Book Review: To Open the Sky, Robert Silverberg (1967)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1967 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

“And there is light, before and beyond our vision, for which we give thanks.  And there is heat, for which we are humble.  And there is power, for which we count ourselves blessed.  Blessed be Balmer, who gave us wavelengths.  Blessed be Bohr, who brought us understanding.  Blessed be Lyman, who saw beyond sight.  Tell us now the stations of the spectrum […]” (3).

Robert Silverberg’s To Open the Sky (1967) is an enjoyable pulp future history with a somewhat “different” premise–religion will be the main force that facilitates mankind’s exploration of the stars.  In his intro of 1978 edition he discusses how the project came about.  In the early 60s Frederik Pohl became his editor and allowed him to published, for the first time, SF “for love rather than money” (II).  Up to this point Silverberg had never attempted, other than in the briefest sketch form,  to extrapolate an entire future history à la Olaf Stapleton or Isaac Asimov.  Silverberg’s vision is nowhere as complex or intriguing as either of those authors…

Pohl had earlier guaranteed that he would publish anything that Silverberg produced in Galaxy (he would still offer his suggestions and even rewrite or add entire passages).  In the mid-60s Pohl suggested that he will be able to garner Silverberg a Ballantine book deal, which was at that time was the most prestigious SF press, and so To Open the Sky was born.

Although technically a fix-up novel (i.e. a novel expanded or stitched together from previously published work), To Open the Sky was planned to be published as Silverberg’s first Ballantine book from the beginning—that is, if Pohl liked each of the parts that would appear in his magazine, Galaxy.  Thus, each of the five stories that comprise the novel were planned out and interrelated with the future goal of collation.  The result is a concise and well-planned work with recurring characters.  Silverberg was desperate for a Ballantine book deal and did exactly what that would take….

Only after he entered the Ballantine “stable” of reliable writers did he write anything audacious or controversial and I would argue, in some instances downright brilliant i.e. Downward to the Earth (1970), Hawksbill Station (1969), The World Inside (1971), among others.  To Open the Sky is perhaps his best “pulp” novel and the last breath of his earlier period, remember “New Wave” Ballantine novels such as Thorns (1967) appeared in print immediately afterward.

Recommended for fans of Silverberg’s early work, future histories, and straight-laced 50s/60s SF.  Solid but not spectacular….

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

To Open the Sky is comprised of five previously published novelettes: “Blue Fire” (1965), “The Warriors of Light” (1965), “Where the Changed Ones Go” (1966), “Lazarus Come Forth” (1966), “Open the Sky” (1966).  Because they were planned to be released as a single episodic future history novel with connecting themes and recurrent characters I will review them as a whole rather than individually.

Queue a gamut of standard SF themes: immortality, ESP, and religion.  It is the third of these where Silverberg is the most successful.  The forces of religion propel man to space travel and technological advancement! In this future Earth—around 2077—a religion has developed surrounding science.  Silverberg models the growth of this “religion of science” around the seminal figure of Vorster (who still lives in the shadows observing and influencing the development of his creation) on paradigm of Early Christianity.

Surrounding the the Vorster’s central symbol, the atomic reaction (visible in portable reactor form with a glowing Blue light), are all the attributes of religion: ritual, initiations, priests, etc.  The Vorsters themselves do preach that the Blue Fire is supernatural, “but it made a useful symbolic instrument, a focus for religious emotions” (13).  It is obvious that the followers of the cult do ascribe more supernatural interpretations…  Implicit in this formulation is the idea that the more “gullible” masses will automatically ascribe more religious interpretations to futuristic technology.  And that religion is something planned by a select few rather than a more organic paradigm where the development is fluid and influenced rather than modeled by individuals.

The Vorsters promise immortality and colonization of the stars that will relieve overpopulation via technology.  Because these goals appeal to everyone they gain large bastions of converts (who find the religious elements appealing) on Earth but not on Mars or Venus, Earth’s colonies.  The first novelette follows Reynolds Kirby, a UN official who is initially dismissive of the Vorsters, but soon joins and becomes a prime architect in their quest for the stars.  The following chapters explore the Vorster experiments with ESPers whose mental abilities rather than traditional spaceships might be able to take man to the stars.  Also, a new cult, who emphasizes the more spiritualist and mystical elements of the Vorster theology of science arise on Mars and Venus.

But the Orthodox branch and the reformist branch will have to pool resources for the final push to the stars…

(Tom Adams’ cover for the 1970 edition)

(Peter Elson’s cover for the 1977 edition)

(Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1978 edition)

(Jim Burns’ cover for the 1984 edition)

(Bob Eggleton’s cover for the 1993 edition)

(Giuseppe Festino’s cover for the 1981 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

18 thoughts on “Book Review: To Open the Sky, Robert Silverberg (1967)

    • I found the somewhat positive depiction of religion as a motivating force for technological advancement surprising for the era — both the mystical branch of the original Vorster religion an the Vorsters themselves… And, his depiction of a religion surrounding science as a Religion (with a capital R) pretty convincing!

      • I hate the Elson cover as well (on of his hundreds of stock SF scenes). Even the Powers cover isn’t that great…. An the Jim Burns cover makes it out to be so much more bizarre (the weird helmets and spaceship) than the work actually is.

  1. I don’t hate the Elson cover, though I don’t think it’s particularly interesting. The Powers is unusually weak for him. I agree on the Burns.

    Actually, I think the Festino may be the best here, as it quite cleverly captures the whole spaceships propelled by the mind thing while looking like it’s a man merely contemplating space.

    • Definitely, if you like straight forward pulp-esque works…

      I prefer his later more “literate” and audacious novels — The World Inside, Hawksbill Station, Downward to the Earth, Thorns, Dying Inside, The Second Trip, The Man in the Maze, etc.

      Thanks for the visit!

  2. I read To Open the Sky long enough ago that I can’t think of anything interesting to say about it, other than I agree with Joachim’s assessment of its place in Silverberg’s body of work.

    I have to disagree with what Joachim says about the Peter Elson cover, though. True, it is a totally inappropriate choice for this book, but it is a fun, archetypal, SF image.

  3. I’ve had this one kicking around for a while, but something’s kept me from ever tackling it. That said, I’m with you completely on the brilliance of much of Silverberg’s late 60s early 70s work. I’ll keep this one in reserve for now, and make a point of getting to it some day.

    As a side note, the copy I have is the Powers cover, which the longer I look at it, the more it mystifies me. An eagle mummified in some sort of transistor blanket? A Jetsons-esque diagram of an atomic nucleus? The irregular checkerboard hexagon floating above it all? I like that it manages to be both symbolically and aesthetically so perplexing!

    • Well, this one is definitely not up to the level of the later ones. But if you like somewhat conceived pulp than you can’t go wrong with this one.

      Powers is often like that 😉 His covers rarely relate in anyway to the book’s contents but the forms, oh the forms!

  4. Another one I need to read. The premise is intriguing…I would like to see how he uses the religious trope in an SF novel.
    If I keep fading this blog, I’ll run out of money:) I got the Marta Randall you wrote about and enjoying it.

    • As I mentioned to another commentators I definitely prefer his slightly later works. This is very “I did what I had to do to get a Ballantine book deal”…

      I’m just about to start the Randall as well!

  5. I read the one with the Jim Burns cover but I like Paul Alexander’s better.

    The story or stories themselves were entertaining though I am generally not interested in religion/mysticism themes in Science Fiction outside of Dune

    • Thanks for visiting!

      Unfortunately, I wish I could engage with your comment further — but reviewed this one quite a long time ago and it has faded from memory. I do remember that it seemed like Silverberg’s first mature novel. Although his first good novel was Thorns (1967)….

      As for religion as a theme, it depends on the author. But I’m also put off by a lot of attempts to discuss religion in science fiction (it often comes off as somewhat trite).

      As for Silverberg, I’m a huge fan — The Second Trip (serialized: 1971), Dying Inside (1972), The Man in the Maze (1969), The World Inside (1971), Downward to the Earth (1970, etc. All the previous novels I’ve reviewed on my site. Here’s the index:

      I’ve also enjoyed Tower of Glass and A Time of Changes but I never got around to reviewing those.

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