A long way across a big, mildly upset planet
In the summer swelter of mid-July, the Beamers cooled off with some beverages at Panera’s and with an epic quest across a mammoth planet that kept us distracted from the heat, all the way to Lord Valentine’s Castle. Robert Silverberg’s planetary romance was a bit radical when published in 1980, marking a major departure from the solid and experimental science fiction that he had been writing in the 1960s and ’70s. But the Beamers liked following the detour that his sf career took.
If At First You Do Succeed, Try, Try Again
Silverberg is a writer who re-invented himself several times, first coming to prominence as a prolific pulp writer in the 1950s, then picking up on the experimental New Wave coming out of Britain in the mid-60s, which led to his winning multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. Taking a break in the late 1970s, he returned with Lord Valentine’s Castle, a travelogue on an immense planet, settled 14,000 years before, in which an amnesiac tries to regain his rightful title and possession of the titular stronghold. Majipoor, the planet in question, was a fertile land for Silverberg’s imagination as he set 6 novels there, along with enough stories to fill 2 collections.
A World Worth Building
It is a world that did fascinate the Beamers, even if we could not always quite say why. The largeness of the planet allows Silverberg to populate it fully with multiple sentient species, and even ones (the forest-brethern, the sea dragons) who seem at least semi-sentient. The cities that the characters encounter are thousands of years old, with populations typically in the millions, and generally some cultural or economic or political significance that Silverberg will relate. But not always. Fran loved the travel journal aspect of the work, really enjoying the panorama of cities and species and botany and geology (a 600-foot geyser!) that Silverberg deploys across his lands.
Nick and I were a little more demanding, though. Nick was wearied by the lists of city names (as many as 18 at a clip!) that flowed by like the river currents that carried Valentine back to Castle Mount. He wanted less detail. I did not begrudge the well-developed landscape, but I wanted a bit more detail, instead of just the very brief teases offered to us, like mentioning the two-headed race of Su-Suheris, even to include one as a general of Valentine’s army, but never letting us see or hear from one, directly.
Do Not Judge a Vroon by its Beak!
On the other hand, Silverberg did well by his characters, particularly in respect to the alien races that he introduces. There was a distinct identity not only to the various species (4-armed Skandars, frog-like Hjorts, short, beaked Vroon) but also to the actual individual characters. I was impressed that the characters were not “representative” of their species, thus avoiding having them embody stereotypes. It was not that all Skandar are miserly, only that Zalzan, the group leader, was a bit tight on the purse strings. Liz noted that the characters also stood out, so that we could readily identify a speaker by the dialogue, as Silverberg made a strong effort to distinguish among the characters their own voices and attitudes and philosophies.
Not that all the characters seemed well-served. Nick noted that the second character we meet, Shanamir the herder, seems to fall by the wayside as the story picks up steam and other characters fill in as Valentine’s aides and helpers. Alan also noted that the book does fail the Bechdel Test, since we never have a scene with 2 or more female characters who engage in a discussion that is not male-centric. I did counter that the book is written as a limited 3rd-person narrative, so we only have Valentine’s point of view, but we did notice that there is a lack of female characters even so. On a planet with cities of 30 million or so, we only have 3 significant females (Valentine’s lover, his bodyguard, his mother), so Bechdel failure is almost guaranteed.
A Romance for a Planet?
Still, Silverberg does fill in the rest of his setting. Chris gave the book props for world-building and a big world at that. Liz was blown away by the botany, with the breadth of imaginative plant species shown, such as a psychically sensitive shrub that wilted when Valentine had an argument in its grove. Fran wound up re-reading the first 3 Majipoor books (LVC, Majipoor Chronicles, Valentine Pontifex) because she wanted not only to follow the Valentine story but also to continue to immerse in its landscape.
One question that did devil us a bit was what, exactly, to call the book. Was it science fiction, or was it fantasy? The ’80s fans were similarly perplexed and it led to some name-calling as they accused Silverberg of abandoning sf for the new, greener fields of fantasy. Kathy loved the book as a fantasy, not seeing anything too science fiction-y about it, even as it deploys “tech” for weather control and for dream insertions. Fran granted that the tech was named but observed that it was little described nor grounded in much, if any, science. Blame John Campbell, I said, for introducing “psionics”, the “science” of ESP, into sf circles. What results, though, is not necessarily bad, even if it goes by the slightly disreputable title of “science fantasy” (which, I confess, covers 2 different approaches: sf without a scientific ground, and fantasy with a “scientific” ground).
In the case of Lord Valentine’s Castle, I applied the label of “planetary romance”, a form of early sf or science fantasy that is set on a world that is recognizably alien (often Mars or Venus) but where the attention is more on the “romance” or story aspects (Explore the ancient canals! Traverse the steaming dinosaur-infested jungles!). Much classic sf and many good stories fit under the “planetary romance” sub-genre, so I did not mean it as any slight on the quality of our July book.
And no one took it as a slight. Instead, the marks were uniformly good, with an ‘8’ being the most often expressed rating. Whatever it may be, Lord Valentine’s Castle proved to be a good read for a group of sf fans looking for adventure and maybe a bit of escape from the current sultry weather.