- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
It shouldn't come as too great a surprise that future Grand Master Robert Silverberg dedicated 1967's "To Open the Sky" to writer/editor Frederik Pohl. It was Pohl, after all, who induced Silverberg to begin writing sci-fi again on a full-time basis, after the author's "retirement" from the field in 1959. As then-editor of "Galaxy" magazine, Pohl (who helmed the publication from 1961 - '69) promised Silverberg a greater freedom in his writing, with fewer of the literary shackles that had restrained the author till then (not that anyone would have ever realized it, based on the author's amazingly prolific output from 1954 - '59, and the very high quality of that work). But with his new license to create, Silverberg blossomed; as "The Science Fiction Encyclopedia" so rightly puts it, "...his metamorphosis from a writer of standardized pulp fiction into a prose artist is an accomplishment unparalleled within the field." "To Open the Sky" might just be one of his first flowerings of literary emancipation, a book that seems to revel in the joy of the written word and the creative imagination. The book initially appeared as five separate novellas in five issues of "Galaxy," from June '65 to June '66. The stories span a period of almost a century, and many characters appear in all or just a few of the tales. Taken separately, the stories work just fine, but read consecutively, the book stands as one of Silverberg's most winning achievements.
In essence, "To Open the Sky" tells the story of a futuristic religious group called the Vorsters. Named after its founder, Noel Vorst, the cult worships the energy of the atom (its symbol is the blue glow of a cobalt reactor!); through scientific research, the group aims to greatly increase the life span of humankind and, via paranormal methods (telepathy, telekinesis), find a way to send mankind to the stars. In the first story, "Blue Fire 2077," we are given a glimpse of the Earth of that year when U.N. bigwig Reynolds Kirby chaperones a drunken Martian delegate around NYC. The two enter a Vorster temple for kicks, but Kirby becomes strangely drawn by the power of the new creed. In "The Warriors of Light 2095," we discover that, 18 years later, a schism has taken place in the Vorster religion. The new sect, the Harmonists, uses advanced brainwashing techniques to turn Vorster Brother Christopher Mondschein into an unwitting spy as he begins his new service at the Vorsters' Santa Fe research complex. In "Where the Changed Ones Go 2135," it is four decades later, and we encounter Nicholas Martell, a Vorster missionary who travels to Venus, only to find that the Harmonists have already gained a toehold there, and that their accomplishments with the paranormal arts are even more advanced than the Vorsters' on Earth. In "Lazarus Come Forth 2152," we jump ahead another 17 years, and learn that the living, preserved corpsicle of Harmonist founder David Lazarus has been discovered beneath the surface of Mars. But is this the real Lazarus, the martyr who had supposedly been slain by the Vorsters in 2090, or is some foul plot afoot? Finally, in "To Open the Sky 2164," we jump another dozen years into the future, and learn whether or not the Vorsters and Harmonists, with the assistance of the now 144-year-old Vorst and 127-year-old Kirby, might join forces--the scientific wonders of the Vorsters and the paranormal accomplishments of the Harmonists--and thus finally send a ship out to the stars....
"To Open the Sky," despite its episodic nature, is some kind of tour de force sci-fi outing, incorporating as it does not only religion and the paranormal in a futuristic setting, but also time travel, espionage, bizarre alien life-forms, robots, medical miracles, terraforming, genetic manipulation, space travel, planetary colonization and on and on. Nobody describes alien monstrosities better than Robert Silverberg (anyone who's ever read his 1969 masterpiece "Downward to the Earth" will tell you that), and here, he gives us some Venusian doozies: the razor-edged Wheels, the leathery, spear-beaked birds (warm-ups for the terrifying hornfowls in his Nebula-winning 1971 novel "A Time of Changes"), the horned and poisonous froglike creatures, the carnivorous Trouble Fungus, etc. As in another of his 1967 novels, "Those Who Watch," Santa Fe, New Mexico and its nearby pueblo ruins play a major part in the story. Similarly, as in 1967's "The Time Hoppers," we find here too that the so-called "sniffer palaces" allow the populace a legal means of escaping reality via inhaled drugs. And as in many of Silverberg's other books of the same period, here, we also encounter "gravshafts," superminiaturized bugging devices, and "televectoring" as a governmental means of locating any member of society. "To Open the Sky" is a serious work, and yet still manages to startle the reader with pleasing bursts of humor; for example, Silverberg gives us a page of the Vorster litany as the book opens, with a special section for the "high holidays only" (perhaps only my fellow Jews will appreciate this); later, a female character is described as being a "proselyte with a heart of gold." It's not easy to make me laugh out loud, but those two lines somehow did!
All told, "To Open the Sky" is a wonderful read, just bursting with invention, colorful descriptions and well-written dialogue. The book is epic in scope, covering as it does nearly 100 years in the histories of three planets, and ultimately, Noel Vorst strikes the reader as being on a par with the farseeing and endlessly maneuvering Hari Seldon character in Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" books. The reader can only marvel as his century of machinations comes to fruition, in the novel's pleasing finale. Indeed, this reader could only discern one single slip in Silverberg's work here. It is when the author tells us that May 8, 2077 is a Wednesday, whereas in truth, it will be a Saturday. But this is the most picayune of problems, in a work so abundantly entertaining. Inaugurating as it does Silverberg's second major phase of writing (1967 - '76, and including some two dozen remarkable full-length works of science fiction), "To Open the Sky"--in the pages of "Galaxy" and via the inspiration of its editor--in no uncertain terms declared to the world that its author was back in a very major way. No wonder that the book begins "For Frederik Pohl"....
(By the way, this review originally appeared on the Fantasy Literature website, a most excellent destination for all fans of Robert Silverberg....)
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Anthony R. Cardno
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
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.