REVIEW: Nightwings by Robert Silverberg
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: One man’s pilgrimage set amidst the rebirth of mankind.
PROS: Skillful blend of fantasy and sf; a page-turner; well written.
CONS: None! This story is flawless.
BOTTOM LINE: A must-read and highly recommended.
Nightwings is a fix-up novel that is comprised of three novellas, most notably the 1969 Hugo Award-winning, and Nebula finalist: “Nightwings”. The 2001 iBooks version reviewed here contains slightly modified versions made by the author. It also includes a very interesting foreword detailing the history of the book’s creation, including an amusing title tug-of-war with then-editor of Galaxy magazine, Frederik Pohl.
Part I, “Nightwings”, is an incredibly well-done story. It is clear that this story is well-deserved of the accolades it has received. The story concerns an unlikely band of characters traveling in a new far-future age of man. They travel to the holy city of Roum (Rome). The narrator is referred to simply as the Watcher, for he is a member of the Watchers Guild whose job it is to scan the skies for impending alien invasion. The Watcher questions his faith; he does not entirely believe the prophecy that aliens will conquer the Earth. He is joined the Avluela, a fairy-like, winged human who is a member of the Fliers Guild. The fliers wings are relatively weak and can only support the weight of their owners at without the overbearing pressure of the sun (hence the book’s title). There are many other Guilds, each with a particular function in society. There are also the guildless, like the mysterious third member of this unusual party. His name is Gormon and he is a Changeling, a disfigured being that ranks low on the social status scale.
This story, and the entire novel, skillfully skirts the line between science fiction and fantasy making it somewhat difficult to classify at either one. (The same could be said of Jack Vance’s The Last Castle and Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders” novellas, although Nightwings is the superior story.) Nightwings is more like a fantasy story painted on a sf canvas. That is, the story reads like a fantasy novel but science fiction elements make minor, and ever-increasing, appearances. Avluela, for example, is essentially a fairy (fantasy) but the fliers, we learn in passing, were created through genetic tinkering (sf). The Watchers use space-scanning devices that are technologically advanced from the reader’s perspective, but the tone of the novel is clearly fantasy (thanks to Silverberg’s superb use of lyrical writing style). It is this wonderful blend of fantasy and science fiction that add to the book’s charm. Watching the fable-like story unfold is nothing short of fascinating. I loved every word.
Part II, “Among the Rememberers”, follows the Watcher and the fallen prince of Roum to Perris (Paris). The Watcher, out of a job since the alien invasion, hopes to join the guild of Rememberers whose profession it is to research the history of man. Under apprenticeship, the Watcher (now given the name Tomis) learns all about the history of man. The former prince gets into some trouble and Tomis feels obligated to help him.
This part does not at all suffer from “middle story syndrome”, contrary to what Frederik Pohl may have thought back in 1969. Although there is less going on story-wise, Silverberg makes up for it by expertly and inventively detailing the future history of Earth.
The history of man (the story background) goes like this: The First Cycle (Age) of man begins with ancient Egyptians. The Second Cycle begins with mankind’s first contact with aliens. In the Second Cycle, over the course of millennia, Earth becomes a living museum of alien species. Eventually, thanks to a superiority complex, mankind gets cocky and begins abducting species against their will to be displayed in the cosmic museum that is Earth, most notably, the beings from a planet designated as H362. The Second Cycle ends when an unrelated, centuries-long project in weather control goes horribly wrong, drowning the Americas and killing untold billions across the planet. The Third Cycle, the era in which this novel takes place, begins when “ownership” of the fallen Earth is transferred to inhabitants of H632; the aliens who have vowed revenge during humanity’s Second Cycle. Since H632 lacks the technology for interstellar travel, they are essentially absentee landlords. Earth begins the slow rebuilding of society and develops guilds, including a Watchers Guild whose job is to continually watch the skies for the inevitable invasion by H632 descendants.
Part III, “The Road to Jorslem”, follows Tomis on his journey to the holiest city, Jorslem (Jerusalem). Tomis has since joined the Pilgrim Guild after being cast out from the Rememberer Guild. He travels with Olmayne, herself an outcast Rememberer. Their goal is to seek the services of the Renewer guild, who specialize in rejuvenation. While there, Tomis again meets Avluela the flier, who knows the secret that will free all mankind from the control of the alien conquerors.
This part is essentially a redemption of the Tomis character and also, through foreshadowing, for all of humanity. While, for me, it had lesser impact than the previous parts, it adequately completes the story and does not take away from a perfectly entertaining tale.
Nightwings is a winner.
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