Majipoor — even the name sounds fantastical with its hints of both magic and a city on the Indian subcontinent. But no, this is the giant planet that I’ve previously mentioned which features in the planetary romances of Robert Silverberg, and which I’m going to discuss a bit more before I complete all my rereads, and reviews, of the first three ‘prequels’ in the series: Sorcerers of Majipoor (1997), Lord Prestimion (1999) and King of Dreams (2000). But first, a bit of science.
Perhaps even the most unscientific of us — and I include myself in this company — has heard of Goldilocks planets: these are worlds that exist in circumstellar habitable zones that prove to be “just right” for life (that is, they support liquid water) and possible future human habitation (the ambient temperatures are neither too hot, nor too cold). Such worlds are called extrasolar planets because they orbit a star other than our own sun: exoplanets for short. So, although the word exoplanet hadn’t achieved currency when Silverberg first imagined his Majipoor in the late 70s, it proves to be just such one of these worlds. Only different.
Here’s what we learn from the first of these prequels, Sorcerers of Majipoor. “The earliest settlement [was] by the voyagers who came across the sea of stars from Old Earth.” At the time of the prequels this was 13,000 years before. By the time of the novel the planet was home to 15 billion inhabitants. (As a comparison, Earth’s current population is estimated at more than 7.4 billion.) “They say there’s no world larger, on which mankind can live,” one character says. There’s a dispute about its exact size: “Majipoor has ten times the size around the middle of Old Earth, from which we all came so many hundreds of centuries ago,” says one, though another thinks it may be twelve or fourteen times greater. Majipoor is then at least 250,000 miles round the equator, with a diameter of around 80,000 miles. This is roughly the size of Jupiter, though the latter is a gas giant. Like Jupiter Majipoor has several moons, with one significantly larger than the rest.
Majipoor has three large continents: Alhanroel and Zimroel face each other, Old World and New World Style, across an Inner Sea. Alhanroel is the largest land mass, distinguished by a humungous mountain that rears thirty miles above sea level. To the south, in the equatorial region, is Suvrael, essentially all of Earth’s deserts in one. The rest of this world is given over to the Great Sea, which has never in all the millennia humans have inhabited the land been circumnavigated. We’ll come back to why in a minute.
When humans arrived there were already sentient beings on the surface of this world. They call themselves Piurivar; to humans they are Metamorphs or shapeshifters. I suspect they are the beings who appear in Kingdoms of the Wall though they don’t appear on any official Majipoor listings. There are about half a dozen other non-humans, not native to Majipoor but who have settled from other planets, never named or located. These beings are, as Spock might have said, Life … but not as we know it. (In truth, Mr Spock never uttered these exact words, but did express himself in similar terms.)*
Now, the curious thing about Majipoor is that it is poor in scientific knowhow and technology. True, Majipoorians have ‘floaters’ to transport VIPs, and a basic kind of energy-throwing weapon, and machines to maintain atmosphere on the thirty-mile-high mountain called Castle Mount, but they also have a very medieval lifestyle — government, costume, aristocracy — which sits awkwardly with the residual technology that is otherwise used. “Much scientific knowledge had been lost and forgotten in the course of Majipoor’s many thousands of years of history,” we’re told, but quite why and how this happened we’re not informed. So, no flying machines, few craft capable of undertaking crossings across the limitless ocean and, curiously, fast communications achievable only by mounted messengers.
So the scene is set up for the principal participants in this saga. Certainly we come across a few ordinary people, but essentially this is War and Peace or a Shakespearean history play spread over several volumes: the rich and the powerful playing their infinite games while the serfs — sorry, the countless Majipoor inhabitants — try to exist by earning a crumb or more.
Oh, and there’s magic, did I mention that? Because this is really science fantasy, where the boundaries between science and magic are blurred and indeterminate. In this genre you can have your cake and eat it. And that means that the humans in this world have an added jeopardy to play out their lives against.
In truth, that’s not much different from our own.
Within range of our sensors, there is no life, other than the accountable human residents of this colony beneath the surface. At least, no life as we know it. — Mr Spock
It is not life as we know or understand it. Yet it is obviously alive, it exists. — Mr Spock
- * Both these quotes are apparently from different Star Trek episodes in Series 1