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3 Silverberg novels in one shot..

After reading 3 short novels in a row by Robert Silverberg, i was amazed by the contemporaneity of the themes he developed in 1971 and 1972. Granted, the style and technology is typical of the seventies’s science fiction litterature, but otherwise, those 3 novels have something definitely pregnant, if you are interested in themes as the definition of the personality, of otherness, or in the construction of self through language’s performativity.

To tell you the truth, i had a sudden urge to read something by Silverberg and i chose three novels because those were convenientely presented in a 5-novel volume (“Edge of Light”).

The first one is entitled “A Time of Changes” and presents a world “mentally” dominated by a belief turned into religion, brought to this planet Borthan by renegate earthman. I wondered if these earthman, fleeing or chased from earth for their radical puritan vision of life, were somehow based on the mythical founders of the USA, the puritans of the Mayflower who were driven out of Britain for their over-the-top religious beliefs, and who had some centuries of relative isolation on the new world to experiment them, giving us the religious extreme-right and “moral majority”… Those founders, here, are described as a “stern folk from a northern climate, accustomed to hardship, mistrustful of luxury and ease, who came to Borthan to avoid what they saw as the contaminating decadence of their native world, (..who) coming here, established a code of conduct to protect their children’s children against corruption”, and came with the following principle: “you must keep your private affairs private at all times”. This simple principle is here pushed to extremes, where any allusion to “the demon that is self”, is shamed upon as not only rude, but downright sacrilegious, and has to be avoided at all costs. Which has a certain numbers of consequences: Every relationship, every contact between two persons, has to be codified by a contract in order to avoid implicating actual individuals and their personal moral responsabilities, “there is no need for knowledge of the soul of others, where law rules” is one way of putting it. Another consequence is the nomination from birth of two companions (bondkins) for each individuals, who are the only persons allowed to share his confessions, and to open their heart to him/her, and him/her only. In case of great personal confusion, when these bondkins don’t suffice to relief the suffering person, a caste of confessing priests (drainers) has to be called upon, receiving the most shameful secrets of the whole world.

But the most interesting consequence is more complex. In their attempt to avoid any reference to self, the founders had to attack language itself and rule out the use of basic “i, me, mine, myself, etc.” A person has to speak of himself in the 3d person, saying things like “one has to do such and such” in place of “i” and “want to do such and such”. This idea of suppressing the reference to self, and making it disappearing from language, has also been used as a center theme of Samuel Delany’s “Babel17″, where the same performativity of language was demonstrated. Though heavily contestated, the idea that language builds our surrounding world and our approach to it, is in those two books given experimental exposure, starting by the very base: is conscience based on our ability to name the self ? and to refer to ourselve as ” i ” ? Silverberg comes with a very nice quizz: how to say “i love you” in such an environment? Truly “one loves someone” doesn’t ring of the same commitment and urgency… And not only as a question of style.

The revelation will come from outside, as such beliefs and the accompanying denial, can often be broken from the outside only. In this case a travelling eartman will play the devil’s advocate and by candidly questioning the reasonability of the planet’s religion, will provoque great changes.

The third novel of this compilation is entitled “The Second Trip “, and deals also with personality, but with a different edge. In a near-future, all convicted criminals, or at least the more hardened and dangerous ones, are submitted to a deprogramming. Their personality is erased, and a new one set in place. Why on earth would a society replace criminals, by artificial individual, with a false past and a convenient, if not brilliant, personality, instead of simply getting rid of them by executing them? Which amounts to the same as an individual personality is destroyed in both case? Silveberg asks himself the question, which is a good litterary trick if ever there is one. But he never answers it. He tells us instead of a rare case: a “rehabilitated” man whose ancient personality is surfacing again, forcing the most uncomfortable of cohabitations. Being obliged to share a skull with a convicted criminal, although formerly a celebrated artist, is bad enough, but having to justify one’s existence is worse. If this body “isn’t big enough for the both of us”, then who is more entitled to it?Is it the first inhabitant, or the legal one? Is it the criminal or the rehabilitated citizen? Is it the creative genius, the artist, or the common man? This launches a lot of debates, that reminded me of one of the question posed by Greg Egan in “Quarantine”. If a mind can be modified to suit any mood, job, or desire… what is the personality remaining inside it? If one can become a piano virtuoso whith a simple neural implant, or if one can download a program called “déjà-vu” that enables the tourist to believe he has already visited the city he discovers (avoiding him the “painful” process of acclimatation and discovery) then what is the true self behind the fake experience? If phenomenes can be so easily manipulated, is there something central, unmovable, called self?

The second novel “Downward to the Earth” is more classic but has a distinctive charm. It deals with otherness, and one’s own otherness for the others… It is in a planet Belzagor dominated by two intelligent non-human races: the elephant-shaped nildoror and the bipedal sulidoror. After having exploited them as animals for a long time, maybe because of their resemblance with earth’s elephants, the human colonists were finally obliged to recognize them as sentient beings, with a distinctive culture and beliefs, and were forced to return them the sovereignty of the planet, abandoning its natural ressources and finally abandoning it altogether. Only to return as tourists… Among such tourists is Edmund Gundersen, a former administrator of the ex-colony, coming to repay what he sees has his debt to Belzagor and its inhabitants. He is deeply anxious to discover and understand the religion of the sulidoror and nildoror alike, something extremely arcane and mysterious involving, as is often the case in Silverberg’s novels, rebirth through drugs… Most of the novel is spent reminiscing the main character’s guilt, of not having realized the intelligence and depth of the nildoror, and treating them like slave-animals. His own lack of understanding at the time of the colony is reflected in the other tourists’ crude and stupid appreciation of the planet. “How can they be said to have a culture, as they don’t have any buildings?” , “..can they write, can they think? Even in Africa we were dealing with human beings, and even there…” Silverberg makes himself a joy of portraying caricatures of typical tourists, seamingly open-minded at first, but turning simply into racists and imperialists, after seeing the first clear expression of otherness. Knowing that morphology dictates the form a alien civilization can take is clearly an intellectual notion, but one that means nothing confronted to the actual differences it implies. In this case, seeing a elephant-like nildoror scratch itself against a tree, and tripping in one elephant’s dung too many is too much for the not-so liberal tourists, concluding that the “relinquishment (of the planet) was the fault of a highly vocal minority of bleeding hearts”, and a total waste of enormous profit potential… Through the narrow-minded judgments of these tourist, Gundersen is able to see his own past errors, and is going to try to amend it…The twin races of nildoror and sulidoror is the book’s great invention. The two races, opposites in a lot of respects, one herbivorous, one carnivorous, one standing upright on two feet, the other walking on four, one of the mountains, one of the plains, has shared the planet Belzagor since the beginning of times… Their cohabitation is inevitably compared with the inhability of human to deal with alienness. The uniqueness of human as sentient inhabitants of a planet is presented as responsible for their impossibility to apprehend otherness, and to find intelligence and culture in beings that are too remote from humanity. The metaphor is quite clear, and themes of race and gender spring to mind… The final twist is equally beautiful, giving fresh developments to the idea of the convergence and inseparability of opposites.

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