Conquerors From the Darkness by Robert Silverberg
As I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, 1959 was the year when future sci-fi Grand Master – not to mention multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner – Robert Silverberg, chafing at the genre’s limitations, decided to retire from the field. By that point, he’d already written, since his professional debut in 1954, some 250 (!) sci-fi short stories as well as 16 novels, and was surely entitled to some kind of a retirement! Ha! Some retirement! From 1960 till 1967, when Galaxy editor Frederik Pohl induced Silverberg to return to the field, thus ushering in the author’s second (and arguably greatest) period, the Brooklyn-born writer would come out with a staggering 173 books (!!!). Granted, most of these were so-called “adult novels” and works of nonfiction, but there were some scattered sci-fi works mixed in as well. Several years back, I wrote here of one of those sci-fi novels written during Silverberg’s “retirement period,” the 1964 offering entitled Time of the Great Freeze, a YA book of sorts with a strong appeal for adults as well, and now would like to share some thoughts about Silverberg’s follow-up piece of science fiction, Conquerors From the Darkness, which was released a year later.
Conquerors From the Darkness first saw the light of day as a $3.50 Holt, Rinehart and Winston hardcover in 1965, with a cover by Alan E. Cober. The novel was an expansion of Silverberg’s novella “Spawn of the Deadly Sea,” which had appeared in the April 1957 issue of Science Fiction Adventures magazine; a novella that I have not read. The book was then republished as a 50-cent Dell paperback in 1968, with beautiful cover art by Paul Lehr, and this is the edition that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on somehow. The novel would go on to see at least three more iterations: from Ace in 1979 (an “Ace double,” backed with Silverberg’s 1957 novel Master of Life and Death), from Tor in 1986, and, most recently, from ReAnimus Press in 2017. So happily, acquiring this seldom-discussed Silverberg book should pose no great problem for prospective readers today. And that is a fortunate state of affairs, indeed. Although Conquerors From the Darkness was written during a period when Silverberg was more immersed in his racy adult books than anything else (he released 33 novels in 1965 alone, most of them adult fare, with such titles as Carnal Carnival, Flesh Bigamist, Nudie Packet, Orgy Slaves and Passion Peeper), a recent perusal on my part has revealed the book to be an absolutely wonderful work of sci-fi; perfect for both younger readers as well as adults.
Conquerors From the Darkness is set in the year 3261, when the Earth is far, far different from the one we know today. Around 1,000 years prior to the story’s commencement, the planet had been completely subjugated by the amphibious alien race known as the Dhuchay’y, the titular conquerors, who had completely drowned the world’s continents to create one vast ocean. Called the panthalassa (as the author explains early on, “thalassa” was the ancient Greek word for “sea”), this worldwide ocean was then dotted with 50 manufactured island-cities, on which the Dhuchay’y deposited the remnants of the human population. The Earth scientists, apparently, in a desperate bid to battle the alien invaders, had created a mutated race, later called the Seaborn Ones, that could live beneath the water, but even these ocean dwellers were unsuccessful in repelling the invaders, and soon became the murderous, mermanlike bane of all seafarers. The Dhuchay’y had then departed from Earth, but were still feared and whispered about a millennium later, when Silverberg’s book begins. The 50 island-cities, each of which specializes in a different area of commerce, have built merchant ships to engage in a worldwide barter system. And to protect those ships from attacks of pirates, the so-called Sea-Lords have come into existence. The Sea-Lords, it seems, have divvied up the globe into nine zones, and the nine leaders of those nine fleets, the Thalassarchs, wield practically absolute power in their domain. Each year, their ships, powered by both wind and oars, make a stop at each of the islands in their bailiwick to collect tribute in the form of either goods or gold, and it is at one of those islands, Vythain, a farming isle, that Silverberg’s book properly begins.
Here, we meet 18-year-old Dovirr Stargan, a strapping lad who is fed up with the sheeplike Vythainans and who dreams of becoming a Sea-Lord himself. And Dovirr does indeed finally get his chance when the Thalassarch Gowyn’s flagship, the Garyun, pulls into port one day to demand its annual payment in chests of gold. The mighty Gowyn considers the young boy’s request and immediately pits him against one of his men, whom Dovirr easily bests in battle. And just like that, Dovirr is allowed to take the place of the newly slain crewman. During the first half of the novel, thus, we see what Dovirr’s life is like as a Sea-Lord, and witness his days of drudgery and laborious pulling at the oars. We meet many of his fellow crewmen, most of whom are not even willing to acknowledge the landlubber’s presence, and observe Dovirr’s slow mastery of the sword. It is only after Dovirr proves himself in battle against a gang of pirates, and later still when Gowyn selects him to fight at his right hand against the fleet of Harald, a rival Thalassarch, that Dovirr is fully accepted by the men. And in the book’s second half, following the sudden, shocking and rather tragic death of Gowyn, it is Dovirr, the youngest member of the crew, who rises to become the new Thalassarch, and then finds himself defending his new station from his mutinous and resentful first officer. But later, things grow even more worrisome for Earth’s newest and youngest Thalassarch, when the dreaded Dhuchay’y finally do return to our world! But can Dovirr possibly unite the squabbling Thalassarchs and their 4,000 swordsmen, as well as mankind’s hereditary enemies, the Seaborn Ones, to do battle against the common foe?
Now, when I happened to mention on a certain book-oriented page on Facebook that I was in the middle of Conquerors From the Darkness, someone responded that he’d read it as a kid, and had loved it so much that it had made him a young fan of science fiction. And I can well understand why that might have been so. Really, what kid would not love a story in which a boy runs away from home, joins a group of futuristic and benevolent Vikings, rises to the top of the heap, and fights against monstrous aliens? Time of the Great Freeze had given us a 17-year-old, Jim Barnes, in a tale of the frozen Earth in the year 2650, while Conquerors… gives us a story of an 18-year-old on an Earth not inundated by ice, but rather water. And both books, both in Dell paperbacks, succeed marvelously! At times, Conquerors… almost feels like an Andre Norton novel, what with a young protagonist being able to communicate telepathically with a different animal species. (Here, Dovirr is able to converse with the Seaborn Ones thanks to a stolen Dhuchay’y gizmo.) The book is compulsively readable, and indeed practically unputdownable. It is a swashbuckling, colorful, exciting, fascinating and, surprisingly, at times touching novel that should prove irresistible for most readers. Its characters are efficiently sketched in by Silverberg, and we grow to like and admire most of the men aboard the Garyun; whenever one of them dies or is killed, it is an unfailingly shocking moment. Gowyn, the ship’s captain and Thalassarch of the Western Seas, is especially well drawn, and we come to understand the man’s loneliness, despite his high rank. And need I even mention how wonderfully written this novel is? Silverberg has always been an author with an instinctive knack for coming up with just the right word or expression, and his clean and elegant prose, even in a YA affair, is a delight to read.
Despite its short length (this Dell paperback barely reaches the 160-page mark), the author yet manages to give his readers any number of tremendously well-done scenes scattered throughout. Among them: Dovirr’s fight with Levrod, the Sea-Lord he must slay to win himself a berth on the Garyun; Dovirr’s first encounter with a band of pirates; the conversations that Dovirr has with Gowyn at night on deck, during which we come to understand the older man; the battle aboard Thalassarch Harald’s flagship; the accidental death of Gowyn (no, I wouldn’t think of telling in what manner); Dovirr’s battle to the death with his treacherous first mate, Lysigon; Dovirr’s return to Vythain one year after he ran away from it, and the conversation that he has with his father; the exploration of the strangely silent island-city of Vostrok, followed by the first bloody skirmish with the Dhuchay’y; and, of course, the final battle, with the massed armadas of the Thalassarchs and tens of thousands of the Seaborn Ones on one side, and the reptilian aliens on the other. And as for those aliens, let me just say that they make for very credible enemies. Despite having conquered space, and despite their superior weaponry, they are somehow less than invulnerable to good old-fashioned, mano-a-mano, rough-and-tumble fighting. (With their reptilian features, 8-foot height and scaly skin, they couldn’t help but remind this reader of Star Trek’s Gorn, despite their tails.) And for those readers who love a book featuring gizmos and accomplishments of futuristic superscience, please know that Silverberg here gives us neuron whips (the only weapons left behind by the Dhuchay’y before their 1,000-year absence), an amulet necklace that is in actuality that telepathic communication device, genetic engineering (in the form of the Seaborn Ones), and the heat rays/thermal vibrators that the aliens employ in battle.
Throughout the novel, I might add, the reader suspects that Dovirr will wind up rebelling against his newly adopted and often quite violent lifestyle, but Silverberg’s story does not quite play out as expected. His book also winds up delivering some worthwhile messages about following your dreams, as well as the benefits of different races banding together for the common good. And there’s also a nice sentiment with reference to striving for power toward the book’s end. As Dovirr comes to realize, power “was meaningless when acquired for its own sake … Power meant nothing unless it was put to real use…”
Actually, this reader has very few complaints to lodge against Silverberg’s work here. Oh, sure, the book could have been longer; it is really almost too compact and concise! Still, there’s nothing wrong with brevity of expression, and leaving a reader wanting more. Conquerors From the Darkness could easily have benefited from a sequel, or even served as the basis for an entire series of Dovirr the Thalassarch books. Indeed, by this novel’s conclusion, our hero realizes that he will have to be perpetually vigilant for more visits from the Dhuchay’y, a fact that makes the reader wonder if the character should perhaps change his surname to Stargard. It might have been a terrific series. Oh, well. Throughout the book, I was also thinking that it might have been nice had a map been provided of the island world that the Earth has become, a la the map provided in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, the first of which, A Wizard of Earthsea, was first released in 1968, three years after Conquerors… Could this relatively obscure YA work possibly have been an inspiration? Who knows? Perhaps, if and when Conquerors… sees another release, a nice map might be provided for us readers. My only other complaint (that is not really a complaint): There is not a single female character in this book whatsoever (same as in Time of the Great Freeze); not even a passing reference to a woman or a girl! One would not expect to find one aboard the Garyun, of course, but not to encounter a single mention of the fairer sex is somewhat odd. Or perhaps Silverberg did not wish to offend his male YA audience with talk of yeechy girls? But other than those three minor cavils, I have nothing negative to say here about Silverberg’s wholly fun and hugely captivating piece of work. Conquerors From the Darkness serves as proof positive that even when he was “retired,” Robert Silverberg was one of the finest purveyors of quality sci-fi that we have ever had…
As I was reading your review I thought that it sounded a lot like one of many Andre Norton novels (that’s not a bad thing, necessarily).
As for, “What kid wouldn’t love an adventure about a boy becoming a Sea Lord?” the answer is “About 51% of us, who can’t even get a look-in during this boy-to-man adventure.” I’m just saying.
I will say that is was stories like this; exciting, wild, intriguing and definitely shutting girls/women out, that partly inspired me to write my own stories. And I also want to be clear that the Boys’ Club gets no credit for that.
It really IS strange that there is not a single mention of females in this entire book! They’re not even in the background as “extras”….
Cuz it’s a Boy’s Book, I think.
Presumably the females were all too busy over in Carnal Carnival and Flesh Bigamist to put in an appearance here. The “sexual liberation” of the 1950s and 1960s was extremely one-sided.
An ocean-going tale you might like, Sandy, is The Other Side of the Mountain, a very short novel by Michel Bernanos (translated). If you enjoy William Hope Hodgson’s weird sea stories, this one will give you a similar reading experience.
I have enjoyed five of Hodgson’s books, Paul, and have reviewed them all here on FanLit, so thanks very much for the hedzup on the Bernanos title!
I did wonder if “Flesh Bigamist” is meant to differentiate from “spiritual/emotional bigamist.”
Just as I was wondering whether “Passion Peeper” is meant to differentiate from “Bored Disinterested Peeper”….
Now I’m going to make up the surname “Bordpeeper” and use it somewhere.
Those titles look like the output of a computer program given a list of sufficiently suggestive words as input and told to randomly assort them. Like a more restricted version of whatever produced California psychedelic band names (Moby Grape, Electric Prunes, Chocolate Watchband, Strawberry Alarm Clock, etc.). Except, in both cases, very few people had access to computers at that time, and the input list would’ve had to be put on a punched card deck.
Hey, Paul, you left out Mythical Ethical Icicle Tricycle, a band name that the Grateful Dead considered early on! :)
I’d order tickets to hear just Icicle Tricycle in concert.