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Downward To Earth
Robert Silverberg
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Tom Matic

Analogy can be a highly problematic technique in science fiction, which can lead to a facile prefixing of 'space' before what in our time and place would be a terrestrial phenomenon. For instance, in Robert Silverberg's Downward To Earth, the former Earth colony Holman's World, known by its indigenous name Belzagor since 'relinquishment', has a 'spaceport' (read airport, analogy fans) serving a 'spaceline' complete with stewardess. But Silverberg makes cunning use of such science fiction conventions, subtly undermining them and the assumptions of an ordered, capitalist, anthropocentric future and cosmos they imply. The main protagonist Gundersen asks his old acquaintance Van Beneker, now a guide for the Earth tourists who visit the planet, what has happened since he left. Van Beneker says that everything is rotting, even the repair robots, and that it is only a matter of time before the maintenance systems, left by the Earth colonists before they abandoned the planet, succumb to entropy.

When the party of tourists reach the hotel, "a glistening geodesic dome that showed no external signs of decay," Gundersen notices 'symptoms of decline' on the inside:

A carpet of tiger-moss had begun to edge out of an ornamental garden strip along the lobby wall, and was starting to reach on to the fine black slabs of the main hall's floor; he saw the toothy little mouths hopefully snapping as he walked in.

Silverberg's approach to the space colony theme could almost be dubbed 'Heart Of Darkness in space', and this contrasting of the hotel's interior and exterior echoes Joseph Conrad's description of the colonial capital of the Belgian Congo, which compared one of its buildings to a 'whited sepulchre'. In adapting his theme of the colonist going native, Silverberg even pays open homage to Conrad by calling the book's main villain Kurtz.

Downward To Earth is not a straight transposition of Heart Of Darkness to a science fiction setting. Silverberg's hero Gundersen is a former colonial administrator returning to a planet that is no longer a colony, rather than a colony in decline, and he is on a quest to find himself rather than to track down the mysterious Kurtz. However these key differences between the two novels are linked to what for me are minor but significant weaknesses in Downward To Earth. For a start it is unclear whether the 'relinquishment movement' that lead to Earth's abandonment of Holman's World was an indigenous uprising, or based on opposition from Earth people. Most of the indications in the book are that the 'relinquishment movement' was human in origin, driven either by resistance to the costs of Earth's presence or by guilt at their subjugation of the planet's sentient mammals, the elephantine, herbivorous Nildoror and the humanoid, carnivorous Sulidoror. Gundersen certainly has a crime to atone for; the real reason for his journey into the mist country, and this is one of my reservations about the book - as the perspective of a guilt-ridden colonialist can get rather tiresome at times. His dark secret involves the one example the novel gives of some kind of resistance by the Nildoror themselves to the colonial administration, but it's couched in Gandhian terms. However much liberal historians like to believe that pacifist individuals such as Gandhi bring about the downfall of empires, the reality is that their success is often underpinned by bloody uprisings, and Silverberg gives no indication of any such events happening on Holman's World. By subscribing to this rose-tinted view of colonial dissolution, Silverberg weakens his future history's analogy with 19th century colonial history.

But Silverberg in part overcomes these limitations in his perspective by developing the ambiguity of the Nildoror, who are not the saint-like noble savages that Gundersen believes them to be, and their strange, uneasy relationship with the secondary intelligent species, the Sulidoror. Gundersen rejects Van Beneker's jaundiced view of the Nildoror, but he finds himself still confronted by his residual racism (or rather species-ism). There is interesting discussion between Gundersen and the Nildor taking him to the mist country, where the Nildor asks what makes the Nildoror any different from terrestrial elephants - apart from the third tusk, the bristles on the head and the three little digits on the end of a Nildor's trunk, that is. Gundersen's answer to the question of what defines an intelligent life form appears to be some kind of religious leanings. For example, the Nildoror have no concept of scale, and so cannot understand maps. Having no opposable thumbs, they have never developed any kind of technology or other trappings of 'civilisation'. However they possess something they call 'G'rakh', roughly translated as the soul.

It is this question, of what makes a sentient being sentient, that lies at the heart of this imaginative, suggestive and provocative novel. Like Gundersen, we are captivated by Belzagor, thanks to Silverberg's sensual prose, especially in the descriptions of the lush but often lethal alien flora and fauna. Vegetation is often described as 'voluptuous', and when Gundersen meets his old flame Seena, she is dressed in a shifting and revealing living garment, "a pale, gelatinous sprawl, shapeless, purple-tinged, with the texture and sheen that he imagined an immense amoeba might have." While she was the one cowering from the "innumerable insects with iridescent hexagonal bodies and long hairy legs" in the old days, now Gundersen shrinks from her sexual advances while she is wearing 'the slider'. As Gundersen encounters other humans who have become more permanently involved with some of the planet's more voracious inhabitants, the lines about how people are 'captured' by Belzagor take on very sinister overtones, thanks to some memorably gruesome images of body horror. This culminates in Gundersen's eventual encounter with Kurtz, who has been terribly punished for his transgressions against the Nildoror. The novel's equivalent of a "the horror... the horror..." moment, as in Heart Of Darkness, is of a hideously physical as well as metaphysical nature.

However it isn't only the purely physical aspects of Belzagor that show the richness of Silverberg's imagination at play. Returning to the limits of analogy as a science fiction technique for determining the social structure either of human future history or of intelligent extraterrestrial life forms, mediocre SF often assumes a capitalist future and a capitalist cosmos. Belzagor by contrast is a world without borders, money or wage labour, a leap of the imagination rare in SF. Although the Company has a foothold there, its presence is at best marginal. Some of the Sulidoror work in the hotel waiting on tourists, but this is not for money. Rather it is something to do with the mysterious symbiotic relationship between these bipeds and the Nildoror, the exact nature of which is revealed in a finale that will take your breath away while continuing the theme of transformation that permeates the novel. Although it does descend at times into cod mysticism, this ending confirms the powerful sense running through the novel that the last vestiges of human civilisation are gradually withering away. This is embodied in the rusty machines whose self-repair mechanisms will inevitably break down under the weight of the vast natural forces of Belzagor.
Downward To Earth

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