Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg
Tower of Glass (1972) is another of Robert Silverberg’s ambitious novels from his most prolific period in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In that time he was churning out several books each year that were intelligent, thematically challenging, beautifully written stories that explored identity, sexuality, telepathy, alien contact, religion and consciousness. At his best, he produced some masterpieces like Downward to the Earth and Dying Inside, as well as some dreadful books like Up the Line, but his unfettered imagination and prolific energy were undeniable.
Unfortunately, a wealth of ideas can sometimes overwhelm even the best books, and I think Tower of Glass is a perfect example. It is the story of Simeon Krug, a brilliant genetic engineer and industrialist who develops androids with human-like intelligence who he nevertheless considers mere tools to serve human interests. Krug’s driving ambition in to build a massive tower of glass in the Canadian tundra that will extend into space and allow FTL tachyon communications with NGC-7293, a nebula which has been emitting intelligent alien signals.
At all costs, Krug wishes to establish contact with these alien beings, and assigns his top engineer android, Alpha Thor Watchman, to oversee the construction. Meanwhile, his decadent and unambitious son Manuel uses the “transmat” matter transporters to shunt people across the world to enjoy a global 24-hour party. Manuel has a love affair with a beautiful android named Lilith Meson, who wants to enlist his support for the growing android rights movement. Unbeknownst to Krug, the androids have formed an elaborate religion built around Krug the Creator, and expect to receive salvation from Krug sometime in the future. They have actually created an Android Bible and complete set of rituals, services, etc. As the story develops, Krug becomes increasingly obsessed with building the tower even at the price of android lives lost in the construction. When an android-rights activist is killed accidentally, he shows little sympathy.
Tower of Glass introduces enough ideas for at least 5 or 6 full-length novels, so it’s inevitable that each story line doesn’t get full shrift. For example, the technology of instant teleportation around the world recalls the great SF classic The Stars My Destination (1954) by Alfred Bester, but there aren’t enough pages devoted to exploring the implications since the entire book is only 194 pages long. There is also the technology of shunting, which allows the swapping of identities (machine-assisted telepathic exchange) for a period. This sharing of minds was more fully explored by Silverberg in Dying Inside and A Time of Changes, but gets only passing mention until the end of the novel.
There is also a very lightly-sketched sub-plot about Krug’s other side-project to build a generational starship to visit NGC-7293, which would be manned by androids. Yet another side-plot explores the social problems encountered by the three tiers of android society (mirroring Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), broken down into alphas (the most intelligent), betas (the middle caste), and gammas (the proletarian class of androids). The main characters visit a gamma ghetto, which resembles an ethnic ghetto in a major city, complete with crime, drug abuse, discontent, and resentment. Finally, Silverberg devotes a great deal of time to exploring the religious conflicts of the androids’ religion of salvation via Krug. There are quotes from their Android Bible that sound just as fully developed as the human Bible. The painful irony is that Krug himself dismisses the androids’ worship of him, and he has contempt for their misplaced admiration.
The story reaches a climax when Krug and his android engineering chief Thor Watchman share a telepathic link in which Watchman discovers Krug’s contempt for the androids, crushing his religious belief and his faith in the merit of Krug’s Tower of Glass. There are all kinds of metaphors involved, the most obvious being the Tower of Babel, as well as the conflicted relationship of creator and creation, which we also see between replicant Roy Batty and Dr. Eldon Tyrell in the movie Blade Runner (1982). Though the android religion is the most fully-explored of themes in Tower of Glass, it is battling for space with all the other ideas.
In the end, I felt like Tower of Glass simply had too many good ideas to be properly explored in under 200 pages. Normally I really appreciate the brevity of SF novels from the 1960s/70s, but this is a rare case where Silverberg should have cut down on the number of ideas or devoted full novels to them instead. Nowadays, Tower of Glass would probably warrant a 1,000 page door-stopper, but Silverberg’s real genius was in creating fully-developed novels with exciting ideas and lyrical writing in a tight, fast-moving story. Unfortunately, this novel is a case of too much of a good thing.
Some of them are looking for God, and some of them are looking for power, and some of them are just looking.
Simeon Krug, a brilliant inventor, has changed the world by creating synthetic humans in vats. They are so similar to humans that, to avoid confusion, Krug made their skin a reddish color and gave them no body hair. To these androids, Krug is God, but he doesn’t realize it. He thinks of them as mere machines and he’s set them the task of building a giant glass tower which will reach into the heavens to communicate with the aliens who have been sending messages to Earth. Krug’s son, poised to take over the company when his father dies, doesn’t share Krug’s obsession with talking to aliens, and he is particularly disturbed when he discovers the android religion. What will happen when the androids find out that Krug is not their salvation?
There aren’t any likeable characters here, and it’s hard for me to relate to androids, but Tower of Glass made me think (most of Robert Silverberg’s stories make me think). In Tower of Glass, Silverberg uses androids to explore a common science fiction theme: What makes us human? I’ve read dozens of stories which ask this question, but Tower of Glass will stick with me. Originally published in 1970, Tower of Glass has worn very well, probably because it deals with timeless human problems.
Krug’s androids, who call themselves “vat-born” to distinguish themselves from the “womb-born,” are constructed with human DNA which has been altered to give them a slightly alien look and to make them hard-working faithful servants. What Krug didn’t realize, perhaps, was that this human DNA would make them ambitious and would give them a desire to worship their creator. Under the leadership of Thor Watchman, the android who works as Krug’s right-hand man in the tower project, they develop an entire religion around Krug. In their time off from building Krug’s tower, they get involved in politics, build temples, write holy scriptures, hold worship services, conduct sacraments, chant and pray. Their chants and prayers consist of recitations of genetic code and their scriptures, modeled after the Christian Bible, speak of Krug’s love for them and his plan to save them by transforming them, with genetic code, into full human beings after they die. It’s understandable, then, that they’d be a little upset when they find out that their religion is false and that they’re not going to be saved after all.
As usual with a novel by Robert Silverberg, you have to suffer through some unpleasant sex scenes (I find many of Silverberg’s sex scenes to be disturbing), but there are fewer far-out tangents in Tower of Glass than in some of his other stories and at least here there is some purpose to them here. The pace moves quickly and Silverberg packs in a lot of ideas as he shows us a newly developing android society that is dealing with the same kinds of issues that humans have always dealt with — racism, caste systems, slavery, outcasts, ghettos, disease, drug abuse, political agitators, religious zealots, and the rise of an oppressed population. All the while Silverberg ratchets up the tension as the tower gets taller and Krug becomes more obsessed and noticeably less godlike.
I listened to Stefan Rudnicki narrate Audible Frontiers’ version of Tower of Glass. Rudnicki always gives a great reading — he has a nice voice, he never overacts, and he always seems to “get” what he reads. Tower of Glass was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards.
Released in 1970, Tower of Glass was Robert Silverberg‘s 42nd sci-fi novel … his 18th since 1967 alone! The amazingly prolific author had embarked on a more mature phase of his writing career in ’67, with an emphasis on ideas and a distinct literary quality, and Tower of Glass is yet another superior novel in this remarkable streak. Justifiably nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards (but “losing,” respectively, to Ursula K. LeGuin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness and Larry Niven‘s Ringworld), it demonstrates that Silverberg, at this stage, was truly one of the very best in the sci-fi field.
In the book, the reader encounters an obsessed, 60-year-old magnate named Simeon Krug. One of the world’s wealthiest men in the year 2218, by dint of his discovery of a process to create synthetic, humanoid androids out of vat-processed DNA, Krug now sets himself a new challenge: erecting a 1,500-meter-tall (!) tower in the Canadian tundra, using android laborers, to house the communication apparatus that will enable him to “talk to the stars.” It seems that signals have been picked up from the planetary nebula NGC 7293, which Silverberg tells us is 300 light-years distant, and Krug is determined to utilize his billions to communicate with the star people, using a faster-than-light tachyon transmitter. In addition to its fascinating central plot, Tower of Glass gives the reader several exciting subplots, as well. We learn of Krug’s son, Manuel, who is having a love affair with an upper-caste android woman. We read of the Android Equality Party, comprised of synthetic humans who are trying to gain full civil rights in the World Congress. We learn of the android religion, how it is in conflict with the tactics of the A.E.P., and of how Thor Watchman, Krug’s most trusted android foreman at the construction site, is torn between the two factions…
Tower of Glass, besides its interesting story lines, is just loaded with fascinating detail and colorful description, in Silverberg’s best manner. The reader is treated to a tour of Krug’s main android factory in Duluth, where, thanks to a bit of hard sci-fi pedagogy, we learn how his synthetic humans are created. We see several demonstrations of a “shunt room,” where the wealthy can go to swap egos and live inside one another’s head space for a while. We visit Krug’s upper-crust restaurant in the Pacific Ocean’s Challenger Deep, 30,000 feet underwater; are given a look at the lower-caste android underground in Stockholm; and observe an android religious meeting. Taking advantage of the recently loosened sexual constraints in science fiction, the author gives us a scene featuring copulation between Manuel and his android lover Lilith Meson, and a sex scene involving two androids, Lilith and Thor. Tower of Glass is a novel that really does move, and that sense of movement is primarily due to the fact that it takes place in a society that has perfected the use of “transmats.” Remember how, in Alfred Bester‘s 1956 classic The Stars My Destination (STILL this reader’s favorite sci-fi novel, after all these years), characters are able to flit from one geographic location to another by a process called “jaunting”? Well, here, the transmats serve a similar function, allowing, say, Krug to travel from Uganda to Canada instantaneously, and on to Duluth, and then Colorado and New York City. (Oh, to live in a world with transmats!!!) The net effect of this rapid hopping about (and yes, Silverberg DOES discuss the ramifications of such a lifestyle in depth) is a feeling of tremendous narrative energy and drive; as I said, this novel really does move!
Silverberg, something of a genuine prose stylist at this point, alternates his writing methods to suit each particular chapter in Tower of Glass. Some chapters feature hard science, others well-written expository dialogue, while others give us snippets of the android Bible, and still others (such as the scenes in the shunt room and the Stockholm underground) are written almost Impressionistically, with shorthand, psychedelic imagery. The book is marvelously entertaining and almost overwhelmingly imaginative, with every page boasting some curious touch, unexpected development, unique character or colorful locale. Truly, modern sci-fi at its very best.
I would set down only one quibble that I had with Silverberg’s book, and it is that statement of NGC 7293 being 300 light-years distant. Perhaps, back in 1970, when Silverberg wrote his novel, this was the accepted figure, but today, it seems to be fairly well recognized that NGC 7293 is more on the order of 715 light-years away from planet Earth. Still, as I say, this is a mere quibble. The bottom line is that Tower of Glass is still another wonderfully gripping, intelligent piece of sci-fi from Robert Silverberg. And now, just one question for the author: Where can I purchase a “tesseract divan” for my own living room?
Imagine a whole catalogue of “tesseract furniture”–you could choose from different pieces, like divans or ottomans or chaise longues, and then choose what materials they were made from…
Sounds cool, Jana. I’ll look for it in a 23rd century IKEA store….
Another enticing Silverberg review. Sandy, you are seriously messing with my TBR list – it just keeps getting longer!
LOL! Stuart, I think we can both identify with that old saying “so many books, so little time….”
Thank you Stuart and Kat for your duo performance here. I’m still in the early part of the novel, but I am enjoying it. I’ve been switching back and forth between my Kindle and Audible, so I’m getting to hear some of Rudnicki’s great performance. He’s one of my favorites, too, Kat.
By the way, we’ve mentioned towers in a several comments lately (such as High Rise by Ballard). Yesterday, I just happened to read the short story “Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang from Stories of Your Life and Others. That one certainly needs to be added to our “Tower” literary mix.
Yes, all kinds of towers featured prominently of late! And now that Marion has mentioned an upcoming film version of High-rise (only 40 years after the book came out), it might be interesting to do a book and film comparison. The dissertation will have to come later :-)
I love the dual review here…both give great perspective and insights on the novel without much criss-cross (also a great one-hit wonder band in the 80s).
This is exemplary of what I would want to see when deciding whether to read a book.
Thanks for that feedback, Jason. I wrote this review a few years ago and decided to re-run it with Stuart’s so that we could discuss the novel in one place. (I am doing this more often these days. There are other logistical reasons for doing so.)
What’s interesting is that the thing Stuart criticizes (too may ideas) is one of the things I love about Silverberg. There are so many of these brilliant ideas that I’d love to explore and they could, as Stuart mentions, have entire novels to themselves, but I feel like Silverberg’s throw-away treatment of them makes his world feel so rich and deep. It doesn’t frustrate me, but I can understand why Stuart found it frustrating.
Kat – Great thought on the multiple ideas. It can be frustrating depending on how it’s treated. For example, doesn’t Tolkien do this with his endless sprinkling of ‘throw away’ mythology and history related to Middle Earth throughout LOTR? He teased out this massive world history with only a shading of detail.
But Tolkien gives us all these details in other books he wrote, so someone who really wants to know can go find them. That’s not really the case with Silverberg, though I think sometimes he does give a throwaway idea more treatment in another novel. I think I recall noticing a couple of examples, but Sandy could answer that best since he’s most familiar with his work.
Personally, I was completely satisfied with Silverberg’s “Tower of Glass.” Sure, the work might have been longer had the author chosen to go more in depth regarding any of his plot threads, but I find it kind of charming that Silverberg can dish out so much food for thought, cram it all into one highly involving story, write in several different styles according to the needs of the particular chapter, say what he wants to say, and get out, all in around 200 pages. And yes, Kat, the author did touch on many of the book’s themes in other works, such as “The Masks of Time.” With a catalog as huge as Silverberg’s, it would be rather difficult NOT to rehash certain themes, right?