Robert Silverberg,
Downward to the Earth
(Orb, 2012)

First published in 1970, this sci-fi story by Robert Silverberg did not achieve the popularity of some of his other books (though when you are as prolific a writer as he is, there are bound to be some good ones that slip through the cracks). In the foreword, even the author himself admits he didn't like it at first. But Downward to the Earth is a very innovative story, and readers of moody and contemplative science fiction will find this a haunting and thought-provoking read.

Edmund has recently returned to the Holman's World, where he was the director of operations for the human colony. The planet is being relinquished to the enigmatic and animal-like natives, and the attitudes of the humans, Edmund included, is very different than he remembers. While he has deep knowledge about the planet and its inhabitants, he has very little understanding, and the story follows a somewhat spiritual journey. Even Edmund does not know his ultimate purpose.

The story evokes post-colonial Africa, and the shifting attitudes of the humans on Holman's World -- which has been reverted to its original name, Belzagor -- parallels that of Europeans as they turned over control to the original inhabitants. The main difference is instead of dealing with humans from a different culture, they are aliens. And unlike Star Trek aliens, which are basically humans with exaggerated characteristics, Belzagor's two sentient races are truly different. Silverberg does an excellent job of making the elephant-like nildoror and the sasquatch-like sulidor seem utterly inhuman. Their culture and motivations are perplexing; despite being physically superior to humans, they willingly let humans dominate them. The relationship between the two races is also a great mystery. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that while humans think the native races are primitive, it's actually the other way around.

The middle-aged protagonist himself is refreshingly different; he is not an adventurous go-getter. Edmund is seeking to escape his past through the illogical method of directly confronting it. He is not very likeable, though it's easy enough to sympathize with him. Through flashbacks we get his backstory, and why he is motivated to come back to this world. The ending of his journey is mind-bending and will haunt you for days afterwards.

Downward to the Earth is esoteric and somewhat challenging. It is a novel that takes the reader on a philosophical journey; it's almost spiritual in nature. It should be recognized as one of Silverberg's most outstanding achievements, though like the humans in the story, it is a sure bet that not everybody is capable of understanding its power.

book review by
Patrick Derksen

4 January 2014

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