How does this work, anyway?

I recently finished reading Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles, second in the Majipoor Series but easily readable in isolation. It is not a single novel but a series of short stories set throughout the history of the eponymous planet; some of these stories are directly connected to the events of the first book in the series, Lord Valentine’s Castle, but I think most are intended simply to offer historical and cultural background to that tale. The settings of the stories are separated by huge distances in space and time but are strung together through a cute conceit: a low-level functionary in the central government has found a way to sneak into a library of memories, and through accessing the library enters the memories of any individual he can choose. So, he calls up random (and sometimes deliberate) people from Majipoor’s past, usually connected with great events in the history of Majipoor, and views the events through their eyes.

This is an interesting trick, since it sets the flavour of the planet and the culture through the choice of protagonist, which in most cases is a person who is neither famous nor important, just a person connected to some great event. Where the functionary could have stolen access to the memories only of the great and the good, he instead chooses random nobodies: a woman living in the jungle when the alien settlers first began to come to Majipoor; a mid-ranking military officer involved on the fringes of the final battle to eliminate Majipoor’s indigenous people; a shop-keeper who ends up marrying a lord (but not the lord himself); a low-level official who discovers the technology of the King of Dreams (but not the King himself). As the functionary gets bolder in his theft he chooses more powerful and famous people to spy on, but through the first half of the story we are shown the history of Majipoor through the experiences of its basic citizens. This helps to set the tone for a kind of subdued utopian world, which while not free of conflict or strife seems to have largely eliminated murder, other forms of serious crime, war and major civil strife. It’s a world that has been going quietly about its business for thousands of years, and by setting the stories in the frame of the world’s very ordinary residents Silverberg has set this tone very nicely. These stories are also surprisingly free of any form of violence or militarism, though one story involves a murder and one story involves an attempt at genocide. But largely they depict a world at peace with itself, a future society that, though its environment is harsh, has largely moved beyond the problems that beset our own.

Majipoor itself is a fascinating world: vastly larger than Earth but much less dense, so with similar gravity, flora and fauna, it is recognizable as a classic sci-fi garden planet, though with noticeable differences: it has very few mineral resources and the distances people have to travel are huge, so it is actually quite poor, with many people living close to subsistence level. Furthermore even after thousands of years of settlement it remains mysterious, with huge areas unexplored and unsettled. One story of this potted history is set in the period when the planet first opened its arms to alien settlers, who were deemed necessary just to populate the world enough to make it socially functional. At the same time, even though the planet is vast and fertile, the human settlers come into continuing conflict with the indigenous people who lived there before them, and these indigenous people or the knowledge of what was done to them figure in the background to many of the stories. So in many ways Majipoor is an inter-galactic allegory for the settlement of America or Australia, with all their utopian promise, conflict with the original inhabitants, and opening up of frontiers and then of society to aliens. Also similar to the early histories of those settler nations, Majipoor seems to be cut off from its galactic neighbours, having little significant interchange with them and unable to rely on them for either industry or development. People and things come from the stars, and the cultural background is that of the sophisticated galactic travellers who originally settled Majipoor, as is much of its technology, but at the same time it seems to be separated from those peoples. Some of the technology is mysterious to the locals, or known only to a few, and it’s not clear that the locals are able to aspire to the technological skills of their forefathers. There is no sense of hi-tech or heavy industry in this strange world. Like early Australia, it is characterized very much as a rural utopia, full of freedom but lacking in wealth and too distant from its original society to be able to gain much practical value from its originating culture.

It’s interesting to see these themes in a sci-fi story, and to see the sensitivity and care with which some of them are explored. Particularly surprising was the importance of the indigenous peoples’ story to the narrative, because I can’t see any evidence that their history is itself relevant to the remainder of the series (though I could be wrong – I haven’t read them yet). Silverberg has written other work about indigenous people, and clearly has an interest in this topic, so perhaps he has deliberately created an allegory to the old American west, but it’s not heavy-handed and the depiction of post-genocide Majipooreans’ view of their history is probably too optimistic compared to the way Australians or Americans view those issues now – perhaps this is another aspect of the utopianism of the novel. In any case, this kind of topic is rare in the genre, and the moral ambiguity of Majipooreans’ views of the issue of indigenous dispossession very close to the way modern Australians (and I guess Americans) view their own history. It’s nice to see this approached so carefully in the genre.

This book is a nice combination of gentle cultural commentary, careful world building, classical SF-style speculative work, and mild utopianism. It’s also very well written, with a really accessible style and easy descriptions that leave you with a clear image of the setting you’re in without using burdensome prose. It’s also largely free of many of the tropes or language of the genre, which I see as a sign of superior writing style: if you can deliver a SF setting to a reader without using SF jargon, in a smooth and easy prose style, you’re doing well. One complaint I had about the story was the intermissions between chapters in which the low-level functionary describes his feelings about the memory he has just entered – they have too much of the tone of narrative authority, so that I felt the functionary’s perspective was being used to convey to us how Silverberg believes we should feel about the story we just experienced. Also, these intermissions have too much tell and not enough show. But they’re short – not even a page in many cases – and the tone changes as the book progresses. Another complaint I think other readers might have is that the stories are too disconnected, and there’s not enough common theme to warrant presenting them as a novel rather than a straight-out short story collection. In many ways it feels like you’re reading le Guin’s Orsinian Tales (a beautiful, beautiful book!) but that book is presented as short stories, whereas this seems to have been marketed as a novel, and the narrative continuity of the functionary’s role is surely intended to make it read this way, even though there is nothing else to connect the stories except the functionary’s curiosity. This didn’t bother me at all, but I’m sure it would frustrate many readers.

Overall, however, I found this an engaging, intriguing and really enjoyable book. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the kind of speculative social ideas that characterize the work of people like Ursula le Guin, Gene Wolfe or Samuel Delany (though it’s much more accessible than Delany). I don’t recommend it to people looking for hard SF, or SF full of conflict and combat. If you like unassuming social critique or practical utopia in your speculative SF, and you’re happy with SF/Fantasy mixed in, then this is definitely a good book for you.

The picture, incidentally, is by Jim Burns.