Downward to the Earth, Robert Silverberg (Signet Books, 1971 {Blackstone Audio, 2011 Narrator: Bronson Pinchot})

(Science Fiction, Cultural Contact)

 Grade: Ε — (Epsilon) Readable in genre, but you could probably do better.  

In brief:

Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg is a blatant rip-off (no, not homage to or inspired by, rip-off) of Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, peppered with an over developed sense of post-colonial malaise, which is then further undermined by an ending inspired by Timothy Leary.  The twist in this book, intended to differentiate it from Conrad’s wonderful tale, is blatantly obvious from very early on in the novel.  The subsequent thematic twist undermines the message of Conrad’s work and leaves nothing of value in its place.  Even so, having damned it, I will note that Silverberg’s descriptions and wordsmithing was brilliant.  He created a flow of language and vivid imagery that almost made up for the other failings, but not quite.  I would suggest skipping this book, as that there are many others out there that do a better job of delivering the same message, without being so heavy handed or predictable.

Setting:

Far future with interstellar travel.  The action takes place entirely on the planet of Belzagor, a misty, jungle world with two intelligent species upon it: the elephant like Nildoror and the large, fanged and clawed apelike Sulidoror.

In Depth:

Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg may have been innovative in 1971,[1] but comes across as dated and dull forty years later.  It is a self-described homage to Heart of Darkness, yet is contains little that is new or innovative.  Instead of Africans, Silverberg uses a combination of aliens that resemble elephants, and aliens that resemble a cross between elephants, apes and smiledons.[2]  Beyond that, there is little in the structure of the book that differentiates it from Heart of Darkness other than the twist at the end.  Yet, that twist is so blatantly obvious from very early on in the book, that it ran the rest of the tale on rails.

I won’t describe the twist, because I really try to avoid spoilers, but it is so obvious from the moment the story really gets going, that discussing it really wouldn’t spoil anything.  In short, however, I can say that the twist comes across as a LSD inspired change of narrative and results in a thematic message for the book that differentiates it from Heart of Darkness.  The problem is, that end message undermines the value of the tale in the first place.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a brilliant tale that critiques Colonialism during the height of the Colonial period.  It is wonderfully told and delivered a message at a time that such messages were not readily engaged in.  It was an innovative and daring story that made one question Imperialism, while creating a more timeless message of self-reflection.

Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth mimics that book, but adds nothing new to it.  Indeed, the strength of Conrad’s tale is destroyed by Silverberg’s altered ending.  What is more, the message of “wise-indigenous people who know more than we do” may have seemed innovative in 1971, but is clichéd in 2012.  Indeed, I’m not certain it was even innovative forty years ago… but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.[3]

Yet, having complained so bitterly, I will note that Silverberg’s technical ability with words is wonderful.  He describes the planet beautifully, with long flowing narrative that pulled me through the book despite the obviousness of the plot.  Indeed, I was so enthralled by his writing that until the ending, I refused to believe that the book would be so obvious as it was.  Sadly, I was wrong, but I did step away in admiration of his talent in wordsmithing.

So, while Silverberg’s writing is almost good enough to get a Delta, the blatant nature of the tale and the simpering theme it delivers takes that away.  Perhaps this is all tainted by the fact I recently read Ursula K. LeGuin‘s Hainish Cycle, which does a masterful job of discussing, describing and critiquing cultural contact. I can’t say for certain, but I do know I was left disappointed by Downward to the Earth and really feel there are many other books out there that tell the same tale better.  Indeed, you might want to start with Heart of Darkness.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

Blackstone Audio did a marvelous job of producing this audiobook, and Bronson Pinchot was a brilliant narrator.  There was, in fact, only one element I questioned about his reading, and that was the soft-tone he used when reading those parts of the book that were in Nildororu, the dominant language of the planet.  It’s not that he did a bad job, and indeed the language is described in the text as having a lack of inflection.  Even so, there were so many segments that were spoken in this tone, it was occasionally distracting to hear it used so much.  Then again, I couldn’t say how I would read it differently so….


[1] Though honestly, I doubt it.

[2] Prehistoric cats that include the Sabertooth Tiger.

[3] Added to this, one cannot help but feel that any commentary that this book might have been making on American Imperialism of the period was better examined in the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now.  While that film certainly post-dates this novel, its form of retelling Heart of Darkness, that altered the Congo for Vietnam, had much more innovation and poignancy than Downward to the Earth‘s transformation of the Congo into another planet.  Besides, changing Africans into Elephants is, well, you know.

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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5 Responses to Downward to the Earth, Robert Silverberg (Signet Books, 1971 {Blackstone Audio, 2011 Narrator: Bronson Pinchot})

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Boo! That’s all I have to say. I didn’t find the anti-colonialism overdone in the least. It was the 70s, de-colonization had mostly just occurred… I dunno, I found it fit together nicely — besides the silly end.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Ha! I knew you wouldn’t like this review!

      You know I love a good piece of post or anti colonial fiction, but this book was just so bloody heavy handed about it. What is more, he didn’t add anything to Heart of darkness that Conrad had not already said, save only the silly end.

      And what an end… it totally undermined the message of the bulk of the tale. It more or less justifies the Imperialist process…

      [WARNING, MILD SPOILER FOLLOWS]

      … by creating a pan-sentient savior out of it all. After all, if Kurtz can be redeemed and humanity gets a pretty cool spiritually uplifting benefit out of it at the end, maybe it is a good thing to go enslave different populations.

      Besides, the “Wise Savage” thing just irritates the hell out of me. Not to say that we don’t have a lot to learn from other cultures, we most certainly do. Rather, I find this kind of pseudo-cultural relativity just leads to a different form of stereotyping.

  2. tomspeelman says:

    Shame this book isn’t good; it sounds like an interesting premise. Heart of Darkness was amazing and I’d really like to see that same sort of tale told in a different setting.

    The only audiobook I’ve ever heard Bronson Pinchot narrate was the Audible sample of Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon. I was thinking about buying it and he had a good narrating style but the bit he read just put me off. I mean, I love King but writing a scene where an older king compares him and his new virgin bride to an iron and a forge just soured me. Ew.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      If you want a very different take on the book, read Joachim’s review on his page (http://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/book-review-downward-to-the-earth-robert-silverberg-1970/). He really enjoyed it and I can understand why.

      Silverberg does a great job of describing the planet, it’s just that everything is so heavy handed for me. And the ending, which was telegraphed so early in, is silly and creates a Colonial Oppressor as Saviour that just undermines any value he had early on.

      Funny thing about the Eyes of the Dragon, when I read it (admittedly a million years ago now) the Iron and forge metaphor didn’t stand out so much. Of course, it is one thing to see it in writing and another to hear someone say it. As you say… eeeewww….

  3. Pingback: Born With The Dead by Robert Silverberg / The Saliva Tree by Brian W Aldiss (TOR Double 3 – 1988) | Vintage (and not so vintage) Paperbacks

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