Review: To Open The Sky

To Open The Sky, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Media, 2014 (first published in 1967).

Summary: Noel Vorst’s new religion sweeps the Earth with its promise of eternal life, but Vorst’s plans extend far beyond Earth or even the near planets to the stars.

By 2077, the Earth has colonized Mars and Venus, terraforming Mars and adapting humans to live in the Venusian atmosphere. A UN functionary, Reynolds Kirby struggles with the high tension this high tech life creates, little relieved by temporary plunges into nothingness, or other pleasures. A new religion is on the rise, replacing those that no longer speak to the world Kirby lives in. They are called the Vorsters after Noel Vorst their founder. Their chapels are springing up in many cities, the central focus of which is the small cobalt reactor giving off a bluish light. Services follow a liturgy that is a pastiche of scientific mysticism with the promise of eternal life for followers. Kirby is drawn in, and over the years rises to become Vorst’s right hand man.

Meanwhile, another movement breaks off from the Vorsters, led by David Lazarus, until he was supposedly martyred. They are the Harmonist and they’ve succeeded where the Vorsters failed in establishing their mission to Venus. Vorsters who try either die from the vicious creatures on the planet or the inhabitants who want nothing to do with them, or they become Harmonists.

The Vorsters have advanced in extending life and the breeding of ever more effective ESPers at their Santa Fe center. The most visible sign is Vorst himself, who is still alive 100 years later. On Venus, the Harmonists have advanced in telekinesis with the development of “pushers” able to move things and people further and further. All the Vorsters efforts to train the ESPers to do this fail, often at the cost of their lives.

Then Lazarus is found in a nutrient bath encased and buried on Mars. The Vorsters bring him to life, only to turn him over to the Harmonists. It turns out that all of this is part of a grand plan of Vorst that extends far beyond Earth, Mars, or Venus, to “open the sky,” as it were, to the universe.

The question around this book is that of “at what cost” Is the cost warranted of the young lives wrecked, ESPers driven into insanity and a merciful death, “pushers” who are destroyed, all of these young and devout? Is this “religion” just the cloak for the ambitions of one man, as much as others seem to be helped?

In some ways, this book feels more timely today than in 1967, as we see many religious figures who have used religion to gain and abuse their power, and often their followers. In the human longing for something more, there is a great vulnerability, that may be twisted by the power, either tempting others who are needed to join in the quest for power, or to be used up and discarded by the powerful. In this, Silverberg may have been prescient.

Review: Across A Billion Years

Across a Billion Years

Across a Billion Years, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013 (originally published in 1969).

Summary: A group of space archaeologists from different planets make a discovery that puts them on the trail of an ancient, highly advanced race that disappeared nearly a billion years ago.

Tom Rice is a graduate archaeology researcher part of a team drawn from several different races from different planets on an expedition excavating a site on one of the planets occupied by an incredibly advanced and ancient civilization, The High Ones. Tom, in his youthful enthusiasm, is the narrator of this story. The chapters are recorded messages to his telepath sister, Lorie, whose mind can communicate across the galaxy while her invalid body is confined to a hospital bed.

The dig, like most, is tediously routine at first, allowing us to get to know the expedition’s characters–the android Kelly, the rhino-like Mirrick, Dr. Horkk from Thhh, Steen Steen, a hermaphroditic creature, Saul the stamp collector, Leroy Chang, who turns out to be kind of creepy, Pilazinool, who loves to remove and replace his robotic limbs, Dr Shein, who heads the expedition, 408b, an octopoid creature, and Tom’s love interest, Jan, who at first is more interested in the stamp collector.

The expedition shifts from tedium to intrigue when Tom discovers a sphere that is kind of a projector, that plays back scenes from The High One’s civilization. Nothing like this has ever been discovered. More than that, it puts them on a trail of discovery leading first to an asteroid where a robot has been entombed in a cave, it turns out over 800 years ago. They find the asteroid, and the robot intact, who conveniently is a universal translator. The robot in turn takes them to a home planet, abandoned “just” 275 million year ago by the Mirt Korp Ahm, as the High Ones call themselves. The planet continues to be inhabited by a fantastic assemblage of self-maintaining robots, much like Dihn Ruu, their interpreter.

It is here that Dihn Ruu learns why the aging home star of the Mirt Korp Ahm cannot any longer be seen. The planetary system has been enclosed by a Dyson sphere to conserve energy. And with this news, the explorers lay plans to head there, only to face arrest from Galaxy Central!

Will they make it to the home planet of the Mirt Korp Ahm? If they do, what will they find? Will they be received or destroyed? And how will these discoveries change them? These are interesting questions that I cannot answer without spoiling the conclusion.

Perhaps as interesting as this adventure from planet to asteroid to planet are the relationships between the members of the team. Silverberg explores the human-android relationship–are humans from a vat really different from those conceived the old-fashioned way? And why do humans inherently suspect other species?

Equally intriguing is Tom’s perception of his sister. He pities her physical disabilities and “guards” her from aspects of his life that highlight her disabilities. Silverberg gives us an interesting portrayal of how the “abled” view those “differently abled” and how the “differently abled” see things.

Oddly, it seemed to me that what Silverberg considers the least is the encounter between species, and how such contact, particularly if one is far advanced, would change the explorers civilization. Nor does there seem to be much interest in the highly advanced robotic civilization, other than as stepping stones to learn what has become of the Mirt Korp Ahm.

Nevertheless, he raises the interesting question of what a race a billion years old might be like, for humans who reckon the advance of modern civilization over less than 50,000 years. Silverberg presents us with this interesting thought experiment clothed in a chase across a galaxy.

Review: Tower of Glass

Tower of GlassTower of Glass, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2014 (initially print publication, 1970).

Summary: Mega-wealthy Simeon Krug, creator of the process that produces androids, learns of signals from a distant star and uses his androids to build a tower of glass to communicate. Obsessed with distant life, he is woefully ignorant of the hopes and faith the life he has created place in him.

Robert Silverberg began publishing science fiction around the time I stopped reading it. I may have read a few of his short stories in anthologies, but that was a long time ago. Over time he was awarded five Hugo and five Nebula awards (yes, I know the cover image says four Hugos!). He is one of twenty-nine science fiction writers to receive the Grand Master Award of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Recently, Open Road Media has re-released a number of his books in e-book format, where I am discovering him for the first time.

Tower of Glass is set in the twenty-third century. It is premised on a relatively depopulated earth from previous wars. Simeon Krug has helped fill this population vacuum and become fabulously wealthy by perfecting the process to create android humans out of vats filled with the basic components of life. Three classes of androids exist in ascending intelligence from gammas to betas to alphas and Krug sells them to serve the remaining human population.

The novel begins with Krug setting out to build a 1500 meter glass tower in the Arctic permafrost to send tachyon signals to NGC 7293. Krug, whose previous efforts to discover life forms in nearby systems have all failed, has learned of cryptic signals in the form of number sequences coming from this ring nebula. He employs a vast work force of his androids under the leadership of his Alpha foreman, Thor Watchman, in an ever more frantic quest to complete the tower, oblivious to the increasing death toll this dangerous task entails. Simultaneously, in a Denver factory he is building a space ship to send more androids in suspended animation to NGC 7293.

While focused on the stars, he is more or less oblivious of intertwined undercurrents with his son, Manuel, and the androids. Like other sons of the fabulously wealthy Manuel is trying to find his own meaning in life beyond inheriting his father’s enterprises. He is in an affair with an android woman, Lilith, while married to Clissa, who has yet to bear him a child. His quest leads him to “shunting” where he exchanges consciousness with five other friends, discovering their most intimate thoughts, emotions, and memories, as they do his.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any, including Simeon Krug, most of the androids, apart from a few political activists, have given themselves over to the religion of Krug. They have created a whole religious system centered around their “creator”, in whom they lodge their hopes that after trials, they, the people of the Vat, will be full partners with the people of the Womb, enabled by their Creator Krug, who they venerate and pray to in secret services in “chapels” all over the world.

Redemption is slow in coming. When Manuel tours one of the factories that gives birth to androids and is deeply disturbed by what he sees, his lover, Lilith, and Thor Watchman see a chance to help their prayers for deliverance from servitude to their human masters. Manuel is cultivated as an android ally, finally learning the truth of their religious belief in his father.

As the tower nears completion, Manuel goes to his father to reveal the hidden religion and intercede for the androids. We approach this plot climax wondering whether any of this was such a good idea and how Simeon Krug will react to his god-hood.

Beyond the android religious rituals, I was struck with a couple other profound echoes of biblical religion. One was the idea of Krug’s tower. Like the tower builders in Babel, Krug builds a tower to reach up to the heavens–literally. We watch a hubristic quest, an obsession really where pursuing a technological chimera that justifies mounting death tolls and sending a ship full of androids toward the blue giant at the center of the nebula in a quest to communicate with life that could incinerate them.

We also see in Thor Watchman a kind of Moses figure concerned with the deliverance of his people from their servitude. Moses’s initial attempt as a young man involved taking that deliverance into his own hands to no good end. I will leave you to discover the results of Thor Watchman’s effort to take deliverance into his own hands.

We also cannot help but consider the implications of crossing the threshold of become “creators” of life, and what that does to both “creator” and “created”. Our technologies are resulting in increasingly life-like and humanoid robots, and our cloning experiments have resulted in viable animal forms of life. This book explores the presumption of control by the creators. It also explores the consequences of what happens when such creations have “self-awareness” and with that longings both for worship and for self-realization. If anything, Silverberg’s story speaks with greater prescience and relevance today than when first published 46 years ago, warning us of the dangers of our hubristic dreams.

[Parent advisory: This book does contain explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse as well as some violence.]