Tuesday, August 3, 2010

2010 Book 41 To Open The Sky

Book 41: To Open The Sky by Robert Silverberg, isbn 425038106 , 209 pages, Berkeley, long out of print, $3.00 or so, in used bookshops. It's also on the Kindle apparently, but Amazon didn't list pricing.

To Open The Sky is a set of five novellas (originally published seperately in magazine form) that cover roughly a hundred years of "future history" (from the late 2000s to the early 2100s), charting the rise of two new religions which power Humanity's dual quest for immortality and the stars. I first read this book in 5th or 6th grade, back in the mid-1970s. I still own the same yellowed-pages, bent-spine, taped-cover edition I read back then. Every 5 years or so I pull it out and reread it. The last time I did so was before I'd started my livejournal (which means long before I'd started any of my other blogging / social networking). I was fairly traumatized recently when I realized the book was not in its usual bookshelf location, and I spent a few good months trying to figure out who I'd lent it to before finally discovering it, on top of a later edition and two other Silverberg books, on a completely different shelf. The book means that much to me at this point, that I'll have panic attacks over not being able to locate it. There aren't too many books for which "but you can always buy another used copy on Amazon" is not an acceptable answer to me, but this is one of them.

Robert Silverberg may be well known for his Majipoor Chronicles series of novels, but I've always enjoyed his short fiction more. To Open the Sky, like his more recent Roma Eterna, works precisely because of the time (and location) jumps between sections. If you read Silverberg's foreword, you are aware of the publishing history and you expect those time jumps. In TOtS, each of the five novellas centers on a man (mostly young men, except for the last novella) at an emotional / spiritual crossroads. In the first vignette, we are introduced to the nascent Vorster religion through the eyes of Reynolds Kirby, a UN diplomat farther at the end of his mental tether than even he realizes. The Vorst religion wraps a thin veneer of spirituality around essentially worshiping the energy spectrum. They're considered nutjobs by the hedonistic Earth society of 2070 and upstarts by the longer-established religions, but they make no secret that what they're offering is not Religion but rather a place for the development of science leading to individual immortality and colonizing of the stars. Kirby gets a first-hand look at Noel Vorst's new religion thanks to the actions of an upstart Mars colony dignitary. In the second vignette, decades have passed and young Vorster acolyte Christopher Mondschein finds himself face to face with a hard decision: stay loyal to Noel Vorst and his religion, or spy for the developing splinter religion, The Harmonists. His decision, and I won't tell you exactly what it is, influences the course of another young man's life several decades after that, as Vorster missionary Nicholas Martell tries to establish a chapel on Venus in the third vignette. In the fourth and fifth vignettes, the stories of Kirby, Mondschein and Martell come together with the Harmonist's found David Lazarus and Noel Vorst himself.

Wow, I don't usually let book synopses take over my reviews. But when I talk about this book, I feel like it's important to discuss how the novel develops. I don't think anything I said above really qualifies as a Spoiler; most of it can be read in the back-cover synopsis on the editions I have.

The book is of course replete with classic mid-1960s SF tropes. Colonists terraform Mars to make it habitable, and colonists are surgically altered to survive the rigors of Venus. The colonies have a contentious relationship with Earth, where society has largely forgotten what hard work is all about. (In fact, a trait Kirby and Mondschein initially share is their avoidance of actual work, although their avoidance tactics are nothing alike.) Knowing what we now know about the surfaces of those planets, the worlds Silverberg presents don't seem to be as possible as they once might have seemed. Human life is extended through the use of mechanical implants to replace failed organs. Organ replacement is happening now, not in some "far future." The genes for various ESP abilities are developed and play a core role in the narrative. And so on. All of these possibilities were captivating to me back in 6th grade. I reread the book now and those same aspects give me a warm sense of nostalgia, and also a sense of wonder -- in some cases, it seems Silverberg (and others) was not as far off in regards to society's destiny as he might have hoped.

Every time I reread the book, I take something new from it. When I was in 6th grade, it was pure wonder and excitement. In later rereads, it was how seamlessly Silverberg worked spy-thriller tropes into the Mondschein chapter and commentary on social stratification and being an outsider into the Martell chapter. On this reread, what struck me was how all of the main characters are at a crossroads whether they see it or not, and how small personal actions can take on societal importance when viewed through the lens of passing decades.

And of course, that ending. More full of hope for humanity than much of modern SF, without falling completely into cliche.

I wonder, a few years down the road when I reread this book again, what I'll take out of it at that stage of my life.

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