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Conceptual Fiction: Nightwings by Robert Silverberg

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Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.

The circumstances that led to the writing of Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings were hardly conducive to creating a masterpiece. A fire had destroyed most of the author’s house, and he was living out of crates and cartons in makeshift quarters. He desperately needed money to pay bills and cover the cost of rebuilding. He was exhausted and stressed out from dealing with insurance company bureaucrats, putting his life back together, and the general craziness of that turbulent year 1968.

In this unpropitious environment, Silverberg wrote a 19,000 word novella called Nightwings in “something like five days,” as he later recalled. Frederik Pohl, editor of Galaxy magazine, paid him $500 – which was a considerable sum for the time, the equivalent of several thousand dollars of purchasing power today. Silverberg immediately began hatching plans for two more related stories of approximately the same length, with the plan to combine all three of them in a single novel.

The complexity of this structure was sharpened by the dictates of pulp fiction sci-fi. Each of the three parts needed to stand as a self-sufficient story in a magazine, with a strong ending that would provide resolution to the tale – yet not so much closure that the three novellas wouldn’t flow together smoothly into a single over-arching narrative. Working under these constraints, Silverberg created an exceptional work of fiction, by almost any measure. The original Nightwings won the Hugo for best novella the following year, and was nominated for a Nebula. The resulting book holds up well today, both for its imaginative conception but also — and even rarer for 1960s-era sci-fi — the quality of its writing.

From the opening paragraph, Silverberg delights us with his provocative combination of the familiar and the mysterious. “Roum is a city built on seven hills,” he writes. “They say it was a capital of man in one of the earlier cycles. I knew nothing of that, for my guild was Watching not Remembering.”

The writing is crisp and intelligent throughout Nightwings, and often quite poetic. Silverberg allows his story to unfold without any of the pulp fiction clumsiness that so often mars Asimov and Dick. Above all, he has a sure instinct for the quasi-mythic — indeed, almost medieval, at times — tone that also characterizes some of the most stylized works of conceptual fiction from this era, such as Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Silverberg’s story takes place on a debased planet Earth, struggling in the aftermath of disastrous scientist-induced climate change. North and South America have mostly vanished under the expanding “Earth Ocean.” The remnant of civilization lives in the surviving continents: Eyrop, Ais, Afreek and Stralya. Technology has collapsed, and people have banded together in guilds, both to find productive vocations and for a sense of higher purpose.

Our protagonist is a Watcher, whose guild is responsible for studying the cosmos. For centuries, Earth has been under threat of invasion from the stars, and the Watchers need to give the alert to the Defenders (another guild) if and when it arrives. Silverberg sketches out a whole alternative economic structure here, with various other guilds each playing their assigned role: Rememberers, Clowns, Musicians, Somnambulists, Scribes, Servitors, Merchants, Dominators, and the like. In addition, there are new biological forms mixed in with these groups: Changelings and Fliers and assorted visitors from outer space – a whole society creatively re-imagined by our author.

Another writer would fill this story with battles, swordfights and cliffhangers. But Silverberg rarely indulges in such theatrics. One gets a sense of his restraint early on, when he presents the most significant military engagement in the novel as taking place unobserved overnight, while our hero sleeps. This is not Starship Troopers or The Forever War. Silverberg instead weaves a psychologically rich narrative that deals with deep issues of redemption, both personal and social, loyalty and betrayal, inclusion and ostracization. Even the romance subplot here is handled with surprising subtlety, with as much Platonic love as carnal desire appearing in Silverberg’s pages.

The tripartite structure and original publication of Nightwings as three separate tales forced Silverberg to introduce more plot elements and entanglements than one might find in a stand-alone novel of the same length. Yet the narrative never feels rushed, and Silverberg not only resolves all the open issues in his final pages, but does so in a way that reconnects satisfyingly with the book’s opening gambit. Against all odds, this author created something very special here, rising above the calamities of his personal life and the constraints of the genre in forging one of the finest works of conceptual fiction of its era. I wouldn’t advise anyone to emulate the methodology Silverberg’s employed in writing Nightwings, but it is hard to quibble with results he achieved.

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  • http://quiverfullfamily.com Jennifer Bogart

    Great review Ted – you really know your stuff!