Thus did I betray my Earthborn heritage and perform a service for our conquerors, out of loyalty to a blinded wife-stealing Prince.

Nightwings, by Robert Silverberg

Nightwings was always my favourite of Silverberg novels, which given how much I loved his work as a teenager is no small thing. It’s always dangerous returning to books one enjoyed years past, but in this case at least it was worth it.

Nightwings

That isn’t actually the cover I have, but I think it’s pretty good which isn’t true of most covers this book got. It actually captures most of the themes of the novel while at the same time being intriguing and rather lovely.

Nightwings opens with three travellers making their way to the city of Roum. It’s the far future, millennia after our own age. Humanity has long since been divided into rigidly stratified guilds, some of which show signs of past genetic engineering. The narrator is a Watcher, forbidden by the tenets of his guild from letting outsiders know his name. He’s old now, but has spent his life wandering with his watching equipment which allows him to project his mind into space in search of the invaders who long ago promised to conquer Earth.

What there is of Earth doesn’t seem much worth the conquering, and through his whole life and the lives of generations before him there’s been no sign of these invaders. Earth is a place of ruins littered with fragments of the civilisations that once flourished there, but who overreached themselves and left the world impoverished and vastly reduced.

We saw the line of fusion-pylons built early in the Third Cycle to draw energy from the world’s core; they were still functioning, although stained and corroded. We saw the shattered stump of a Second Cycle weather machine, still a mighty column at least twenty men high. We saw a hill on which white marble relics of First Cycle Roum sprouted like pale clumps of winter deathflowers. Penetrating toward the inner part of the city, we came upon the embankment of defensive amplifiers waiting in readiness to hurl the full impact of the Will against invaders. We viewed a market where visitors from the stars haggled with peasants for excavated fragments of antiquity. Gormon strode into the crowd and made several purchases. We came to a flesh-house for travelers from afar, where one could buy anything from quasi-life to mounds of passion-ice. We ate at a small restaurant by the edge of the River Tver, where guildless ones were served without ceremony, and at Gormon’s insistence we dined on mounds of a soft doughy substance and drank a tart yellow wine, local specialties.

With the Watcher are Avluela of the Fliers Guild and Gormon the Changeling. Avluela has butterfly like wings which shouldn’t be able to lift her aloft, but which do so all the same. She lacks the strength to fly by day, but at night sheds all needless weight (including clothes, hence all the terrible covers) and takes to the skies. Changelings are those exceptions who have no guild, genetic refuse, diverse in their abnormalities and living in poverty and squalor. Gormon though is unusual for a Changeling, intelligent, strangely educated and fiercely proud.

The first section of the book follows the Watcher, Avluela and Gormon as they enter the ancient city of Roum:

Roum is a city built on seven hills. They say it was a capital of man in one of the earlier cycles. I did not know of that, for my guild was Watching, not Remembering; but yet as I had my first glimpse of Roum, coming upon it from the south at twilight, I could see that in former days it must have been of great significance. Even now it was a mighty city of many thousands of souls.

They do not receive the welcome they hope for. The Watcher discovers to his dismay that his Guild is no longer respected as it once was. Avluela captures the attention of the Prince of Roum (“…a hard and cold and cruel man”) who sees her as an exotic plaything to while away his duller hours. Gormon mocks the Watcher for his loss of faith in his own profession. All this comes to a head in a marvellous scene where they visit the famous Bocca della Verità, a rare survivor from 1st Century Rome (and which I thought Silverberg made up when I first read this, amazed therefore on my first visit to Rome to learn it truly exists).

Each of the three places their hand in the mouth of truth. Gormon, who has become Avluela’s lover, asks her of her preferences between him, the Prince of Roum and her first love who died years past. An unwise question with an answer he dislikes. Then he asks the Watcher if he considers his life to have been lived in vain. The Watcher, fearful that the legend is true and that the mouth will cut off his hand if he lies, replies:

“… to devote onself to vigilance when the enemy is an imaginary one is idle, and to congratuate oneself for looking long and well for a foe that is not coming is foolish and sinful. My life has been a waste.”

Then Gormon is asked a question. Earlier he had avoided answering where he came from, now he answers revealing that he is no Changeling but one of the long-awaited invaders, a forward scout. The Watcher has despaired of his life’s calling on the eve of its vindication. We’re less than a quarter of the way through the book.

Chapters follow after the fall of Roum (it’s no spoiler to reveal that this faded Earth can’t sensibly resist an actual invasion force) as the Watcher finds himself without guild since with the invasion arrived there’s no need to keep looking for it. He travels to Perris in the company of the now cast down Prince of Roum and becomes a Rememberer. He seeks comfort exploring Earth’s golden past, but discovers in the archives something of the reason for the long-promised and now fulfilled invasion. Perris itself yet retains its charm:

I walked through the glow of the Perris night, seeking fresh air. I strolled along the Senn and was accosted by an agent for a Somnambulist, who offered to sell me insight into the world of dreams. I came upon a lone Pilgrim at his devotions before a temple of flesh. I watched a pair of young Fliers in passage overhead, and shed a self-pitying tear or two. I was halted by a starborn tourist in breathing mask and jeweled tunic; he put his cratered red face close to mine and vented hallucinations in my nostrils. At length I returned to the Hall of Rememberers and went to the suite of my sponsors to pay my respects before retiring.

The tone is elegiac. We are not what we were, and with the invasion have become even less than that. The invaders are kind but omnipresent and are confident in their ownership. They reminded me of World War II Germans, which I suspect was intentional:

They were everywhere, prowling into the houses of Earth’s old religions, buying shining models of the Tower of Perris from Vendors at street corners, clambering precariously into the upper levels of the walkways, peering into occupied dwellings, snapping images, exchanging currency with furtive hucksters, flirting with Fliers and Somnambulists, risking their lives at our restaurants, moving in shepherded groups from sight to sight.

The third section of the novel sees the former-Watcher leave the Remembrancers to become a Pilgrim, heading to the holy city of Jorslem. He travels with another former Remembrancer, a mocking femme fatale from whose attentions he’s immune by reason of his age. He’s looking for redemption; she’s looking to shave a few years off which is a power they have in Jorslem if you are found worthy.

I won’t reveal what they find. Nightwings ends well, but the heart of the book comes earlier with the scenes of a tired and declining Earth housing a remnant humanity and beggar-aliens washed ashore from better worlds. Silverberg conjures up an image of a future so distant that almost nothing of us remains and that which does has long since lost its context, and yet for all the genetic engineering and guilds and alien conquerors the core experiences of humanity, of love and guilt and hubris and regret, they are still the same.

Other reviews

None on any of the blogs I follow, but I don’t know the SF blog scene well so that just means I’ve not found them. If you do know of any worth noting please let me know in the comments.

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26 Comments

Filed under Fantasy Fiction, Science Fiction, Silverberg, Robert

26 responses to “Thus did I betray my Earthborn heritage and perform a service for our conquerors, out of loyalty to a blinded wife-stealing Prince.

  1. I’ve read this novel twice.I don’t know if I ever will again,but if I did,I think I still might find it well preserved.It should endure as a timeless classic.Bob Silverberg took hold of the old,stale SF cliches,and shaped them into something refreshing while retaining their original appearance.He probably never wrote anything better than this,not even the brilliant “Dying Inside”,but “Nightwings” is probably richer for it’s infusion of SF tropes.Also,despite being drawn from traditional SF trappings,his crafting is so polished,it doesn’t feel like old pulp SF.

    It is a modern parable,moralistic but not preaching in tone,and fun.It’s remarkable for the reverence still shown to the old Rome and Jerusalem that would have been ancient ruins in “our” time,but now even the modern world is seen as obsolesent and ancient.Silverberg makes us feel that the civilization described in the novel,is already old and decadent.The concept of the genetically engineered fairy Toomis,is brilliant.quaint,exotic and enduring.

  2. Richard, I honestly think I can agree with every word of that. Nicely put.

  3. What else can I say then?We’re lucky he came back to SF.

  4. Not an author I’ve read but I’m always looking for new (old) sci fi titles to broaden my horizons so I’ll definitely look out for this one – thanks!

  5. It’s a good one Kaggsy. You have to be a bit careful with Silverberg as the depictions of women in some of his books are terrible, really unconvincing and of their period, but here that’s not too bad. I think he’s stronger to be honest on these distant futures, when he describes the ’70s or near future period attitudes creep in more (I reviewed his The Stochastic Man here which opinion differs on; I like it but it does have serious gender issues).

    Richard, always a shame when one can’t disagree. Nothing left to discuss. My next review is Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Not liking Heart of Darkness sparked loads of discussion. I thought The Secret Agent was brilliant so I expect there’ll be less said in response.

  6. I think that if there is trouble with the role of female characters in SF books of the period you’re talking about,it’s that they aren’t portrayed as strong leading characters,but I don’t think this is true of “Nightwings”.As for his stuff set in the contempory 1970s,I can’t vouch for their treatment in “Dying Inside”whose central character is male,or “The Book of Skulls”,which has only male characters.Haven’t read “The Schochastic Man”.The excellent novella,”Born with the Dead”,doesn’t recall any gender issues.

    “Nightwings” is a very solvent novel.He does rely so much on old fashioned SF for it’s material,but Bob Silverberg transforms it in a very telling way that transforms it.

  7. I think that if there is trouble with the role of female characters in SF books of the period you’re talking about,it’s that they aren’t portrayed as strong leading characters,but I don’t think this is true of “Nightwings”.As for his
    stuff set in the contempory 1970s,I can’t vouch for their treatment in “Dying Inside”whose central character is male,or “The Book of Skulls”,which has only male characters.Haven’t read “The Schochastic Man”.The excellent novella,”Born with the Dead”,doesn’t recall any gender issues.

    “Nightwings” is a very solvent novel.He does rely so much on old fashioned SF for it’s material,but Bob Silverberg transforms it in a very telling way that makes you see it in a new light.

  8. I’m not sure that’s try eye. My issue with the depiction of women in many books of the period (and by no means just SF) is they’re not convincing people. They’re ambulatory plot devices or mysterious others or scheming temptresses but not people with all the complexity that brings.

    We’re a bit better now, but the strong female character archetype of recent years has its own issues. They’re still not really people.

    The strong female lead character is mostly I think now found in YA (or, as we used to call it, children’s) fiction and I think it’s fine in that context but ultimately still pretty shallow.

    Silverberg, like Le Carre and like many literary authors of the period writes women as adjuncts to men, not as full characters in their own right, save here where I think Silverberg does ok.

    Winterson today has a similar issue writing men, so seems best so far when she doesn’t include too many of them.

    Typed this on a phone so it may be more inelegant than usual.

  9. Yes the’re not powerful enough characters.Their depiction just seems to form part of the background of the plot.They don’t have leading roles,but there were exceptions to this,not mentioning any names.

    I agree with you though,as I’ve said,about their presence in “Nightwings”,or her’s,as I assume you’re referring to Toomis.She had a strong presonality as I recall.

    By the way,you can take the top version of my previous comment off.

  10. This probably isn’t for me, Max, but it may well appeal to my goddaughter’s teenage brother. Despite being a fairly reluctant reader, he does enjoy sci-fi films so this might tempt him.

    I always think the best sci-fi has something interesting to say about the nature of humanity. Sounds as if that’s the case here especially given your closing comments.

  11. As I’ve said,it deals with traditional SF themes,but it’s treatment is more iconoclastic,so it might not appeal to him,not as yet anyway.Assuming you’ve read the written genre,you will know the differences between this and the films,so might appeal more to you,I’m not sure.

  12. Jonathan

    This does sound good, it sounds a bit like Wm Burroughs. I haven’t read any sci-fi in years but when I did it was mostly PK Dick more than anything. Maybe I should branch out a bit.

  13. I don’t think it’s anything like Bill Burroughs,from what I’ve read of his stuff,but he might have had an influence on him,as he did on several new wave authors.If you liked Philip K.Dick though,you might very well like this one.Both authors drew heavily on traditional SF tropes to create their stuff,but having read Dick,you’ll know he used an alchemical treatment to alter them for his own spiritual concerns.Silverberg however,as I’ve said,preserved the original SF themes,but what made them different,was retelling them with a fresh insight and a highly articulate and polished manner.

  14. For some reason in my avid sf reading days Sliverberg was not I writer I read. I’m pleased to hear you still found the novel rewarding as I worry myself about going back to old favourites.
    The Secret Agent is my favourite Conrad, by the way!

  15. Which SF authors were you particularly fond of?

  16. Asimov, Harry Harrison, E E ‘Doc’ Smith, Jack Williamson – not sure now how I made my choices! (Pre-internet so probably largely what was in local bookshops).

  17. Well,apart from Harrison,whose stuff you’ll know is largely satirical slapstick,the others were of the old,traditional school of SF,so it’s probably not surprising you didn’t read Silverberg,who was of the SF “new Wave”,if they were what you liked.Silverberg though,like Harrison,can be said to be iconoclastic,although the symmetry of his stuff is vastly different.

    I did like Williamson’s “Darker than You Think” though.

  18. Thanks, Richard. Maybe not for him, then. It’s hard to find books he will enjoy, although he does tend to go for stories involving zombies or aliens. I’ll be seeing him later this month so we’ll see what he into at the moment (kids’ tastes change quite quickly at this age, which can present another challenge).

  19. Well he does read something then.If he gets tired of them,he might want to move onwards.Until i was eighteen,I only knew of SF from television and comics,but when I started to read the books,I realised there was no comparison between them and what was shown there,although I still read comics into my early twenties,and still like them today.

  20. Silverberg has somehow always passed me by – I’ve only read Nightfall, which he co-authored with Asimov. Nightfall is one of my favourite SF novels ever, although given that it’s based on an Asimov short story, I’ve always assumed that it has more of his imprint than Silverberg’s. Your review certainly makes it sound intriguing – yet also very much of a piece with 60s and 70s SF.

  21. Ah, forgot – I have read Lord Valentine’s Castle, which was certainly a fun read, but again, didn’t quite stand out from an era which saw some truly astonishing work in SF.

  22. That’s not one of his best books.It was written on his return to SF after a four year absence that was a reponse to his disillusionment with the genre.LVC reflects this.

  23. Richard’s answered the comments better than I could have. I never read LVC, it never quite grabbed me.

    Silverberg is very much a social SF writer. His interests were never in the how or the what so much as the who and the why. He’d look at the implications of a thing or its effects on people, rarely if ever how a thing might be done.

    So here he’s interested in the Watcher’s long vigil searching the stars with some form of mechanically augmented clairvoyance, but not remotely with how such a thing might be achieved.The character wouldn’t know how (or care) and it’s not relevant to the story.

    Silverberg sometimes approached similar themes in a few different works (as do many writers). He has for example several short stories exploring the psychological effect of precise knowledge of the future, an ability to remember what will happen as easily as what already has. He wrote another novel, Children of Man I think but I may be misrecalling there, about a vastly distant future in which a contemporary man awakes long after our entire civilisation is forgotten.

    He was often a surprising writer. His Children of Earth, an early work, features a then space-opera staple of a vast fleet of barbarians alien invading human space but the resolution is distinctly and intentionally anti-climactic, utterly subverting his chosen genre. He often dealt in themes of transformation.

    Dick’s an interesting case because some of his work is distinctly pulpy, and even the more intellectual stuff often has pulp elements. I don’t say that as a criticism. His The World Jones Made (a minor Dick but one I like) could likely fit within Silverberg’s body of work, though something like Ubik not so much.

    I have hopes that the humanity in Silverberg’s work will help preserve it another generation or so, but who knows? I do think he’s underappreciated, or at least that his best work is.

  24. If you haven’t read LVC,you haven’t missed much.I did quite enjoy it,but it was rather long,so that it seemed padded rather than crafted for the richness of it’s themes.It was because he was unappreciated that a hiatus followed after a productive and creative career.LVC was the fruit that grew this.It was cynical,but reflected how he felt I think.

    As I’ve said,both Silverberg and Dick relied on traditional SF to fashion their stuff into something new that deal with social themes,as you say.I think “The Man in the High Castle” would fit more comfortably within Silverberg’s body of work,which is hardly pulpy in appearance or prose.

    Dick,like Silverberg,emerged with a stronger body of work following an absense from the SF field,and both also can be said to have had a later hiatus due to not being taken seriously enough as writers.Dick has more recently been canonized within the Library of America,which should ensure the preservation of his work.It does often take a long time though

  25. Good point on Castle, that would fit with Silverberg.

    Silverberg’s earlier stuff plays with pulp, but Dick actually wrote pulp (among much, much else). I wouldn’t call Silverberg a pulp writer, but depending on the book I might Dick.

    Thanks for the background information, which I wasn’t aware of. Interesting stuff.

  26. Deciding exactly who among the two authors,was really a pulp writer,seems to be a Chinese puzzle.As I’ve said,both fashioned their stuff from old SF materials,but while Dick’s style felt more “pulpy”,he tailored SF to suit his existential and humanistic concerns,to the point that altered it’s former appearence,whereas although Silverberg’s stuff it so well crafted,it doesn’t feel like pulp SF,it’s original face remained unaltered.

    In this case,it’s very difficult to make a clear definition of pulp SF.Dick was more radical to SF than Silverberg.The subject should be approached with caution I think.

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