The Longest Way Home by Robert Silverberg
(US edition: Eos, $25.95, 294 pages, hardback; 9 July 2002. UK edition: Gollancz, £10.99, 213 pages, trade paperback; also available as hardback at £16.99; published 16 May 2002. Gollancz, £6.99, 262 pages, paperback, first published 2002, this edition published 10 July 2003.)
Long ago, life evolved on the planet now called Homeworld without any one of several intelligent species establishing overall dominance in the way humankind has on Earth. Possibly the brightest of the species is the one now called the Indigenes, who are very roughly humanoid and probably our equal in intelligence, but of such a different philosophical bent that no comparison would really be possible -- their system of thinking overlaps with ours for the species to communicate adequately, but full communication is fundamentally impossible.
But then a first wave of colonists arrived from Earth. There was no real conquest, because of the lack of a single dominant species: the Folk, as the descendants of the first wave are now called, simply moved in and effectively became part of the ecosystem. A long while later came another colonial wave from Earth, and this time there was a war of conquest against the Folk; the descendants of the second wave are now called the Masters, and they rule the roost with the Folk as their serfs -- in fact, as their slaves, although the Masters are in general benevolent overlords.
Young Joseph, a Master from the south, is staying with family friends on an estate in the north when there is a widespread revolt of the Folk. He alone is spared from massacre on this particular estate, and he decides to quest as best he can the several thousand miles back to his homeland. En route he is assisted by various of the indigenous species -- including, for purposes of their own, the Indigenes -- as well as some of the Folk, the latter being ignorant of his status as a Master. He has divers adventures, including the loss of his virginity to a Folkish girl.
Joseph gets home in the end, despite being captured by the Folkish army; they have an uneasy armistice with the Masters of the south, and so ship him the last distance.
All of that is a fairly thin plot upon which to construct a novel, and this feeling of thinness is pervasive while reading the book -- as if Silverberg, who has demonstrated countless times that he is perhaps the supreme master of his particular generation of sf writers, were here working on autopilot. Joseph's adventures are not particularly exciting (although obviously they'd be pretty goddam exciting if you had to live them yourself), and many of his other experiences during the quest seem fairly pedestrian. One is left looking for flashes of Silverberg's conceptual genius for want of a continuous diet of it.
And of those flashes there are a few. One delight is a moderately intelligent -- it can talk -- native lifeform called the noctambulo, which is possessed of two brains: one brain sleeps during the day and the other during the night, with the effect that the daytime noctambulo is an entirely different person from the nighttime one. Joseph is befriended by the nighttime persona of one of these creatures, but with sunrise must struggle to be noticed at all by the other individual living in the same body.
Another treasurable moment occurs when Joseph is treated by one of the Indigenes to an exposition of the Indigene theology. The Indigenes have no objections at all to the terrestrial colonists, because in their view these are but two waves, out of many, of godlings sent by the real gods to bring knowledge, albeit in a jumbled fashion, to the intelligent species of Homeworld. Each wave of godlings will stay a while, doing a lot of good things (as directed by the gods) and a lot of bad things (because godlings are pretty flawed emissaries), and then depart. It is tantalizingly implicit in the exposition that the two sets of colonists from Earth are by no means the first waves of "godlings" to have spent some time on Homeworld, although we are given no details of the earlier ones.
But such flashes of delight make up only a small portion of a novel which otherwise, well, plods a bit. The book never becomes particularly boring, but then -- with these few exceptions -- it never becomes particularly absorbing, either. Overall, aside from a few elements of graphic sexuality, it reads like a well written but not especially inspiring young-adult novel from the era before writers (and more importantly publishers) of young-adult novels had cottoned on to the fact that the kids are every bit as sophisticated as readers as are their adult counterparts.
The Longest Way Home can, then, be viewed as Silverberg Lite. If he were almost any other sf novelist of his generation one would probably be saying that his Glory Days were over; but Silverberg is Silverberg, so we can view this novel with confidence as merely a quiet interlude between triumphs.
Review by John Grant.
See also Eric Brown's review of The Longest Way Home.
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© John Grant 23 August 2002