To Open the Sky Paperback – Mar 1999
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
As is the case with most science fiction, it appears dated in places. During the years 1964-65, when this book was written, some of the concerns with mysticism and trancendence embedded in the social unrest of the later '60s were already clearly in evidence. This early book shows his awareness and sympathy for those trends.
While the themes of the book are very much of its time, the pure inventiveness points farther back, to works like Alfred Bester's _Tyger! Tyger!_ (aka, _The Stars My Destination_). The "Electromagnetic Litany: Stations of the Spectrum" is clever and funny and ingenious enough in its own right to sway me in the book's favor.
The quality of the writing is competent, and sometimes a great deal better than that. Silverberg, for all his excellent novels (e.g., _Dying Inside_, _The Book of Skulls_, _Downward to the Earth_), often seems to me happier at the novelette to novella length. Thus a mosaic novel such as this one shows him at his best advantage.
At the same time, despite its several excellences, the book is not devoid of a certain immaturity by later Silverberg standards. There are a few stock characters, as well as stock reactions and situations here. During the ten years after this book, Silverberg showed us how much better he could be.
Still, all in all, I'm fond of this book. I *do* think it's good entertainment of a high order. I'd really like to give it 3.5 stars, because it isn't a masterwork; but it is diverting reading, even if one isn't a devoted reader of Silverberg.
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....)
Pohl had earlier guaranteed that he would publish anything that Silverberg produced in Galaxy (he would still offer his suggestions and even rewrite or add entire passages). In the mid-60s Pohl suggested that he will be able to garner Silverberg a Ballantine book deal, which was at that time was the most prestigious SF press, and so To Open the Sky was born.
Although technically a fix-up novel (i.e. a novel expanded or stitched together from previously published work), To Open the Sky was planned to be published as Silverberg’s first Ballantine book from the beginning—that is, if Pohl liked each of the parts that would appear in his magazine, Galaxy. Thus, each of the five stories that comprise the novel were planned out and interrelated with the future goal of collation. The result is a concise and well-planned work with recurring characters. Silverberg was desperate for a Ballantine book deal and did exactly what that would take….
Only after he entered the Ballantine “stable” of reliable writers did he write anything audacious or controversial and I would argue, in some instances downright brilliant i.e. Downward to the Earth (1970), Hawksbill Station (1969), The World Inside (1971), among others. To Open the Sky is perhaps his best “pulp” novel and the last breath of his earlier period, remember “New Wave” Ballantine novels such as Thorns (1967) appeared in print immediately afterward.
Recommended for fans of Silverberg’s early work, future histories, and straight-laced 50s/60s SF. Solid but not spectacular….
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
To Open the Sky is comprised of five previously published novelettes: “Blue Fire” (1965), “The Warriors of Light” (1965), “Where the Changed Ones Go” (1966), “Lazarus Come Forth” (1966), “Open the Sky” (1966). Because they were planned to be released as a single episodic future history novel with connecting themes and recurrent characters I will review them as a whole rather than individually.
Queue a gamut of standard SF themes: immortality, ESP, and religion. It is the third of these where Silverberg is the most successful. The forces of religion propel man to space travel and technological advancement! In this future Earth—around 2077—a religion has developed surrounding science. Silverberg models the growth of this “religion of science” around the seminal figure of Vorster (who still lives in the shadows observing and influencing the development of his creation) on paradigm of Early Christianity.
Surrounding the the Vorster’s central symbol, the atomic reaction (visible in portable reactor form with a glowing Blue light), are all the attributes of religion: ritual, initiations, priests, etc. The Vorsters themselves do preach that the Blue Fire is supernatural, “but it made a useful symbolic instrument, a focus for religious emotions” (13). It is obvious that the followers of the cult do ascribe more supernatural interpretations… Implicit in this formulation is the idea that the more “gullible” masses will automatically ascribe more religious interpretations to futuristic technology. And that religion is something planned by a select few rather than a more organic paradigm where the development is fluid and influenced rather than modeled by individuals.
The Vorsters promise immortality and colonization of the stars that will relieve overpopulation via technology. Because these goals appeal to everyone they gain large bastions of converts (who find the religious elements appealing) on Earth but not on Mars or Venus, Earth’s colonies. The first novelette follows Reynolds Kirby, a UN official who is initially dismissive of the Vorsters, but soon joins and becomes a prime architect in their quest for the stars. The following chapters explore the Vorster experiments with ESPers whose mental abilities rather than traditional spaceships might be able to take man to the stars. Also, a new cult, who emphasizes the more spiritualist and mystical elements of the Vorster theology of science arise on Mars and Venus.
But the Orthodox branch and the reformist branch will have to pool resources for the final push to the stars…
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.