Monday 20 December 2010

Robert Silverberg 'Across A Billion Years' review


Retro Book Review of:
(Victor Gollancz, 1977. Magnum
Paperback edition, 1979 – ISBN: 0-417-03150-5)

Robert Silverberg wears many faces. Because the one he wears for ‘Across A Billion Years’ is playful doesn’t mean this book’s not a serious contender. Where it gives the impression of being produced quickly, enjoyably, with little revision or polishing, it’s inventive energy is formidable, it’s use of language is often hugely entertaining, and the ideas it throws away in passing are sufficient to keep lesser writers in novels for years to come. Even when he’s operating on cruise-mode, Robert Silverberg can still be startling. His High Ones are not exactly a new concept in the SF multiverse. Ever since fantasists first devised expeditions to Mars there have been extraterrestrial archaeologists excavating the lost cities of extinct alien civilisations. Then there’s the teasing evidence of ancient visits left by extra-solar races, such as Frederick Pohl’s luminous Heechee tales initiated by the discovery of incomprehensible star-sourced artefacts found within the swirling superheat of Venus. Alien meddling in antiquity is also an idea integral to the ‘Stargate’ TV-franchise, or the mysterious ‘Shadows’ of ‘Babylon Five’. Inevitably, Silverberg adds new aspects and angles to this continuum, researching back ten-million centuries into ‘a past so distant we could barely comprehend its remoteness’.

Set in 2375, the novel is conversationally related by archaeologist Tom Rice into a message cube intended for twin-sister Lorie back on Earth. Although paralysed and permanently confined to a hospital bed, she is telepathically hooked into the galactic network of telepaths that provides the only instantaneous communication grid between star systems. As Tom explains to her, his vocation is all about finding what is hidden. Archaeologists fight ‘the force in the universe that nudges everything towards chaos’, they are the ‘enemies of entropy’ who ‘struggle to recapture everything, back to the beginning of creation’. As such, he’s part of an expedition to bleak planet Higby V where remains of the so-called High Ones have been discovered, ‘separated from us by a billion-year gap’. It’s the twenty-third site, or outpost, to be discovered, although no home world has so far been identified. The High Ones’ culture dates from 1,100,000,000 years back, and seems to have survived a quarter-of-a-billion years. No-one knows where they came from, or what became of them. The party is made up of a deliberately comic collection of the diverse races encountered and linked into a more-or-less friendly community alongside the expanding human presence. Some species are relatively older, some younger, but none have histories stretching as far back as the time of the High Ones. Kelly is a ninety-year-old android with the body of a nineteen-year-old, focussing Tom’s confused feelings for despite a very sexy penchant for nudity her lack of navel betrays her vat-origins, so extinguishing any desire he may otherwise have felt for her. He’s also more than a little disturbed by the prospect that inter-breeding with androids might actually improve the human genetic stock. Merrik from Dinamon IX is a cross between a bulldozer and a blue-tusked rhinoceros, he recites love poetry and gets euphorically drunk on pollen. Dr Horkkk from the Rigel-system world Thhh has three bulging eyes on the top of his head, two mouths – one for talking, the other for eating, and he’s so thin that when viewed sideways he’s invisible. Pilazinool of Shilamak is a Borg-type man-machine who spends a lot of time polishing his artificial implants. He worries about getting grit in his gears, and at times of stress he unscrews his limbs into a pile. There’s also a yellow octopus called 408b, and others, but you get the point. Dr Milton Schein is the Marsport University paleoarchaeologist who first excavated High Ones artefacts near Syrtis Major.

The ‘racially balanced quota’ is part of the novel’s sly humour, early satire sniping at a kind of political correctness in which ‘liberals must have their way’. Tom also mentions in passing that Cairo, Syria and Baghdad are all part of Israel! There are Soap-Opera three-way attractions by way of diversion and distraction, while Silverberg also introduces a slang-vocabulary, somewhat in the Anthony Burgess’ ‘Clockwork Orange’ tradition of nadsat. People are ‘vidj’, and a conversation about the origins of the High Ones progresses through ‘Nonsense’ into ‘Feeby foolery’, then ‘unscientific blenking’ and ‘a lot of silly fission’. There’s an accusation of ‘idiotic slice’ and then ‘intellectual nilliness’, which all adds to the quirky oddness and – after all, language will not remain static. It will change, if not necessarily in this way, then in some similarly unexpected unpredictable directions. So this playful invention stands in for such changes.

On Higby V they excavate familiar High Ones’ artefacts, inscription notes, plaques, puzzle-boxes, ‘broken bits and rusty scraps’ until the game changes with the discovery of a sphere that projects images of the six-limbed dome-headed humanoid aliens and their aerial city of suspended teardrop dwellings. Observing a sequence dated to 941,285,008 ago, in which a robot is sealed into an artificial vault on an asteroid, they determine to find out if it’s still there. Lunar City Observatory identifies the revealed star-formation with billion-year compensation-adjustment, pinpointing what is now the Black Dwarf star GGG 114591. Despite Galaxy Central misgivings they set out through the twisty-twisty of ultradrive to go there. So that ‘a species only a million years or so away from apehood’ arrive, as in Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, like ‘travellers from an antique land’ into the dead star-system. The hibernating robot is still there. 408b is vapourised by its protective lightning field, but once it has established they are essentially ‘friendly organsisms’, with them unable to decipher its ancient language, it simply learns theirs. He is Dihn Ruuu of the Mirt Korp Ahm, the true name for the High Ones. But the ‘dismayed and confused’ robot reveals that its creator’s home-star can no longer be seen. It’s not there. Instead it redirects and accompanies the expedition to the High One’s colony world on McBurney’s Star IV, although abandoned by its creators a mere eighty-four-million years ago it’s still a fully-functioning self-sufficient planet run by self-repairing, self-lubricating, virtually immortal robots. They reveal that the High Ones constructed a Dyson sphere around their own sun, hence its invisibility. ‘What about the laws of physics?’ protests one of the team. ‘Repealed, I guess’ suggests Tom.

The Galaxy Central Navy sends an ultradrive cruiser, first to arrest them, then to transport them to the Mirt system. They enter the sphere through a portal the size of Ohio, to witness the tragic melancholy fate of the ancients they’d sought. For here, the ‘hairy primitives that we are’, the story of the High ones explodes up out of archaeology into the real dazzle. The story has two endings. One downbeat, the other transformational. The civilisation of the High Ones reached a plateau of achievement, only to become sterile and static. Retreating from the universe that no longer interests them, into their sphere, as ‘empty creatures rotting in crystal cages’. They are here, ‘hideously frighteningly old’, the last of the dinosaurs, or a system of mummies come to a semblance of death-in-life. ‘I wish we had never been allowed to see this’ grumbles Tom. But inadvertently, through trying out Mirt technology, he – and all of the allied sentient races of the galaxy, acquire telepathic powers. A racial, no, a galactic transfiguration. He merges with twin-sister Lorie back on Earth, and realises it was he who has been the cripple all along. The High Ones were an evolutionary dead-end, the new races will not be. Tom warns that ‘it’s unhealthy to gulp down a surfeit of miracles, it gives one indigestion of the imagination.’ If so, for those about to read this novel, prepare for over-dose! If it’s playfulness is due to its targeting accessible tweenage readers, then that’s not to denigrate it. Robert Silverberg can be startling, whatever lit-face he happens to be wearing. Within its own vocabulary, to read ‘Across A Billion Years’ is to be truly ‘croggled’. It gives you the dizzies, eh?


Ruby Sheep said...

I found a copy of this book in a second hand book store many years ago. Thoroughly enjoyed it, but had to "pass it on" when I moved house. I still scan used book stalls for another copy. I would love to read it again.

Blogger said...

I first read this novel when I was a young teenager. After finishing it, I gave it what I considered to be high praise: "this should be a movie."

After reading this review, I went to and ordered a used copy, hoping to recapture the initial thrill I had upon first reading it. I am now awaiting that copy...

Ward Kendall

Hold Back This Day
The Towers of Eden

Anonymous said...

I read this book many times when I was a teenager, this book was well translated to Russian.
But I was curious what does 'vidj' mean in the context of this book. Could someone explain for non-english audience?
In russian translation this term was not translated and left as is in english. I was trying many times to get the meaning by googling but not luck yet. So if someone could explain what does this mean, I would appreciate.