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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.)

cover scan of the UK editionSilverberg's latest novel is a strange one.

I always think of this writer's work as falling into three distinct 'periods'. There was the early, Ace Double period, dating roughly from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties when Silverberg churned out novel after short adventure novel for the paperback market, as well as hundreds of short stories. For the most part the novels were hackwork, with exceptions like Master of Life and Death and The Seed of Earth--unambitious skiffy stuff written at speed for an insatiable market. Then Silverberg matured, became the urbane wordsmith who turned in such ground-breaking and sophisticated novels as Thorns, Tower of Glass, The World Inside, A Time of Changes, Son of Man, Dying Inside--I could go on, citing novel after excellent novel from this writer's halcyon middle-period. Then, from the mid-seventies to the present, Silverberg throttled back, producing a steady stream of perfectly mediocre novels that combined the facility of his middle period with the adventure content of his first--Lord Valentine's Castle, The Queen of Springtime, Hot Sky at Midnight, among many others.

The Longest Way Home is something of a curiosity. It's the rites of passage, coming of age story of Joseph Master Keilloran, scion of an aristocratic ruling family on the colony planet of Homeworld. The planet is ruled by the benign Masters, a second wave of humans who invaded Homeworld and enslaved the first wave of settlers, the Folk, thousands of years before the novel opens. For generations, a peaceable master-servant relationship has maintained, until the rebellion of the Folk in the northern continent of Manza. Joseph, the first person narrator, is holidaying in the House of a Master cousin in the north, thousands of miles away from his own home in the southern continent of Helikis. In a single, brutal night of bloodshed, the ruling family of the area is butchered. Joseph manages to escape and begin his long journey south in an attempt to reach the family home.

The reader is all set, then, for a rollicking adventure story, a picaresque tale of conceptual breakthrough as Joseph's assumptions of cultural superiority are subverted by the experience of his mammoth trek through a strange and alien landscape.

But it would appear that this was not the kind of novel that Silverberg wanted to write--at least not an adventure story. For one thing, there is precious little adventure, or even conflict. The tone is curiously flat throughout, both in terms of prose and the depiction of the story's action. Silverberg's dismissal of chapter breaks, and even page breaks, gives the novel an odd sameness of rhythm from beginning to end, almost as if the author is stressing the fact of the unimportance of such novelistic conventions as climax, revelations, denouement--subverting, in fact, reader expectations.

We watch Joseph flee Getfen House, begin his journey south, fall in with the native aliens, the Indigenes, and later the Folk, leave them and happen upon a band of rebels two years into his trek... He is not so much an active antagonist as a passive recorder of his wanderings. The planet and its inhabitants never really come to life. The story is told in a tone often--to borrow from Clute--androidal, and told rather than shown. I did begin to wonder if this was Silverberg being subversive again: not even giving the reader the prose that was to be expected from a rites of passage novel. Then, less charitably, I wondered if this was the author on auto-pilot, especially when I came across patches of lazy realisation and over-writing (the second full paragraph on page 110, for example).

I am deeply puzzled by The Longest Way Home. A long time Silverberg fan, finding much to enjoy from all his periods of productivity, I was left wondering quite what this novel represented and where it stood in the author's overall canon.

While thoroughly readable, as one has come to expect from Silverberg, The Longest Way Home is curiously lacking. It reads almost like a Young Adult novel, yet without the drama inherent in that type of book. It is something of an amalgam, then--written with the facility of his later period, allied to the impersonal detachment of his second period--but lacking the rigorous heart and commitment his best work.

Interesting, but perhaps one for the Silverberg completist only.

Review by Eric Brown.
See also John Grant's review of The Longest Way Home.

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