I just finished listening to the audio version of Sailing to Byzantium. It was read convincingly by Tom Parker, who transported me in time along with Charles, the lead character. Charles is from New York City, and he is a twentieth-century man, a curiosity in the world of the story. His 1984 is long gone, yet he doesn’t quite understand how he’s been transported in time to the 50th century. The people of this time, the “citizens,” will tell him very little actually. They consider Charles to be a “visitor.” Charles doesn’t know how long his visit will be though. He is confused and tries to go with the flow, but keeps finding it hard to do so in this very odd future world.
In the 50th century (“of what,” he wonders at one point), there are very few citizens. There is a small world population compared to 1984 (and especially compared to our time). All the citizens look almost identical — the men and the women — they switch partners regularly, and their primary interest in life is visiting the five cities. The cities change, but there are always five of them. As Silverberg mentions in an introduction to a novella collection including this story, he originally had these notes jotted down: “Ancient Egypt has been recreated at the end of time, along with various other highlights of history — a sort of Disneyland.” And that’s exactly what the cities are: Disneyland versions of famous cities from across time. The five cities are constantly being taken down one at a time and quickly replaced with other famous cities. As a result, Silverberg has imagined a global Epcot years before Disneyworld built it in Orlando. Having grown up in Orlando when Epcot was being built and developed, I found that this part of the story had a special, creepy resonance for me.
The cities are made real with the addition of creatures/animals, both real and mythical, as well as people. They make each city seem populated. However, the “people” are really some sort of manufactured beings called “temporaries,” and they serve food and clean and work and fill every imaginable role that is needed for the city’s operation. The citizens wander around watching staged fights in some cities and royal processions in others. But these temporaries do not have personalities. They are human-looking and have limited speech, but they can’t interact as real people. They interact as we might imagine robots would, even having a few glitches.
Almost all of the citizens themselves bore Charles. They seem to never age, to never change, to never show much individuality. However, he falls in love with one who seems slightly different from the rest of the citizens. Only in time does he find out why she seems different. How he reacts to this information is key to the story, but basically, Silverberg incorporates what seems to be a conventional love plot into a very unconventional story.
The story not only has a love plot, it also has several mysteries that I can’t mention directly. But, like Charles, we are trying to figure out what is going on behind the scenes. What is this odd future really? The story increases in narrative tension through two major plot points: His girlfriend leaves him, and he finally meets another visitor from a different time period. After finishing the story, I can’t imagine it going in any other directions than the ones it did, but when I was listening to it, I was on the edge of my seat, never knowing what would happen next.
Thematically, it’s the richest, most complex story, novella, or novel I’ve read of Silverberg’s; it’s also one of the most thematically complex stories I’ve ever read in any genre. There’s a reason it’s considered one of his best and been reprinted so many times. Silverberg himself says that out of all his writing, this work is the one of which he is most proud. The first theme that he develops touches on how people in the future view the past, including, of course, those of us reading the story. Silverberg suggests that many of us approach history as just one thing, lumping all times and places into a generic grouping labeled “history” or simply “the past.” How well do we study the past? How much do we know? Silverberg, who has an excellent memory and who has written many nonfiction historical works, has probably been frustrated many times in his life with how little so many people really know of history. That disgust with people who flatten out history certainly shows through here.
But there are many other themes: How does time pass? What is the nature of time? What is love? How do we understand love? Can we truly love another? How do we come to understand self? Does one ever truly know himself or herself? And his favorite themes, which I’ve discussed in previous reviews, are also present: What is identity? What is personality? Is the body necessary for identity? Can the two be separated? Or are identity and body inextricably linked?
Silverberg raises all these questions and more, but he doesn’t answer all of them. He does seem to give answers to some of them, but there are others for which he provides only possible answers. And there are other questions I’ve listed above that he merely asks, leaving the reader on her own to decide what the answer is, if one can even be found.
The more I read by Silverberg, the more impressed I am. If he’d written this one novella only, he would go down in my mind as a great writer. Sailing to Byzantium will certainly be a novella I not only reread, but also teach to students in my college English classes. Having taught the great poem by Yeats from which this novella gets its title, I also am impressed with the way Silverberg uses the poem thematically and not just for show. The connection between the poem and the story is in no way superficial. As in his short story named after the poem “Ozymandias” by Shelley, Sailing to Byzantium both employs the themes present in the original poem and adds an ironic thematic point that connects the poem and story, going beyond the intended points of the famous poem. I can’t express fully how stunned I am by the brilliance of this novella. If you’ve never read it before, you need to move it to the top of your to-read stack.