Book Review: Downward to the Earth, Robert Silverberg (1970)

4.75/5 (Very Good)

1971 Nebula Nominated Novel (Silverberg declined the nomination)

The first two-thirds of Robert Silverberg’s masterpiece Downward to the Earth (1970) is easily in the pantheon of the best sections of a science fiction book I’ve ever read.  I found it emotionally engaging and often downright nerve-racking, moody and disturbed, and engages in an intelligent and poignant manner with the issue of de-colonization which was coming to the fore in the 1960s.

However, the work falters somewhat when Silverberg’s a “woman deters you from your quest and has a pair of breasts” mentality (momentarily) kicks in.  I swear that every other sentence relating to the one female character (who only appears in a chapter or so) describes her breasts…. Or her scandalous revealing clothes… Or her nakedness… Or her wailing about the dangers of the journey…. And then she exits the narrative, thankfully…  And Silverberg’s brilliance returns.

Welcome to Holman’s World and the stories of the few humans that still reside within its decaying hotels, forest stations, and among its natives.

Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

The alien world Silverberg creates is vividly realized and inventive. Holman’s World (Belgazor) is a decaying jungle planet — replete with fascinating flora and fauna — recently relinquished by the Company back to its sentient native inhabitants. Most praiseworthy is Silverberg’s successful tackling of one of the most difficult aspects of sci-fi, the creation of a believable and sufficiently ‘different’ alien species — the elephantine nildoror and the fanged apelike sulidoror.

Gundersen has returned to Belgazor after a lengthy absence.  His motives aren’t immediately clear.  We learn that he performed a few unsavory deeds when the Company ruled the planet.  The only one I can reveal without ruining the plot involves gathering venom from large snake-like creatures (the venom is used on Earth as a pharmaceutical to regrow limbs) and allowing the nilidoror to partake of the venom with the humans.

Gundersen meets up with a few remaining humans on the planet at the Company decaying hotel and notices that the sulidoror, whom weren’t much of a presence when he lived on the planet, are now performing many of the tasks that the Company had forced the nildoror to do.

After taking his leave of the tourist groups which have descended on the hotel Gundersen sets off on a journey to the mist country where nildoror rituals involving rebirth take place.  The nildoror allow him to start his journey as long as he promises to come back with a man who committed an unknown crime against the nildoror.

On the way Gundersen meets Kurtz (a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) who has undergone a horrific transformation after participating in the nildoror ritual of rebirth.  Silverberg’s descriptions of the horror the planet can inflict on humans is chill inducing and one of the strengths of the work.  Despite Kurtz’s condition Gundersen decides anyway to undergo rebirth with the nildoror.

The characterization of Gundersen, the protagonist, is spot on — he’s believable, relatable, flawed, and painfully human.  The various other characters which Gundersen meets on his journey are often equally well-drawn (not so much Gundersen’s ex-lover, Seena).  The plot unfolds in a deliberate manner enhancing Gundersen’s character (what he choices to reveal to us and when).

Final Thoughts

What I found most appealing about Downward to Earth was the transformation that Gundersen undergoes regarding the nildoror natives.  The nildoror do not produce art, build buildings (the suldoror build sheds for them), or perform agriculture.  As a result the Company and its agents were inclined  (despite the nildoror’s sophisticated language) to treat them as little more than animals.  Gundersen had previously held this belief and vestiges of it remain when he returns to the planet.  However, over the course of the novel (and his confrontations with the tourists who occasionally run into him throughout his journey) Gundersen undergoes a wonderful transformation.  Although this is a somewhat predictable plot device Silverberg pulls it off in a believable manner.

The world of Belgazor is hauntingly beautiful and dangerous (including diseases which cause a kaleidoscopic array of crystals to emerge from the living flesh, strange parasites that turn their human hosts into husks, etc).

The work’s only blemish is Silverberg’s treatment of the female character Seena (discussed above).

This is a brooding masterpiece of social science fiction.

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Downward to the Earth, Robert Silverberg (1970)

  1. I hope to read this book again one day.I don’t own a copy.It was truly brilliant as I remember.David Pringle favoured this one over “Dying Inside” for inclusion in his “Science Fiction:The 100 Best Novels”,which he said bitter,although said to be his masterpiece.

    I don’t know,but he might be right.

  2. I was very impressed with Downward to the Earth a couple years ago when I reread it. I think I was too young to understand it the first time I read it when it came out from the SFBC decades ago. My SF book club is reading it this month, so I’m poking around looking for interesting reviews to share, and I like what you said.

    • Haha, thanks! I have reviewed QUITE a few more of his novels and collections. He’s one of my favorites — despite his serious issues writing women….

      I remember, it was a while ago I read and reviewed the novel, being completely immersed in his world — until that scene.

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  4. I just finished this one myself. It’s the 15th Silverberg novel I’ve read, and it wounded my soul. I love it so much. Yes, there are some problems with it, but overall the messages about colonialism, healing, and forgiveness are powerfully beautiful.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I agree with your general assessment — despite its flaws. The overall message elevates it above many of its ilk. I would posit something more specific but I reviewed and read this novel back in 2011 and all that I remember is what I state in the review. Its overall narrative power has remained with me though.

    • Well said, I too, felt impacted by the book. I rarely get choked up at the end of books, but the power of healing and forgiveness shattered me for a spell when I closed the book. That’s good writing.

  5. Your review encouraged me to seek out this book. I finally finished this tonight, what an amazing experience. This book is a visceral encounter with talent. The last three chapters will wring you out, break your head and put you back together. I was overwhelmed by the end, literally. It was well worth the read.


    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! Despite reading it quite a while ago, I remember large portions of it quite distinctly — a sign of a powerful work for sure. Planning on any more Silverberg?

      • Yes, I am going to read “Hawksbill Station“ next. And after that I think I’ll read “The Book of Skulls.“ I have a pile of others that I’m looking forward to reading. It’s going to be Silverberg for me for the foreseeable future.

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