Saturday, November 7, 2015

Robert Silverberg: Downward to the Earth

Robert Silverberg
Downward to the Earth, Second Edition

Published in 1970, this one somehow escaped me at that time. It's one of his best.  It's the tale of a man, Edmund Gunderson,  who returns to the planet where he was a colonial supervisor when the earth government decided the local species was intelligent. Therefore, the Company (always an evil company here) had to leave the planet.

Gunderson has several reasons for his return. One is that he feels guilty for his mistreatment of the nildoror, the sentient indigenous inhabitants who look a lot like elephants, and there's more to them than their size. Another is his interest in the rumors that the nildoror undergo a rebirth at some time during their life span, and he wishes to find out more about that.  In addition, he also plans on searching for friends of his, one of whom is Seena, whom Gunderson had been in love with.  Another is Kurtz, who also stayed behind.

In order to accomplish these tasks, he must travel alongside a river deep into the heart of the continent where few Earth people have gone, and perhaps into areas where no Earth people have ever gone.  Readers familiar with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness will recognize a number of elements here.

One of these elements, of course, is the long journey into a jungle that is dark, dangerous, mysterious, and brooding.  A second is that one of the goals is to find Kurtz, which is the major reason for the journey in Heart of Darkness.  A third element involves the mistreatment of the indigenous population by a large corporation.  Another is the depiction of the nildoror which is far more sympathetic than the portrayal of the Earth people.  Yet one more is a scene in Chapter Two which faintly echoes an early scene from Heart of Darkness, and in both, the people have just left the ship (sea and space types) and are heading for the village.

The path widened to become a clearing.  Up ahead, one of the tourist women pointed into the bush; her husband shrugged and shook his head.  When Gunderson reached that place he saw what was bothering them.  Black shapes crouched beneath the trees, and dark figures were moving slowly to and fro.  They were barely visible in the shadows.

Those, we learn, are the Sulidoror.  Just who they are and what they are and what their relationship to the nildoror is remains another mystery Gunderson hopes to solve.

I also see some elements here that remind me of Dante's Divine Comedy, but it may be another example of my penchant for over-reading.  Most others in the discussion group didn't see it, so either it isn't there, or I did an inadequate job of pointing out what I saw.  

Gunderson's trip upriver, although he follows the river, but seldom travels on it, can be broken into three parts.  The first is hell, a hot, steaming jungle, populated by various dangerous beasts--death is everywhere.  I find this to be an echo of Dante's Inferno.

Once Gunderson escapes the jungle, he moves into the highlands which are much safer and the climate is more temperate. It is cooler, misty, with sparse vegetation.  There is little danger there, and it becomes a time for reflection and enlightenment, as he moves closer to the rumored land of rebirth. This suggests Dante's Purgatorio to me.  Gunderson has avoided death in the jungle and now is on his way to his ultimate goal.

The place of rebirth is the peak, the goal of Gunderson's journey, just as Paradiso, or heaven was Dante's goal, as it is for all Christians.  And, just as there is in the Christian tradition, there is the judgement which Gunderson must undergo at the time of rebirth. What one becomes is determined by the life one has led.

This is only a brief summary of the work, and I haven't mentioned anything about Gunderson's meeting with Kurtz nor about Gunderson's lost love who stayed behind with Kurtz.  

 It's a fascinating work, with an interesting introduction by Silverberg and with some very interesting aliens.  Those seeking this book should be careful and get the second edition.  The first edition does not include Silverberg's introduction nor the map of Gunderson's journey.

I definitely need to do a reread on this one.


  1. Yes, I remember this book as being excellent, even for Silverberg. It has been a long time - I should reread it.

  2. "even for Silverberg"?

    It seems as though you are not an admirer of him. I have enjoyed a number of his stories and novels.

    But, I must admit, this one is a step or two above most of his other works.

  3. The opposite, actually - Silverberg is one of the best SF writers, and this novel is especially impressive.

    1. Ah, I misunderstood your comment. It's good to find someone else who appreciates Silverberg today.

  4. Well, Fred, I'm persuaded. I've added Silverberg to my list of neglected and ignored authors. I am the guilty party. So I'm off to the e-library for an attempt at atonement. But tell me which is the best by Silverberg?

  5. R.T.,

    These are four that stand out. Each one is radically different from the others.

    Downward to the Earth
    At Winter's End
    Shadrach in the Furnace
    Roma Eterna

  6. This is my third reading of DOWNWARD TO THE EARTH, and it gets better each time.

    Of the four books you mentioned above, I haven't even heard of the other three.

    1. Jim--take a look at Winter's End. Sometime in the future, Earth is again bombarded by meteors and life goes underground. The novel starts when it appears as though the bombardment has ended. There's a sequel but I didn't think it was as good.

      Roma Eterna--an alternate universe in which the Roman Empire doesn't fall.

      Shadrach-- China rules the world. The POV character is the personal doctor for the Great Khan who rules the empire.