(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1967 edition)
“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)
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