoror, who vaguely resembled elephants; and the Sildoror, who resemble primates. Colonists are forced to leave because they cannot colonize worlds in which intelligent life exists. Gunderson returns to Belzagor many years later in order to learn about the mysteries of rebirth, a transformative process the Nildoror go through. Gunderson is also looking for redemption for the way he treated the locals in his days as an administrator.

Silverberg paints a wonderful picture of the geography of Belzagor, as seen through the eyes of Gunderson. The novel is as much a travelogue as it is a story of transformation and redemption, and one can see in it echoes of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (something Silverberg himself mentions in the preface to the reissued volume). Silverberg does a masterful job at painting a picture of a world that is just alien enough to be different and interesting. (Humans can survive on the planet without special equipment so some things are remarkably similar to Earth.) More than Heart of Darkness, I was reminded of some of the world-building that came out of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (published a year earlier, in 1969).

Reading the novel, we see this alien world and its inhabitants, intelligent and otherwise, through Gunderson's biased eyes. But what I enjoyed best was watching the transformations that took place in Gunderson himself, even as the landscape changed under his feet.

Downward to the Earth stands the test of time and is as good today as I imagine it was in 1970. It stands to illustrate how varied the themes of our genre can be, and how science fiction takes different routes to explore the same themes as classic literature.

And if you choose to read the book (and I hope that you do) be sure to read Silverberg's new preface, in which he describes the transformation of his own opinion of the book in the last four decades.

Title: The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
Editor: Gardner Dozois
Publisher: St. Martins

If you've read the last few review columns I've written, it's probably clear that I am a fan of short fiction. For me, there is nothing better than a good science fiction story or novelette. Try as I may, however, I cannot keep up with all of the good short fiction being produced today. That is where an anthology like Garnder Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction comes in. I didn't start reading Dozois' anthologies until recently, but I find that there are three reasons that enjoy read them:

  • As a fan of science fiction, I often find in his books gems that I otherwise might have missed. Sometimes, I get to re-read stories that I really enjoyed in the magazines the first time around.
  • As a writer of science fiction, I find it fascinating to see what a seasoned and well-respected editor in the field likes and does not like. I don't agree with all of Dozois selections, but I find the information useful.
  • Dozois provides an exhaustive assessment of the entire genre at the opening of each volume, which allows you to see just how big science fiction is and how much it changes from year to year.
  • This year marks the 29th year Dozois has been publishing his anthology and I found it to be a wonderful read for all of the reasons cited above. There were seven or eight stories that I'd already read, but reading them again helped cement my opinion of those stories.

    Of the stories that stood out to me in the volume this year, there are three worth mentioning. First, Geoff Ryman's powerful "What We Found" for which I was fortunate enough to present Geoff the Nebula for Best Novelette this year.

    Robert Reed seems to have a story in the volume each year -- sometimes two! This year's choice, "The Ants of Flanders" is a fascinating alien invasion novella in which the aliens fighting one another hardly notice the humans caught in the middle.

    Finally, Kij Johnson's "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" (also a Nebula-winner) was a spectacular read. I recall reading the story last December while on vacation in Florida and being captivated by it. At its heart is seems a simple story of an engineer on an alien world who attempts to build a bridge across a chasm of mist. But the effort, the lives of those affected by it, and the ever-present mist draws you into a complex, transformative tale.

    And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that six stories from InterGalactic Medicine Show received honorable mentions in the volume: "Love, Cacye" by Marie Brennan; "Exodus Tides" by Aliette de Bodard; "Under the Shield" by Stephen Kotowych; "What Happened at Blessing Creek" by Naomi Kritzer; "The Hanged Poet" by Jeffrey Lyman; and "We Who Steal Faces" by Tony Pi.

    If you feel the need to catch up on the great science fiction stories you missed from last year -- or you are looking to revisit the ones you loved, Gardner Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Edition is a great place to start.

    Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin


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