Mixing genres


Robert Silverberg
Tales of Majipoor
Gollancz 2013

“They came from Old Earth.” When a Prologue begins with portentous words like these you might automatically assume you’re reading a science fiction title. Especially when you’re told the colonists have migrated to Majipoor, a giant planet with low gravitational pull, three large continents to inhabit and expand into, an indigenous population to interact with and aliens from other worlds to transplant onto.

And yet, science doesn’t feature too much in these short stories, though fiction of another genre does. Of the seven tales, three are specifically about magic, one implies magic with the ‘sending’ of vivid and detailed dreams and another includes what can only be called magical talismans to call up images of past events. We are indubitably in the realm of fantasy now, albeit fantasy on another planet instead of a supernatural Otherworld, and with intelligent alien life forms instead of elves and fairies.

Then what are we to make of the faintly philosophical themes that Silverberg touches on, themes such as the ethics of restoring historical artefacts, or claiming ‘divine inspiration’ as your own creation, or the nature of sacrilege and how that conflicts with scientific truth?

overlapFrom which you will gather that Tales of Majipoor, no less than many another novel, declines to be constrained within any one genre, be it hard SF, pure fantasy or literary fiction. Instead, the material of Silverberg’s patchwork cloth is of itself, like those tints resulting from overlapping circles of different primary colours. Brought together from other collections of stories and ranging from 1998 to 2011, these seven tales cover the vast chronological range of Majipoor’s human history, from the first emperor, the Coronal Dvorn, to the latest Pontifex, Valentine, reigning around fourteen millennia after the first settlement of the new world.

“The End of the Line” – ironically the first in the collection though one of the last to be written – concerns a certain counsellor Stiamot who finds himself unexpectedly catapulted to greatness when conflict with the indigenous peoples, with whom he was hoping rapprochement was possible, becomes unavoidable. In touching on these Shapeshifters or Metamorphs “The End of the Line” also links with the last of the stories, which as well as being the seventh is also chronologically the latest of these Majipoor tales (despite being the earliest to be written): “The Seventh Shrine” features Valentine, the first and best of the characters with which Silverberg has populated his world (first appearing in Lord Valentine’s Castle back in 1980), who is faced with the dilemma of deciding whether excavating a shrine of the Piurivar (the name Shapeshifters give themselves) counts as desecration.

“The Seventh Shrine” also links thematically with the third tale, “The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn”. This also has an archaeological theme, as the tomb is reputed to be the grave of the first ever Pontifex. The issues here are the uses to which pure scientific research, its processes of verification and investigation, are put. The narrator is a pragmatic historian, his colleague an idealistic archaeologist who has misgivings about restoring or reconstructing an ancient complex so that it becomes a shrine that functions inevitably as a kind of theme park. When a site like this has historic significance, how does the scientist bear responsibility for it, and to whom is he or she answerable?

As mentioned previously, three of the selected pieces are more obviously in the fantasy camp. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” accepts that magic is real and spells work. This slight tale describes the pitfalls of what is appropriate in a master/student relationship, touching on what would in therapy terms be called transference but is in effect pure lust. “Dark Times at the Midnight Market” is even more of a comedy, with a narrative about a dealer in spells and potions where the metaphorical biter finds himself bit. “The Way They Wove the Spells in Sippulgar” has a narrator who is more of a sceptic where magic is concerned: in seeking for a missing, presumed dead, relative he has to confront the question of whether demons are real, and whether the power of a charismatic figure is illusory or not.

The final tale to be discussed, “The Book of Changes”, is one of the novella-length pieces included here. This is a fantasy about poetic inspiration: is a poet responsible for all the creative ideas that flow from them or is there such a thing as ‘divine’ inspiration? Or, if not divine, then how does it seem that this poet’s inspiration seems to come from an unknown Lord Valentine? And even more mind-boggling to us, the reader, could it be that this inspiration hails from millennia in the future? Perhaps this concept has its origins in Silverberg’s own experience: when he was at a creative standstill, suddenly there came an “old familiar voice in my head whispering things to me … I went into my office and scribbled this on the back of an envelope…” ‘This’ was to be the genesis of Lord Valentine’s Castle, a fiction about an imaginary Byzantine ruler on a distant planet many eons in the future. This, surely, must also be the template for the protagonist in “The Book of Changes” when he embarks on an epic poem covering the whole span of human life on Majipoor, past, present and future.

The publishers suggest that Tales of Majipoor can be a suitable starting point for new readers as well as a sop for seasoned fans like me. There might be enough to tempt the palate of newbie Majipoorians, though I wonder if the mix of genres might confuse more than console. As you might expect, the overall range of styles might have individually suited the periodicals each tale first appeared in, but at least the order they have been arranged in here does a good job of easing a new audience in. Short story collections are also notoriously uneven, and this is no exception. The picaresque tales are fine enough, but I prefer the more serious novellas which enlarge one’s knowledge and understanding of the history and societal mores of this future world. That’s probably because it appeals to the geek in me, while other tastes may be more or less indulgent. It’s still a collection that I’ve been looking forward to reading, whether or not they are the ‘final’ tales of Majipoor as the publishers claim.

  • Repost of review first published 14th April 2013. This is intended as a taster to my planned reread of Silverberg’s Majipoor novels — at least the ones I own — which I’ll review following their internal chronology rather than order of publication

10 thoughts on “Mixing genres

  1. earthbalm

    Now this resonates with me. I’ve not heard of these tales but they sound just up my street. Please stop tempting me with these novels. Haven’t started on the garage yet, been packing eBay sales. Have nearly funded a day in a decent studio.

    1. Your library might be able to get hold of this if you’d rather not add to your book storage problems, Dale! I’d recommend you start with Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle anyway, which was what kicked off this series in the first place (even if it launches itself in medias res) and which some have argued is the best in the sequence.

      Absolutely no pressure over your superfluous books — I’ve so much myself already to get through it’ll take me a few years yet to even make a dent!

    1. The Faber book looks intriguing, Juhi, and I remember the hype when his first book came out (though I’ve yet to read any of his work). Faber’s subject matter seems a little more philosophical than Silverberg’s collection, though that’s not to say his Majipoor novels don’t make you think!

  2. elmediat

    In some ways, it draws inspiration from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales. Vance’s tales feature Magic and Science blended into each other in an exotic world of immense history. A world where fantasy tales are built on an alien folklore & mythology, which in turn has evolved out of forms of futuristic science that seem closer to alchemy & sorcery.

      1. elmediat

        Vance’s setting of the Dying Earth was influenced by Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique Tales of the Last Continent. Vance’s writing style also takes inspiration from the works of Lord Dunsany and to a lesser degree Lovecraft’s Dunsany influenced Dreamland tales.

        I have a short post about Smith’s Hyperborea tales and lengthy post about the Dreamlands. The lengthy post is background for a Dreamlands tale that I posted. 🙂



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