Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg
I’m sitting here, having just finished Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, attempting to figure out how to put into words the experience I’ve had with this book. To be fair, there’s little way in my mind to separate this work from others in his corpus. I read the novel version of Nightwings as I waited for news of my father dying, and it was hugely disturbing and healings by turns as I sat awake through that long night. For me, Downward to the Earth is another astonishingly touching, awful, and hopeful look at the human condition from the pen of a master.
The core of the story is the impact of human colonialism on an alien planet that has two sentient species. The elephantine Nildoror are peaceful herbivores whos intelligence is evident despite having little to show for it by human standards. The predatory Sulidoror have co-existed with the Nildoror since time began, it seems, and their each inhabiting the same world is a central mystery of the novel. Edmund Gunderson is returning to the planet, having been head of the Company’s colonial exploitation of the same. Gunderson seeks… he’s not quite sure what, but his conscience weighs him down.
We learn much of the Nildoror, and Silverberg presents us with numerous conversations in which the Nildoror and Gunderson interact, often with startling questions about what it means to be sentient, whether our treatment of “beasts” is moral, and more. As we continue with the book, we are presented with heartbreaking scenes, such as Gunderson’s confession that he prevented some of the Nildoror from going to “rebirth” due to his pressing them into forced labor. Another beautiful scene involves a different human, Kurtz, dancing in a drug-induced trancelike state with the Nildoror. This scene takes on a somewhat different tone later, as we discover it may have been more sinister than we thought due to its impact on the Nildoror. Indeed, this scene is revealed to be somewhat the work of Gunderson as well, whose role in the corruption and near-devastation of the Nildoror can barely be understated.
Yet the novel is also about forgiveness, healing, and hope. Gunderson undergoes a remarkable transformation in the book, from a salty man defensively aggravating tourists by bragging of his colonialist past to someone who is remarkably hurt by his own actions and seeking forgiveness. I don’t want to spoil much more, but his development as a character is a thing of beauty.
Silverberg’s treatment of women is, again, not good. The only woman who makes any sort of impact on the story seems to be there purely for titillation and as an attempt to inject some more human drama into the plot.
Downward to the Earth is unquestionably a great work of science fiction. It deserves its place in the corpus of any reader. It filled me with both disgust and hope. I loved it. Those who want science fiction to make them think would do quite well to read this book.
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