Monday, May 23, 2016

Valentine Pontifex by Robert Silverberg (1983)

I finished listening to the third Majipoor book this weekend, and ideas whirled and whirled around
my head.  Unfortunately, most of them whirled themselves out of existence, but a few stuck.  Although, again unfortunately, most of what stuck were problems I had with the novel.  Problems that the seventeen or twenty-one year old Shawn didn't notice, but that bugged 46 year old Shawn.

Before I dive into those problems, let me say that I don't hate this book.  I enjoyed each and every minute of all three books, and not just for nostalgic reasons.  I think some aspects of Robert Silverberg's world building is problematic, but he's still created this huge, incredibly interesting, lush world.

If I understand my Majipoori history correctly, there have been humans on Majipoor for at least at least 10,000 years (and maybe 14,000 -- since I listened to this series as a streaming audio from Los Angeles Public Library,  I can't go back and double check).  Since 1066, and including the George Cambridge, there will have been 43 English monarchs.  Let's say that means about 40 coronals every 1000 years.  That's about 400 Coronals.  I find it hard to believe that in 10,000 years not one woman has ever risen to be coronal.  Not one.  And this is also a planet of various races.  Not one of them has risen to be coronal either.  What the what?   Even if you take into account that up until Valentine, coronals (and thus pontifexes) were chosen from just a few families on Castle Mount, you'd think at least one time, they'd chose a woman.  That's some rampant sexism, and something never addressed in the book.

I think a hole in the book is "alien" race as well.  After these "aliens" have lived on Majipoor for 10,000 years, you'd think they would no longer be "alien."  And you'd think at least one of them could have risen to power to become coronal.  That doesn't bother me quite as much as the sexist charges, as aliens don't really exist (or if they do, not these particular aliens).  But women do exist, they are strong and smart and powerful; even in times of human history when women didn't have nominal power, they created it for themselves anyway (the she-wolves of England, or the Empresses of Rome, for example).

Silverberg  knows how to create interesting female characters too:  Majipoor Chronicles was full of them.  So why can't Castle Mount be populated with women?  Where are the duchesses and mayoresses?  How could a patriarchy exist on this planet when women like Lisamon Hultin exist to kick ass?  Or talented and creative types of Inyanna Forlana or even Carabella (who becomes the flattest, most boring, simpering dull character in Valentine Pontifex).

(A younger female friend, who is reading LVC for the first time, scoffed at the sex scenes written from a male point of view and said they are highly unrealistic; but aren't all sex scenes?).

The government of Majipoor is a weird one too.  It's pure capitalist, almost fascist, neo-religious.  A strange place that I don't think would quite work in the real world.  Although I'm reading about Stalinist U.S.S.R. right now, and that's also a strange, strange land that shouldn't have worked, and didn't really work, but still survived for longer than it should.  That said, the U.S.S.R. didn't even make it a century, and Majipoor has been under the same type of government for 10,000 years.  Majipoor is a dictatorship, and an oligarchic one at that; with a form of punishment that's both benevolent (no death penalty) but creepily extreme (mind control).

Something Silverberg did so well in Majipoor Chronicles he repeated in Valentine Pontifex, playing around with narrative point of view and time.  A particular scene at the beginning is told from several viewpoints, and not always in a linear fashion; the plagues and misery effecting Majipoor is told from many different third person viewpoints throughout the book. This worked particularly well in the audio version I listened to, as chapters were narrated by different actors (that was the same with Majipoor Chronicles).

One of my main problems with all three Majipoor books is something even Hissune, a main character, comments on towards the end of this book:  "Our task would be three times as simple I think, if this world were half as big."  It's an impossibly big place for a centralized government to truly be able to hold sway and power for so very, very long.  The British Empire can provide an example of how easy it is to keep peoples throughout a large area in check:  that lasted about 200 years, and there were revolutions and mutinies throughout that time period, one at least very successful.  Silverberg added communication to Valentine Pontifex that didn't seem to exist in Lord Valentine's Castle; but there is still that problem of moving about in a world so big.  It was nine weeks from the Isle to Alhanroel; Hissune had to move a million men or more from Alhanroel to Zimroel, and I'm not sure how he did it.  Silverberg made Majipoor gargantuan and wrote himself into some problems that just can't be easily fixed and remain in a world without some sort of super technological advances.

 Note:  I reflected a bit on why I  probably first bought these books, and I decided it had to be the covers.  Specifically, that Valentine is hot on both covers (in an 80s way), and on the LVC cover in particular, he looks like he's hung.  

Valentine Pontifex (Lord Valentine, #3)Valentine Pontifex by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like he did in Majipoor Chronicles, Silverberg plays around with narrative point of view (although it's always in third person in Valentine Pontifex) and even non-linear storytelling (the first part of the book isn't in a specific order, and a scene is told from several view points). The plot moves more slowly than Lord Valentine's Castle, and by book 3 in this series, I think the reader is able to poke some holes in the balloon that is Majipoor. These holes won't necessarily take away from the enjoyment of the book (it's a nice enough end to this part of the trilogy), but I did come away thinking that as fantasy worlds go, Majipoor seemed very sexist (there are no women in any real positions of power, certainly not wielding power in a political way) and alienist (after 10,000+ years, no alien or woman has ever become ruler of this world); the denizens of this planet also seems to have somehow conquered the problems that face enormous empires (British, U.S.S.R.) but without really giving the reader a clue as to how this was done. This book in particular doesn't stand up to a lot of scrutiny; that said, it was fun to hear it read aloud on audio, narrated by many different voice actors. If you like your fantasy with a dash of science fiction, or your science fiction with a spice of fantasy, then Robert Silverberg's Majipoor is for you; just don't start here.

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