“I’ve tried being human for quite a while.
Maybe it’s time to try something else.”
– Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg
And thanks to Tor Books, I’ve been able to revisit in small part that magical time when I first discovered Silverberg so many decades ago. Over the last few years, Tor has been reissuing some of Silverberg’s timeless masterpieces: Dying Inside, A Time of Changes, The World Inside, and, recently, Downward to the Earth.
Gundersen has done some regrettable things on Belzagor but his return is much more than a journey of atonement; he wants to travel to the remote mist country and witness the nildoror’s sacred rebirth ceremony. He wants to participate in the ritual and actually experience rebirth. “I’ve tried being human for quite a while. Maybe it’s time to try something else.”
It’s ironic that Silverberg initially considered Downward to the Earth as a failure. In this edition’s preface, he writes: “While I was at work on it, it seemed routine and dreary to me, a mere mechanical job. When I looked at it a year later, after the awards nominations and the glowing reviews, I began to think that someone had mysteriously altered the text so that the book I had shrugged off as a failure had somehow become something else, not a bad book at all, in fact quite a good one.”
Silverberg’s world building is exceptional in this novel and it also works brilliantly as an homage of sorts to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (an integral character is even named Kurtz). But it’s the spiritual speculation that makes this such an unforgettable read. The reality behind the nildoror’s mysterious rebirth ceremony, for example, was simply jaw dropping, described as “some sort of transcendental merging with the universe, an evolution to the next bodily level, a sublime ascent…”
Almost half a century after being originally published, Downward to the Earth remains an intensely spiritual, utterly mind-blowing, masterpiece. Science fiction fans who haven’t read this classic in decades should most definitely reacquaint themselves with it again and those who have yet to experience it should seek out and read this consciousness-altering book asap.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulgoatallen and get all the latest Barnes & Noble book news from @BNBuzz.
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