Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg (1980, 2008)

I don't recall the last time I read Lord Valentine's Castle, but it must have been many years ago.  I listened to the audio version, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, who has a rich, deep voice.  It took only  a few moments to become accustomed to his reading style; he transported me immediately back to Majipoor.  I remembered why this novel and its two sequels were among my favorites in my late teens and early 20s.  Silverberg has created a world that matches Rudnicki's voice:  deep and rich, full and wonderful.  I recently read an article here in which Charlie Jane Anders exposed the seven sins of world building.  In short, those sins are:

 Not thinking about basic infrastructure.
Not explaining why events are happening now.
Creating fictional versions of real-life human ethnic groups, that never go beyond one dimension
Creating monolithic social, political, cultural and religious groups.
Inventing a history that is totally logical
Not really giving a strong sense of place, like what it smells like after it's been raining.
Introducing some superpower, like magic or insane tech, without fully accounting for how it would change society.

I think the success of Majipoor, why it feels so real and alive, is that Silverberg had the kenning of a great writer in avoiding those sins.

Not thinking about basic infrastructure.  Silverberg went to great lengths, particularly in LVC, to explain how Majipoor worked:  it's people and cultures, the structure of the government (vitally important to this novel about a fallen king), the economics of various industries (agriculture, hunting of sea dragons, traveling entertainers); I know that further on in the series, we get even more of a glimpse into the everyday lives of real people on Majipoor.  His infrastructure tends to not contradict itself, and the continuity is strong; he remembers from chapter to chapter (and I think from book to book, although I haven't yet started the second book).  My only quibble on infrastructure is distances; I'm not sure how a planet as vast and big as Majipoor is governed without some sort of method of communication (although I guess there are dreams); ruling over such an enormous place would be difficult too. It took 9 weeks to go from the Isle of Sleep to Alhanroel; that's a long fucking time to be at sea, over two months.  That bothered me - but in thinking about that, England governed its colonies for a couple of hundred years that were 9 weeks or more from the motherland.  But not all that successfully at the end.  The time period of 14,000 years bugged me a bit too; that's a long time to remember, considering our own history on earth doesn't even go back that far very successfully, not enough to have legendary figures or remember where we came from.  Although maybe in 14,000 years we'll remember the 21st century because we have the written word and a method to store it.  Who knows.  That's problematic though.

Not explaining why events are happening now.  Actually, you could say this is the theme of the whole book, and towards the end Silverberg used Deliamber to spell it out:  the sins of the father are being visited on the son (I won't spoil why though).  The reasons for what is happening are really valid too.

Creating fictional versions of real-life human ethnic groups, that never go beyond one dimension.  I think Silverberg created believable aliens that weren't necessarily modeled after real-life human ethnic groups; or if he did, he did such a bad job of it that they were unrecognizable.  The metamorpahs as aborigines come closest, and even they didn't necessarily remind me of Native Americans or other groups oppressed by colonists, other than in a very general way.  

Creating monolithic social, political, cultural and religious groups. He occasionally skates very close to this (all Skandars are like this, all Vroons are like this) but then throws in a Hjort like Admiral Asenhart who isn't culturally like his Hjort brethren.  The natives of various parts of Majipoor, human and otherwise, also have distinct cultures - the farmers of Falkynip are different culturally than the residents of the archipelago (and each island seems to have a unique culture as well).  Because is this is, at its heart, a political novel, the politics of the world are wild and weird, like a column of army ants - both a juggernaut, but individual as well.

Inventing a history that is totally logical.  The timeline of Majipoor isn't completely logical to me; in the same time period on earth that Majipoor was colonized to the usurpation of Valetine's throne, we went from being hunter and gatherers and the last ice age to the world wide web.  I don't think Silverberg successfully frees himself from time and distance here;  that was always a niggling thought as I listened.  That a world could go without war for 14,000 years seems illogical to me as well.  That's one fail, but for some reason, this doesn't detract from the book at all.

Not really giving a strong sense of place, like what it smells like after it's been raining. If he's done anything else it's this.  Majipoor is more than just a collection of aliens and human thrown together,  or plants and animals and places with strange names.  Silverberg really goes out of his way to let you know what dwikka fruit tastes and feels like, or how the forest brethren sound, or what the metamorphs smell like (sharp and pungent, if I remember correctly).  You are overwhelmed by all the senses here.  

Introducing some superpower, like magic or insane tech, without fully accounting for how it would change society. So that superpower would have to be the power of dreams in the society of Majipoor.  Silverberg more than accounts for how it changes society, I think; it's clear from beginning to end that dreams are how Majipoor controls is crime and takes the place of some aspects of religion.  If power is centered in the coronal and bureaucracy in the pontifex, then crime and punishment and compassion are the Lady of the Isle and the King of Dreams.  This power of dreams in the society is made more and more clear as the novels progress.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A feast for the senses as well as the intellect, Silverberg has created a vast world of wonder, part science fiction, part fantasy, part fairy tale, with a just enough of a touch of 1970s sci-fi sexiness. The audio is impeccably narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, whose deep, rich tones are the perfect pairing for a deep, rich novel. Silverberg is a master world builder; you will find few points to quibble on in his gigantic world. What's nice about this series (at least the first three in the series; I found his later Majipoor books to be less desirable) is that you can come back to it again and again; it's very re-readable. I'm always surprised this isn't a more beloved series of books. It had been many years, though, since I read this; I found this trip through Majipoor to be as fulfilling as the first time I read it as a teenager. 

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