Originally appearing as three separate but linked novellas in the pages of Galaxy magazine, Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings was, remarkably, the author’s 35th science fiction novel in 15 years; just one of six that he came out with in 1969 alone (the others being Across a Billion Years, the remarkable Downward to the Earth, Three Survived, To Live Again and Up the Line). Released during one of Silverberg’s most prolific and highly creative phases, during which he pushed back the parameters of modern sci-fi and reveled in the genre’s new lenient attitudes as regards sex, drugs, mind-expanding ideas and means of expression, the “fix-up novel” has proven to be one of the author’s most popular, its initial section garnering the Hugo Award for best novella of that year, and deservedly so.
The story transpires on an Earth some 40,000 years or so in the future… although this is an approximate figure only, our once-aged narrator tells us, as the calendars in his time are different, and the world only has a 20-hour day. Earth is in what has come to be known as its Third Cycle, a period of regression after the glory days of the Second Cycle, when mankind created a paradise on Earth but fatally overreached itself by using weather machines to alter the planet. (Earth of the 21st century is still in its primitive First Cycle, to put things in perspective.) This cataclysmically resulted in the sinking of several continents, the formation of the Land Bridge between “Afreek” and “Eyrop” (all the place names have undergone spelling changes, as might be expected after 400 centuries), and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. Now, a rigid caste system prevails, with the bulk of humanity divided amongst various guilds. Our narrator (whose name we do not learn until the novel’s midpoint, at which time he is given another) is a member of the Watchers guild, whose members tirelessly scan the heavens four times a day, via mind-expanding machinery, to detect the prophesied invaders of Earth.
In the first novella, “Nightwings” (from the September 1968 issue of Galaxy, with a cover price of 60 cents), our Watcher tells of his experiences in Roum, to which he has traveled with Avluela, a 17-year-old winged girl of the Fliers guild, as well as Gormon, a mutant and guildless Changeling. Our Watcher observes firsthand the overthrow of Roum as the anticipated invaders descend upon and conquer the planet, effectively putting him out of a job. In part two, the novella entitled “Perris Way” (from the November 1968 Galaxy), our Watcher flees to the city of Perris with the blinded Prince of Roum, joins the Guild of Rememberers, learns an awful lot about Earth’s earlier history (a truly fascinating segment), and is compelled to become a collaborator with the alien invaders. Finally, in part three, “To Jorslem” (from the February 1969 Galaxy), our aged narrator travels with Olmayne, a disgraced female Rememberer, over Land Bridge to the ancient holy city, seeking both redemption and a possibility of rebirth….
Simply but beautifully written, and evincing little of Silverberg’s breadth of literary reference that would feature so prominently in novels such as Dying Inside (1972), Nightwings is one of its author’s more charming creations, and a work that the reader will surely feel compelled to absorb in a few breathless sittings. In parts dreamlike, in others almost fairytale-like in nature, the novel straddles the fine line between sci-fi and fantasy in a most pleasing fashion.
As usual, Silverberg generously peppers his story with any number of imaginative touches; hence, the “overpockets” (otherdimensional storage sacks that enable a person to carry any number of items on his or her person), the thinking caps that are attached to computer-like, disembodied human brains (kind of like the Google of the 421st century), the sentient carpets made up of alien plant life, the spinneret webs that the authorities use to stop cars on highways, the dreadful, alien, crystallization disease, and on and on.
As in Downward to the Earth, our central character here undergoes a dangerous ritual of spiritual and physical renewal that results in a purified and reinvigorated man. In both novels, we are given a character who bears the guilt of a past infraction and who is morally purged by the novel’s wonderful conclusion. As befitting the halcyon days of 1969, in Nightwings, a complete acceptance of one’s fellow man and fellow creatures turns out to be the initial step toward true brotherhood; love, it seems, really is all powerful. It is an ending both lovely and pleasing, bringing a hope of salvation to a conquered and downtrodden Earth.
All told, my only complaint with Silverberg’s Nightwings is the fact that it is on the slim side. The reader comes to genuinely like and admire the book’s imperfect but nonetheless saintlike narrator, and is sorry to see his tale come to an end. Personally, this reader would have preferred this wonderfully imaginative book to be twice its 190-page length. But I suppose that leaving its audience wanting more is hardly the worst fault that a novel can have, right? The bottom line is that this is still another remarkable accomplishment from one of science fiction’s very best.