In Across a Billion Years (1969), Robert Silverberg introduces us to Tom Rice, a young archaeologist in training, who is writing to his twin sister on their 22nd birthday in 2375. While Tom feels some guilt that he is on the most exciting field trip in the history of Earth while his paralyzed sister is confined to a hospital bed, he is still eager to tell her about his work and he knows that she is just as eager to hear about it.
Tom’s diverse team, which includes some non-human specialists, is visiting a site where they hope to uncover artifacts of the High Ones, an ancient race of superior beings who were travelling in space before humans existed. They haven’t been seen in a long time and are presumed to be extinct. Tom’s team hopes to get clues about the High Ones’ physiology and culture as well as to find out what happened to them. When they dig up an artifact that points them to a potential treasure trove of information about the High Ones, Tom’s team sets out on a quest to find it.
It took me some time to warm up to Tom. At first, his voice, as he writes to his sister, is a bit pompous and oh-so-clever, and his slang is obnoxious. Then he starts complaining about the competence of some of the members of his team and speculates that some of them were included only to meet a diversity quota. He remarks on the attractiveness and dress of the females, speculating that a cute blonde must not be very bright and got the position because of her father’s influence. Fortunately, Tom soon realizes that his assumptions are wrong and that the women and aliens are all quite competent, but his racism and sexism was still a turn-off. (One of the non-human members points out humans’ propensity for racism and prejudice later in the story.)
Things get better when the archaeologists arrive at the dig site and Tom starts focusing on his job. I enjoyed their work and thought the artifacts they found were cool. There were some funny and some touching moments, and their quest was exciting.
Tom managed to anger me again, though, with his unsatisfactory reaction to the attempted sexual assault of one of his female colleagues. I liked Tom best when he was introspective, thinking about the High Ones who were so intelligent and had accomplished so much, but then disappeared. In comparison, humanity is hardly a blip. Tom knows we won’t last as long as the High Ones did, and it’s a painful realization.
At the end of Across a Billion Years, it became clear that Robert Silverberg had, all along, intended for me to not like Tom. Tom finally gains understanding, openness, and humility and the story concludes with a hopeful message about humanity. I’m not sure I share Silverberg’s optimism, especially as I watch Americans politicizing fights against a virus and racism in the summer of 2020, but it’s a nice idea.
Tantor Audio has just released an audio edition of Across a Billion Years. Alex Knox was well cast as Tom Rice and gives a very nice performance. The audiobook is 7 hours long.