Up until recently, I hadn’t read Robert Silverberg‘s brilliant sci-fi novel Downward to the Earth in almost 27 years, but one scene remained as fresh in my memory as on my initial perusal: the one in which the book’s protagonist, Edmund Gundersen, comes across a man and a woman lying on the floor of a deserted Company station on a distant world, their still-living bodies covered in alien fluid that is being dripped upon them by a basket-shaped organism, whilst they themselves act as gestating hosts to some parasitic larvae. This scene, perhaps an inspiration for the similar happenings in the Alien film of a decade later, is simply unforgettable, but as a recent rereading of the book has served to demonstrate, it is just one of many superbly rendered sequences in this great piece of work. Originally appearing as a four-part serial starting in the November 1969 issue of Galaxy magazine — just one of six major sci-fi novels that Silverberg saw published that year — Downward to the Earth made its debut in book form in 1970. A perennial fan favorite ever since, and chosen for inclusion in David Pringle’s excellent overview volume Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, it is a work that its author has expressed only a belated appreciation for himself, in the face of near universal praise.
The book takes place in the year 2248, when Gundersen, the former administrator of Holman’s World, returns to the planet eight years after Earth has relinquished all colonial claims. The planet is now called Belzagor by its two dominant life forms: the nildoror — which resemble elephants except for their green color, additional set of tusks, cranial ridges … and purple dung — and the sulidoror, 10-foot-tall, shaggy, bipedal entities with tapirlike snouts. Drawn back to Belzagor both to visit the few remaining Earthmen still on the planet and to investigate the mysterious nildoror ceremony of “rebirth,” which no Earthman has ever witnessed, Gundersen, as it turns out, has a third reason for his return: a sense of guilt arising from the manner in which he had formerly treated the nildoror, patronizing them and even interfering with a group in the midst of a rebirth pilgrimage. Thus, we follow Gundersen as he travels from the steaming jungles of Belzagor’s central region and up to the so-called Mist Country of its more northerly zone, encountering old friends and running across an amazing array of alien flora and fauna, and are ultimately vouchsafed a look at the truly mind-blowing, psychedelic ceremony of rebirth itself…
Like all truly superior sci-fi, Downward to the Earth is the sort of novel that just bursts with some imaginative idea or unexpected touch on every single page. It is a terrific feat of the imagination, wonderfully well written by Silverberg (who, at this point, had already seen around 40 novels published since his first, Revolt on Alpha C, in 1954), and with fascinating characters, both alien and human. It is also, typical of its author, a highly literate affair, with numerous allusions to the Bible, to Dante’s Divine Comedy, to English poet Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem Dover Beach, and to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (one of Gundersen’s old friends on the planet, who undergoes a disastrous rebirth himself, is named Kurtz). Belzagor itself is wonderfully described by Silverberg; not only the jungles and the Mist Country, but also the mysterious Central Plateau region and the mirror-bright, crystalline wasteland known as the Sea of Dust.
Perhaps best of all, however, are the descriptions of all the grotesque animals and plants to be found on Belzagor: the tiger moss, the razor shark, the monkeylike munziror, the jelly-crabs, the mobile fungoids and on and on … plus, of course, that bright-red, wall-hanging basket thing! Topography is also memorable in the novel, with the 1,600-meter-high, triple-tiered Shangri-La Falls — where Gundersen visits his old flame Seena and her body-hugging pet amoeba — and the mountain of rebirth in the Mist Country being both figurative and literal standouts. Silverberg, apparently, wrote this novel after a recent trip to East Africa, and his primary intention with his book is a laudable one: to show that the native races of a region (or, by extension, a planet) may have a LOT more on the ball, as far as intelligence and culture are concerned, than their imperialist occupiers are willing to admit. Here, the truth about the nildoror and sulidoror, as regards their cultures and how the two races are connected, comes as a real eye-opener to both Gundersen and the reader. “Gundy” is a likable protagonist, only seeking to atone for past instances of malfeasance, and he makes for a good companion as we explore this rather intimidating planet; a planet that Silverberg, through his great skill, makes us see, feel, smell, taste and hear. Pringle writes that it is sci-fi “done with feeling,” and that the book is “very well described, [with] several pieces of memorable grotesquerie.”
I happen to love Downward to the Earth, all the way to its wonderful, transcendent conclusion, in which our protagonist gets precisely what he deserves. A pity that Silverberg never chose to return to Belzagor, as he did to the world of Majipoor on so many occasions. It is a mysterious, exotic, dangerous and yet beautiful world, one that I’m sure all lovers of intelligent sci-fi will love to immerse themselves in. As you might be able to tell, this is one of my favorite science fiction novels, and comes more than highly recommended. Just wondering, though, Mr. Silverberg … where can I purchase one of those monomolecular jungle blankets?
After being back on Earth for eight years, Edmund Gunderson returns to the formerly colonized planet Belzagor where he used to be one of the human rulers of the two intelligent species who live there — the nildoror, who look much like elephants, and the sulidoror, who look like apes. While Gunderson was on Belzagor, he considered these species to be soulless and stupid, but now that the humans have given up their control of the planet, he realizes that he sinned against the nildoror, and he wants to cleanse his conscience by undergoing their ritual of rebirth.
When Gunderson arrives, he finds that the planet is gradually reverting back to the wild (the nildoror don’t have opposable thumbs, after all) and he marvels that the nildoror and the sulidoror are now working and living together — a practice which they did not keep when the humans ruled the planet. After he gets the nildoror’s permission to travel freely, he sets out across the planet and travels to the place of rebirth. Along the way, he encounters the beauty and the terror of that wild planet, learns more about the species that inhabit it, and begins to fully realize the evil he committed there.
If this sounds a little familiar, that’s because Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth (1970) is his tribute to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), which explored the Belgians’ cruel colonization of the Congo. Silverberg makes his homage transparent by naming one of his characters after Conrad’s Kurtz. Like Heart of Darkness, Downward to the Earth was first serialized and later published as a novel. Also, like Heart of Darkness, Silverberg’s descriptions of the coexisting beauty and horror of Belzagor are the best parts of the book.
The title Downward to the Earth, comes from Ecclesiastes 3:21 (“Who knows that the spirit of man ascends upward and the spirit of the beast descends downward to the earth?”). Not only does Silverberg consider the question of what happens to the souls of humans and beasts, but he also asks how we should distinguish a human from a beast. Are some “beasts” more human than we are?
Downward to the Earth could be considered as Christian allegory because it beautifully illustrates the pain of guilt and loneliness, the desire for redemption, the relief of forgiveness and liberation, and the pleasure of unity with like-minded souls. There is much Christian symbolism, too, including a serpent who offers a drug which promises the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:5). Silverberg portrays the drinking of the serpent’s drug as a great sin, but the commission of this sin leads to the understanding of the need to be reborn (“through the law comes the knowledge of sin” ~Romans 3:20). The allegory eventually breaks down (as allegories usually do) when we see how the redemption is accomplished, but I enjoyed this thought-provoking aspect of the novel.
Blackstone Audio produced the version I listened to which was read by the magnificent Bronson Pinchot, one of my favorite readers. Downward to the Earth is a beautiful story and the audiobook is a great way to read it.
Downward to the Earth is an amazing New-Wave SF book from the prolific mind of Robert Silverberg. In under 200 pages, he manages to cover the themes of mind-altering drugs, truly alien beings, sin, redemption, mental unity, and acceptance. The book is also an impressive homage to Joseph Conrad’s Hearth of Darkness as the main character goes deeper into the steamy jungle, trying to connect with the mysterious native creatures (giant psychic elephants, as it turns out). The roles of colonizer and native peoples are explored fearlessly, and the book easily debunks the condescending attitudes of white cultural superiority represented by Rudyard Kipling and White Man’s Burden. The book also makes frequent Biblical references that enhance the cathartic power of the story’s exploration of sin and redemption. One of the best novels of the late 1960s, in my opinion.