Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: Nightwings

© 1968 by Robert Silverberg

Winner, 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novella

The time: Late “Third Cycle,” several centuries – possibly millennia – in the future.

The place: Earth, long suffering through several cataclysmic surface-changing events from directed climatic alteration gone wrong. Specifically, three cities, Roum, Perris, and Jorslam.

The background: A broken, lost society, longing for the glories of the Second Cycle, held together with the glue of the guilds: dozens if not hundreds of fellowships giving meaning to the fleeting existences of the masses. All is guild, from Dominators to Servitors, Rememberers to Watchers, Fliers to Changelings to Neuters, Vendors to Transporters to Clowns.

Our hero is a nameless Watcher, tasked to scan the skies via some strange sort of astral projection, thrice daily week after month after year, alert for alien invasion. Though Earth is sort of a low-budget tourist stop for alien life, Watchers stand lonely on the lookout for an ancient prophesied attack. We catch up to the Watcher midstream nearing the end of his life, en route across the Land Bridge from Agupt to Talya, specifically the once-yet-still-grand city of Roum.

Accompanying him are two others, the blithe fairy-human Flier, Avluela, and the cagey shape-shifting Changeling Gormon. Old Watcher is in love – mostly in a paternal way – with Avluela, and bone-wary of Gormon. Still, on a world of nomads such as Third Cycle Earth, it is more dangerous to travel companionless than companioned, so the trio together enter the great golden city.

Then, all hell breaks loose.

How to convey a wonderful tale without spoilers, since I know not whether you will ever read this book? Like all Silverberg to me, I could not put it down, for who could set aside a story with seemingly a surprise – a legitimate, unforeseen surprise you realize you should’ve seen coming – in every chapter? The tale turns twists a lesser author would botch; several times over the three nonstop days I journeyed with these characters I had to pause in wonder at their fates, bidden and unbidden, and equally their resolutions.

If this sounds oblique, I am intending it to be so. If you are a science fiction aficionado and have not read this book, do so. A master class in storycraft. Normally in my “reviews” I drop some pretty hefty hints of what you’ll come across; heck, just read my review of Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth a week back for a sampling. But I do not think that appropriate for Nightwings

But I will say, should you open these pages, you’ll find –

Not one but two infidelities, both ending badly

First-person noncombatants in the fog of blitzkrieg

Ethereal bodies soaring in the twilit skies

A lamplike squidlike alien decapitation

50th-century optical prosthetics

Overbearing princes, oily merchants, poetic overlords

Fortune-tellers who foretell the present

Starstones to decipher the will of the Will

And man with his back against the wall who sells out mankind

But, glorious of all, redemption. Redemption for both the Watcher and the planet. For, like Downward to the Earth, there is re-birth in this world, too, with similar concomitant risks and rewards. Although in Nightwings the redemption is more transcendent, more transformative, more organic and more world-wide. It’s rebirth for not only the Watcher (who, in fact, changes guilds not once, not twice, but three times – possibly four – over the course of the novel) but simultaneously the World itself, mankind, in all its genetic variations, itself. The whole thing teetered toward hippie kumbaya for a sentence or two, and I got nervous, but it rightly righted itself and ended with an ending only slightly less shiver-bump inducing than Downward.

Grade: A+

Note: In hindsight, I learned that Nightwings was actually three novellas published in the pulps and patched together into a single work in 1968. The whole thing works seamlessly. It’s divided into three parts, for each geographic city where the action occurs: Roum, Perris, and Jorslam, where the rebirth takes place. It won the 1969 Hugo Award, was nominated for a Nebula Award, and won the Prix Apollo Award – for best SF novel published in France – in 1976. 

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