Monday, May 16, 2016

Across a Billion Years by Robert Silverberg

"You spoke the truth: prejudice is part of your nature.  You naturals are so foolish!  You run all over the universe looking for people to despise.... You admire their unusual gifts and skills, but privately you look down on them because they have too many eyes or heads or arms." 

I've read quite a few novels by Robert Silverberg, but not many during the period of this blog's life.  So when I saw the 1983 Tor "A Jim Baen Presentation" edition of 1969's Across a Billion Years (the mediocre cover actually faithfully depicts a pivotal scene from the novel) at Half Price Books, I snapped it up.  It was actually the only book I bought that day, as I try to cut down on my purchases in response to the realization that I may already have more unread SF books than I can read before Horace's little boat takes me to eternal exile.

Across A Billion Years consists of the recorded messages of Tom Rice, a young archeologist on his first big dig, to his twin sister Lorie.  The year is 2375 and Rice is an apprentice member of an archaeological team which includes various nonhuman beings; the team is excavating a billion-year-old site on an alien planet.  Lorie is a shut in, birth defects confining her to an Earth hospital bed where she is hooked up to a bunch of tubes.  Lorie is also gifted with telepathic powers, and serves as a component of the interstellar FTL communications network.  Tom relates to Lorie how he is "in at the kill" as they say when the greatest archaeological find in centuries is made, the uncovering of a projector which reveals the daily life of "the High Ones," a mysterious civilization which has left tantalizing remnants throughout our galaxy.

Halfway through the 245-page novel the team abandons the dig site and crosses the galaxy to a system with a black dwarf star where the projector suggests await still more exciting High Ones artifacts.  As hoped, they meet a billion-year-old robot built by the High Ones in the ancient past.  This robot guides the team to the homeworld of the High Ones, which is hidden within a Dyson sphere.  Disappointingly enough, all that remains of the population of the High Ones, who once spanned the galaxy, is a handful of individuals in a vegetative state who inhabit what amounts to a nursing home maintained by robots.  But their technology is ripe for plunder!  This technology provides the paradigm shift we so often see in the end of these SF novels: special High One headbands provide to just anybody the telepathic powers Lorie has naturally.  Not only does this allow Tom to chit chat with his sister from a bazillion light years away, but now the human race and all the other intelligent life forms can "achieve a full meeting of souls."  War, bigotry, thievery, lying, loneliness, etc., are a thing of the past!

Across a Billion Years is less about adventures in outer space than it is about social issues we read about in the news all the time.  Foremost among these is race relations and what we now call "diversity" issues more generally.  Again and again in the book people's prejudices about other individuals and other groups are proven wrong and again and again we are shown the value of embracing those who are different; the final discovery of the telepathic headbands will help us all just get along effortlessly.

The archaeological team of eleven is made up of five Earth humans like Tom, a synthetic human from Earth (an "android") named Kelly Watchman, and five different types of aliens.  One human member, Jan Mortenson, is in fact bi-species, three-quarters human and one quarter "Brolagonian."  (She can pass for human, but has six toes on a foot.)  At the start of the narrative our narrator complains that the team is thus constituted because of what we might call "racial politics":
As you might expect we're a racially mixed outfit.  The liberals must have their way.  And so the quota system has been imposed on us....
Tom is skeptical about the ability of some of these quota hires, but as the story progresses realizes they all do a good job.  For example, he thought the android, Kelly, would be poor at using the "vacuum corer" because androids are less sensitive than natural-born humans, but in practice she is a brilliant operator of the device. Kelly also gives the speech about the prejudices of "naturals" I used as an epigraph to this blog post.  Jan is scared of telepaths but this is a product of her ignorance of them, and Tom explains the truth about them and sets her straight.  When he has got his telepathic powers Tom can even see the good in a difficult woman he had to deal with back at the first excavation site.  The villain on the team turns out to be a male human, college professor Leroy Chang, a lecher who tries to force himself on Jan.

Other social issues addressed (but less fulsomely) include addiction (one of the archaeologists, a hippo-sized scientist who uses his massive tusks to excavate sites, is a drunk!) and the ability of the disabled to lead full lives (as does psychic Lorie.)

Silverberg does some good things in Across A Billion Years.  The various alien races are all superficially interesting, with unusual and memorably envisioned forms and environments.  The science of finding the black dwarf system is engaging, as are the archaeologists' interactions with the various robots of the High Ones.  But I can only give the novel an unenthusiastic "acceptable" grade.

For one thing, most of the characters are sort of flat.  There are too many of them, and most have only a single character trait that we hear about again and again (one guy is obsessed with his stamp collection, for example).  Individuals will at one point seem to be important, then go unmentioned for scores of pages, and then reappear as mere spear carriers.  (Leroy the lecher has his big abortive rape scene around page 60 and then practically disappears from the narrative.)  It is impossible to care about these characters.

Another problem: Silverberg devotes a high proportion of the novel's pages to describing the boring love lives of Tom, Jan, Kelly, Leroy, and at least one other character I haven't mentioned.  I like a good love story; I love the story of Tristan and Isolde, and I find the various erotic relationships in Proust fascinating.  I adored Tanith Lee's romance novel about a teenage girl and her robot boyfriend.  But the relationship stuff in Across A Billion Years is tedious sub-Archie comics stuff:  Girl A is jealous because Boy B is having a conversation with Girl C, so Girl A decides to spend time with Boy D, but Boy D is so shy blah blah blah.  Even the rape scene is low key and fails to evoke any emotions in the reader, though readers who attended college in the 21st century will no doubt be appalled by the theory about rape which Tom presents to Jan after she has fought off Leroy:
"You know, they say that rape isn't really possible unless the victim cooperates.  I mean, all she has to do is defend herself....  So when a rape happens, it's either because the girl is paralyzed with fear, or else because she secretly wants to be raped."
Jan dismisses this theory (which people today would denounce as "blaming the victim" and "promulgating rape culture") as "two-credit psychology."  Leroy never suffers any punishment for his transgressions, as far as I could tell.

Another problem is the novel's lack of passion, or tension, or danger.  From its first pages it reminded me of a Heinlein juvenile--the whole "telepathic twins seperated by space" angle brought to mind Time for the Stars and the whole structure of the book--a young person learns lessons about life on his first space adventure--has much in common with that of many of Heinlein's juveniles (as well as those controversial quasi-juveniles Starship Troopers and Podkayne of Mars.)  But while the Heinlein juveniles are full of danger and moral dilemmas and often put forward life lessons that are challenging, counterintuitive, and controversial (a ship's captain should be obeyed without question; bloody wars of independence are a great idea; teenaged boys should be encouraged to kill Nazis, space pirates, and other creeps with whatever means are at hand; the United States should surrender its atomic weapons to UN control; you shouldn't bring a gun on your trip into the alien wilderness because it will make you overconfident, etc.), Across a Billion Years lacks tension in its plot and in its ideas.  The "dangers" faced by the archaeologists consist of the possibility that their grant money will run out or that a bureaucratic snafu will put the kibosh on the expedition, and these problems are solved via deus ex machina.  Silverberg's message is the banal warning to not be a bigot that nobody would disagree with, and instead of having it as one of numerous themes in the novel, it dominates the book.  (Heinlein in many of his books argues against racism, but it is usually only one of a work's several ideas.)  And Tom and Jan aren't even "bucking the system" by overcoming their prejudices--they are learning to conform to the system of the quota-imposing "liberals" mentioned at the very start of the book.  Boring!

While not actually bad, Across A Billion Years is one of those books that could be much improved if it was streamlined, say cut from 245 pages to 145.  The hard SF stuff works, but many of the characters and all the sexual relationship stuff could easily be left out.

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