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Downward To The Earth (1971)

Downward to the Earth (1971)
Rating
3.77 of 5 Votes: 2
ISBN
0451044975 (ISBN13: 9780451044976)
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English
publisher
roc
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Downward To The Earth (1971)
Downward To The Earth (1971)

About book: Up until last week, I hadn't read Robert Silverberg's brilliant sci-fi novel "Downward to the Earth" in almost 27 years, but one scene remained as fresh in my memory as on my initial perusal: the one in which the book's protagonist, Edmund Gundersen, comes across a man and a woman lying on the floor of a deserted Company station on a distant world, their still-living bodies covered in alien fluid that is being dripped upon them by a basket-shaped organism, whilst they themselves act as gestating hosts to some parasitic larvae. This scene, perhaps an inspiration for the similar happenings in the "Alien" film of a decade later, is simply unforgettable, but as a recent rereading of the book has served to demonstrate, it is just one of many superbly rendered sequences in this great piece of work. Originally appearing as a four-part serial starting in the November 1969 issue of "Galaxy" magazine--just one of six major sci-fi novels that Silverberg saw published that year--"Downward to the Earth" made its debut in book form in 1970. A perennial fan favorite ever since, and chosen for inclusion in David Pringle's excellent overview volume "Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels," it is a work that its author has expressed only a belated appreciation for himself, in the face of near universal praise. The book takes place in the year 2248, when Gundersen, the former administrator of Holman's World, returns to the planet eight years after Earth has relinquished all colonial claims. The planet is now called Belzagor by its two dominant life forms: the nildoror--which resemble elephants except for their green color, additional set of tusks, cranial ridges...and purple dung--and the sulidoror, 10-foot-tall, shaggy, bipedal entities with tapirlike snouts. Drawn back to Belzagor to both visit the few remaining Earthmen still on the planet and to investigate the mysterious nildoror ceremony of "rebirth," which no Earthman has ever witnessed, Gundersen, as it turns out, has a third reason for his return: a sense of guilt arising from the manner in which he had formerly treated the nildoror, patronizing them and even interfering with a group in the midst of a rebirth pilgrimage. Thus, we follow Gundersen as he travels from the steaming jungles of Belzagor's central region and up to the so-called Mist Country of its more northerly zone, encountering old friends and running across an amazing array of alien flora and fauna, and are ultimately vouchsafed a look at the truly mind-blowing, psychedelic ceremony of rebirth itself.... Like all truly superior sci-fi, "Downward to the Earth" is the sort of novel that just bursts with some imaginative idea or unexpected touch on every single page. It is a terrific feat of the imagination, wonderfully well written by Silverberg (who, at this point, had already seen around 40 novels published since his first, "Revolt on Alpha C," in 1954), and with fascinating characters, both alien and human. It is also, typical of its author, a highly literate affair, with numerous allusions to the Bible, to Dante's "Divine Comedy," to English poet Matthew Arnold's 1867 poem "Dover Beach," and to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (one of Gundersen's old friends on the planet, who undergoes a disastrous rebirth himself, is named Kurtz). Belzagor itself is wonderfully described by Silverberg; not only the jungles and the Mist Country, but also the mysterious Central Plateau region and the mirror-bright, crystalline wasteland known as the Sea of Dust. Perhaps best of all, however, are the descriptions of all the grotesque animals and plants to be found on Belzagor: the tiger moss, the razor shark, the monkeylike munziror, the jelly-crabs, the mobile fungoids and on and on...plus, of course, that bright-red, wall-hanging basket thing! Topography is also memorable in the novel, with the 1,600-meter-high, triple-tiered Shangri-La Falls--where Gundersen visits his old flame Seena and her body-hugging pet amoeba--and the mountain of rebirth in the Mist Country being both figurative and literal standouts. Silverberg, apparently, wrote this novel after a recent trip to East Africa, and his primary intention with his book is a laudable one: to show that the native races of a region (or, by extension, a planet) may have a LOT more on the ball, as far as intelligence and culture are concerned, than their imperialist occupiers are willing to admit. Here, the truth about the nildoror and sulidoror, as regards their cultures and how the two races are connected, comes as a real eye-opener to both Gundersen and the reader. "Gundy" is a likable protagonist, only seeking to atone for past instances of malfeasance, and he makes for a good companion as we explore this rather intimidating planet; a planet that Silverberg, through his great skill, makes us see, feel, smell, taste and hear. Pringle writes that it is sci-fi "done with feeling," and that the book is "very well described, [with] several pieces of memorable grotesquerie." I happen to love this novel, all the way to its wonderful, transcendent conclusion, in which our protagonist gets precisely what he deserves. A pity that Silverberg never chose to return to Belzagor, as he did to the world of Majipoor on so many occasions. It is a mysterious, exotic, dangerous and yet beautiful world, one that I'm sure all lovers of intelligent sci-fi will love to immerse themselves in. As you can tell, this is one of my favorite science fiction novels, and comes more than highly recommended. Just wondering, though, Mr. Silverberg...where can I purchase one of those monomolecular jungle blankets?

At some point in the last year it occurred to me that I'd not read any SF in close to five years... At school I'd always taken pride in defending the SF genre against sniffy English teachers that would have preferred me to be reading Jane Bloody Austen instead of something a 14 year old boy might actually enjoy. Even then though I did realise that a lot of the SF I read was lacking in some regards. The prose could be stiff... the characters had a tendency to the cardboard*... the resolutions to the plots were frequently risible... Still despite appreciating these faults I would still defend the genre as a whole. For me the sheer quality of the imagination on display and the way the stories dragged me along was enough to allow me to over look some of the shoddy craftsmanship on display. But still... five years is a long time... maybe the English teachers were right, maybe SF and genre stuff like that was a passing adolescent infatuation that I had grown out of... a worrying prospect for someone that doesn't like being wrong about anything. Robert Silverberg was always one of the SF writers that I rated particularly highly but I came to him quite late in the Golden Summer of my SF reading youth so there are still large quantities of his work undiscovered by me. Since I've always been fond of elephants I thought I'd give this one a chance to see how classic SF looked to eyes dimmed by the chill winds of full time employment and encroaching middle age. I'm pleased to report that it was excellent. The story concerns a former colonial administrator returning to his previous posting, eight years after the elephant like natives had been granted independence, in part to deal with unfinished business and in part to try and recapture the golden period of his life - as is often the way with these things it all turns out to be a bit more complicated than that and to reveal too much more would be unfair.Far from the clunky prose of a lot of the genre Silverberg beautifully evokes his alien world - covered in carnivorous tiger grass, luminous fungal growths and spiderfish. I thought that the description of water condensing directly from the air to coat everything in a haze of humidity was particularly effective. The characterisation was also extremely strong - with the motivations of many of the characters being unclear even to themselves. Right up until the final pages of the boook the main character still is conflicted and uncertain about his motivations in coming back and what he plans to do next. Most importantly perhaps reading this over a couple of days over Christmas easily recaptured the glow I got from the best SF in less paunchy and balding days. Now with an important character called "Kurtz"** and frequent references to the main character as Kiplingesque it could be said that the novel strives a little too overtly for respectability. Also the wise, gentle natives and the psychedelic rituals that are a central part of their culture could be described by a less kind soul than myself as "too seventies for words", but to take these complaints too heavily would be sour faced in the extreme. Robert Silverberg deserves to be treated as a writer of intelligent and literate novels that just happen to feature three metre high green elephants. By the way if you're reading this English teachers of yesteryear: I still spit on Jane bloody Austen and all her works. *I remember being a bit depressed one Lake District holiday when I worked out that every woman in PKD books boiled down to some variety of "manipulative slut" or "vacuous woman-child." I wasn't exactly a feminist at the time - very few 16 year old boys are - but it did seem a bit much...**Guess whether he's a goodie or a baddie. Go on.
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Reviews
Andreas
Belzagor is a planet with two intelligent species, one of them resembling in appearance our elefants. Humans have tried to conquer it but finally were forced to leave. Edmund Gundersen, the former administrator of the planet, returns after eight years. He knows that he behaved wrongly and goes on a kind of pilgramage to repent.The reader is taken on an interesting journey. Robert Silverberg has created an exotic planet with real aliens. After two thirds though I felt a little bit bored. The events are well told, yes, but failed to provide enough tension and satisfaction. I missed some fireworks and I was afraid how the book will continue. To my pleasant surprise the last chapters were really great and bring the story to an unexpected end.
Charles Dee Mitchell
In his introduction to the edition I read, Silverberg says that as he wrote this book he worried that it was nothing more than a failed Conrad imitation. Conrad and Kipling are inspirations here, and he conceived the novel while in Africa in the late sixties, a time when almost all the old colonial holdings had gained liberation. His creation of a planet after "relinquishment" is convincing and entertaining. His sentient alien creatures, who remind earthlings of elephants, are sympathetic and fascinating. The story is a quest, as Gunderson goes up a mountain, rather than down a river as in Conrad, to discover the mystery of "rebirth." It's a good tale of Earth's encounter with alien intelligences, of our hubris and disdain for what we find on other planets, and the strong attraction the alien has for some of those who experience it. (There is also a busload of tourists for comic relief.) I think Silverberg had a really good time inventing the geography of the planet and packing, possibly over-packing it, with bizarre flora and fauna.
Sol Gonzalez
Gundersen acaba de tomar su retiro como administrador imperial y regresa a Belzagor, planeta en el que estuvo durante unos años como máxima ley, porque durante su estancia no pudo terminar de comprender a ese intrincado planeta. Según la política de descolonización, consistente en dar la independencia a todos los alienigenas con lengua y cultura propia, Belzagor es dejado en manos de sus pobladores nativos.La raza nativa de Belzagor son paquidermos en una sociedad inteligente que no desarrollaron una tecnología avanzada, sin embargo su química por otra parte hace milagros entre su raza.Gundersen tiene que ir descubriendo poco a poco los misterios de esta raza. Ciencia ficción cargada de mistiscismo como ningún otro libro que haya leído
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