To Open the Sky: Silverberg comes roaring back

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTo Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg science fiction book reviewsTo Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg

It shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that future Grand Master Robert Silverberg dedicated 1967’s To Open the Sky to writer/editor Frederik Pohl. It was Pohl, after all, who induced Silverberg to begin writing sci-fi again on a full-time basis, after the author’s “retirement” from the field in 1959. As then-editor of “Galaxy” magazine, Pohl (who helmed the publication from 1961-’69) promised Silverberg a greater freedom in his writing, with fewer of the literary shackles that had restrained the author till then (not that anyone would have ever realized it, based on the author’s amazingly prolific output from 1954-’59, and the very high quality of that work). But with his new license to create, Silverberg blossomed; as The Science Fiction Encyclopedia so rightly puts it, “…his metamorphosis from a writer of standardized pulp fiction into a prose artist is an accomplishment unparalleled within the field.” To Open the Sky might just be one of his first flowerings of literary emancipation, a book that seems to revel in the joy of the written word and the creative imagination. The book initially appeared as five separate novellas in five issues of “Galaxy,” from June ’65 to June ’66. The stories span a period of almost a century, and many characters appear in all or just a few of the tales. Taken separately, the stories work just fine, but read consecutively, the book stands as one of Silverberg’s most winning achievements.

In essence, To Open the Sky tells the story of a futuristic religious group called the Vorsters. Named after its founder, Noel Vorst, the cult worships the energy of the atom (its symbol is the blue glow of a cobalt reactor!); through scientific research, the group aims to greatly increase the life span of humankind and, via paranormal methods (telepathy, telekinesis), find a way to send mankind to the stars. In the first story, “Blue Fire 2077,” we are given a glimpse of the Earth of that year when U.N. bigwig Reynolds Kirby chaperones a drunken Martian delegate around NYC. The two enter a Vorster temple for kicks, but Kirby becomes strangely drawn by the power of the new creed. In “The Warriors of Light 2095,” we discover that, 18 years later, a schism has taken place in the Vorster religion. The new sect, the Harmonists, uses advanced brainwashing techniques to turn Vorster Brother Christopher Mondschein into an unwitting spy as he begins his new service at the Vorsters’ Santa Fe research complex. In “Where the Changed Ones Go 2135,” it is four decades later, and we encounter Nicholas Martell, a Vorster missionary who travels to Venus, only to find that the Harmonists have already gained a toehold there, and that their accomplishments with the paranormal arts are even more advanced than the Vorsters’ on Earth. In “Lazarus Come Forth 2152,” we jump ahead another 17 years, and learn that the living, preserved corpsicle of Harmonist founder David Lazarus has been discovered beneath the surface of Mars. But is this the real Lazarus, the martyr who had supposedly been slain by the Vorsters in 2090, or is some foul plot afoot? Finally, in “To Open the Sky 2164,” we jump another dozen years into the future, and learn whether or not the Vorsters and Harmonists, with the assistance of the now 144-year-old Vorst and 127-year-old Kirby, might join forces — the scientific wonders of the Vorsters and the paranormal accomplishments of the Harmonists — and thus finally send a ship out to the stars…

To Open the Sky, despite its episodic nature, is some kind of tour de force sci-fi outing, incorporating as it does not only religion and the paranormal in a futuristic setting, but also time travel, espionage, bizarre alien life-forms, robots, medical miracles, terraforming, genetic manipulation, space travel, planetary colonization and on and on. Nobody describes alien monstrosities better than Robert Silverberg (anyone who’s ever read his 1969 masterpiece Downward to the Earth will tell you that), and here, he gives us some Venusian doozies: the razor-edged Wheels, the leathery, spear-beaked birds (warm-ups for the terrifying hornfowls in his Nebula-winning 1971 novel A Time of Changes), the horned and poisonous froglike creatures, the carnivorous Trouble Fungus, etc. As in another of his 1967 novels, Those Who Watch, Santa Fe, New Mexico and its nearby pueblo ruins play a major part in the story. Similarly, as in 1967’s The Time Hoppers, we find here too that the so-called “sniffer palaces” allow the populace a legal means of escaping reality via inhaled drugs. And as in many of Silverberg’s other books of the same period, here, we also encounter “gravshafts,” superminiaturized bugging devices, and “televectoring” as a governmental means of locating any member of society. To Open the Sky is a serious work, and yet still manages to startle the reader with pleasing bursts of humor; for example, Silverberg gives us a page of the Vorster litany as the book opens, with a special section for the “high holidays only” (perhaps only my fellow Jews will appreciate this); later, a female character is described as being a “proselyte with a heart of gold.” It’s not easy to make me laugh out loud, but those two lines somehow did!

All told, To Open the Sky is a wonderful read, just bursting with invention, colorful descriptions and well-written dialogue. The book is epic in scope, covering as it does nearly 100 years in the histories of three planets, and ultimately, Noel Vorst strikes the reader as being on a par with the farseeing and endlessly maneuvering Hari Seldon character in Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION books. The reader can only marvel as his century of machinations comes to fruition, in the novel’s pleasing finale. Indeed, this reader could only discern one single slip in Silverberg’s work here. It is when the author tells us that May 8, 2077 is a Wednesday, whereas in truth, it will be a Saturday. But this is the most picayune of problems, in a work so abundantly entertaining. Inaugurating as it does Silverberg’s second major phase of writing (1967-’76, and including some two dozen remarkable full-length works of science fiction), To Open the Sky — in the pages of “Galaxy” and via the inspiration of its editor — in no uncertain terms declared to the world that its author was back in a very major way. No wonder that the book begins “For Frederik Pohl”…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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