Strange places

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One April afternoon in 1978 the author Robert Silverberg heard what he called “the old familiar voice in my head whispering things to me.” Rushing into his office he reports scribbling this on the back of an envelope:

“The scene is a giant planet-sized city — an urban Big Planet, population of billions, a grand gaudy romantic canvas. The city is divided into vast subcities, each with its own characteristic tone. The novel is joyous and huge — no sense of dystopia.

“The book must be fun. Picaresque characters. Strange places – but all light, delightful, rafish [sic] …”

This was the germ of his idea for Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), leading in time to a series of science fantasy novels set on the giant planet of Majipoor. I’ve already reviewed Kingdoms of the Wall (1993), a sort of prequel in all but name, and Tales of Majipoor (2013), a collection of novellas and short stories (aka ‘novelettes’); and am now planning a reread of the novels and of another, earlier short story collection called Majipoor Chronicles (1995). My reviews, I hope, will give a flavour of what I find attractive about the series for those who aren’t yet acquainted with it and, for those who do have that familiarity, perhaps provide a somewhat oblique view of why some of the entries in the sequence work better than others.

Just as an introduction, let’s look at some of the qualities Silverberg enumerates for what turned out to be the first Majipoor novel:

  1. “Joyous and huge, but with no sense of dystopia.” Effective novels thrive on a sense of looming crisis, with or without a resolution, but Silverberg was clearly not intending to make this a global crisis, let alone the aftermath of one.
  2. “The book must be fun.” Lord Valentine’s Castle certainly has that air of amusing paradox, especially as the theme of a travelling troupe of entertainers sums up a lot of its frivolous character; later novels occasionally took a darker turn though.
  3. “Picaresque characters.” A picaro is a Spanish term for a wandering rogue or vagabond who, although living rather dishonestly by his wits, somehow retains our admiration. Lord Valentine’s Castle has just such an individual as its main protagonist living a light, delightful and raffish life. Later novels weren’t always in that picaresque mould though, which at least makes for variety!
  4. “Strange places.” Although Majipoor is a planet rather than an imaginary continent or island, and aliens of various shapes, shades and sizes are routinely in evidence, one would be hard pushed to call this a science fiction novel. Equally it falls short of a fantasy description since any apparent magic — shapeshifting for example, or divination by dreams — is claimed as explicable in physical rather than metaphysical terms.

If as some have suggested Science Fiction is “the improbable made possible” and Fantasy is “the impossible made probable,” then the Majipoor novels probably fall into a genre mixing the two: Science Fantasy. This “gives a scientific veneer of realism to things that simply could not happen in the real world under any circumstances. Where science fiction does not permit the existence of fantasy or supernatural, science fantasy explicitly relies upon them” (says Wikipedia). Silverberg’s frame for the Majipoor stories is that humans came from Earth many millennia before to settle on a new world; so far, so SF. But then they seem to regress, losing much of their scientific knowhow, reverting to a kind of technologically-poor medievalism where successive emperors (each called ‘coronal’) rule absolutely, who then when retiring become quasi-spirituals rulers (each called a ‘pontifex’, literally a bridge-builder); this is often the very stuff of epic fantasy.

If this all sounds familiar — weird and wonderful stuff set on distant planets — then you’ll be delighted to know that it is part of a subgenre of science fantasy called Planetary Romance. Edgar Rice Burroughs mostly kickstarted this at the beginning of the 20th century, and later novelists have readily taken up the baton: C S Lewis’ so-called Space Trilogy, Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy, to name just a few.

For the everyday fiction reader it must resemble the eye-popping schedule for a nerd’s field day, and probably it is: to thus immerse oneself fully into a series that totally explores a world, its history, geography and peoples may surely represent an obsession too far, a submersion that seems like regression into the world of RPG, Klingon dialects and obtuse factoids. But while I, fool that I am, may be tempted to do the same, a quick search online reveals that I can save myself the bother as there is enough ‘out there’ already. But I’m also a sucker for chronicled alternate history so this is how I shall approach this reread: not in published order but by internal chronology.

Here’s my plan — which you can skip, in fact I fully expect you to miss this out as it’s probably only a kind of aide-mémoire for me — with the portions reread recently (or read for the first time, as is the case for Tales of Majipoormarked in green. I haven’t listed the chronological positions of the short stories in Majipoor Chronicles separately but may do when I get round to reading the collection later.

Kingdoms of the Wall (1993 novel, Majipoor “prequel”)

“The End of the Line” (2011 short story, republished in Tales of Majipoor 2013)
“The Book of Changes” (2003 novella, republished in Tales of Majipoor 2013)*
“The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn” (2011 short story, republished in Tales of Majipoor 2013)
“The Way They Wove the Spells in Sippulgar” (2009 short story, republished in Tales of Majipoor 2013)

Sorcerers of Majipoor (1997)
Lord Prestimion (1999)
King of Dreams (2000)

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (2004 short story, republished in Tales of Majipoor 2013)
“Dark Times at the Midnight Market” (2010 short story, republished in Tales of Majipoor 2013)

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980)
Majipoor Chronicles (story collection, 1982)
Valentine Pontifex (1983)

“The Seventh Shrine” (1998 novella, republished in Tales of Majipoor )

The Mountains of Majipoor (1995)
Tales of Majipoor (short story and novella collection 2013)

I’ve seen some sniffy criticisms of Silverberg’s Majipoor but, to anticipate individual review, I found I rather enjoyed the novels. In 1971 Silverberg had written a non-fiction study of a popular medieval legend about a mysterious Middle Eastern Christian potentate, supposedly a guardian of the Holy Grail. The focus of The Realm of Prester John (which I really hope to review sometime) is on a figure not too far distant from the mysterious potentates in the Majipoor mythos, and so may be a useful parallel to keep in mind in my several rereads.

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11 thoughts on “Strange places

  1. Please Sir, could I start with Lord Valentine’s Castle? I love the sound of that. Is there a kind of Indian quality to this world? Majipoor and Sippulgar seem to suggest so.

    1. LVC is the first and arguably the best of the Majipoor stories. It’s true these names look Indian (he does acknowledge an influence) but I think he ransacks pretty much any culture and myth for his inspiration.

  2. You’ve got me interested too! The definition of science fantasy is helpful in light of my recent musings about genre. I think rather than being too worried about pigeonholing books, we should be glad that so many kinds of stories are possible. Planetary romances can indeed be so much fun — I’m glad Silverberg set out to create his with that explicitly in mind.

    1. I absolutely agree, Lori! Genre labelling is helpful but only goes so far — it’s as useful as describing somebody as Asian or transgender or of short stature, it tells you nothing about what they’re like as people, their strengths and weaknesses, their unique talents or approachability.

      So calling Majipoor novels planetary romances doesn’t indicate how much it varies from Lewis’ Perelandra, Le Guin’s Anarres, Aldiss’ Helliconia or Herbert’s Arrakis or how different the responses of the individual inhabitants of those planets are to the circumstances they either create or find themselves in. Because, ultimately, novels are about people, whatever shape, colour or size they are.

    1. Mash-ups can be real fun I agree, Lynn, but what I find even more fascinating is when other authors run with it, with some success — that way, what might have been a one-off curiosity matures and becomes a bona fide genre in its own right! Hope my reviews can confirm how fruitful Silverberg’s initial ‘whispering voice’ concept became!

    1. I think Majipoor’s not there because the series is set on another planet and the Dictionary deals only with earthbound settings. 🙂

      There’s a publication called something like ‘A Dictionary of Imaginary Worlds’ (edited by Brian somebody-or-other, possibly Stableford) which might mention Majipoor: I never acquired the book because the line illustrations were — quite frankly — awful, the worst kind of fan art in my opinion.

      Hope to review the first (chronologically speaking) story soon so you can judge its appeal … or not!

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