Destroying an empire

Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Robert Silverberg Sorcerers of Majipoor
HarperPrism 1998 (1996)

Is it true, as is often said, that there are no new plots in literature? That every story we hear or read or imagine has appeared countless times before? Whether there is just one basic plot or seven or whatever number one can conjure up — and the numbers do vary, despite one theory that there are only seven — it can be argued that pretty much every narrative conforms to an ur-pattern. One might think that there is no need to create new tales when they already exist in one form or another.

Well, of course there are infinite reasons why we continue to invest in narratives, many of them explicable in psychological terms. It’s maybe worth looking in detail at our need for novelty: if there are indeed no ‘new’ plots it’s how we dress them up that creates originality, as when mannequins are arrayed in different clothes and accessories. In any given narrative it’s the combination of elements, often reminiscent of other narratives, that gives it distinction, and this is certainly true for Robert Silverberg’s Sorcerers of Majipoor.

So, at times we are reminded of The Three Musketeers with D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis and Porthos prefiguring the characters of Prestimion and his coterie of friends involved in court intrigue. Then there are echoes of Robin Hood’s story — his proficiency with a bow, his band of merry men, wrongs to be righted, a monarch to be reinstated. While Robin Hood is fictional, the real life Battle of Hastings furnishes another set of influences for a decisive victory, from the disastrous breaking of ranks in the English shield wall to the arrows that hail down from above. Nor must we forget the darkness at noon that Haggard made a pivotal point in King Solomon’s Mines, the Delphic oracle that Croesus of Lydia relied on before attacking Persia (only to find that the ‘great empire’ to be destroyed was his own), the echoes of Lady Macbeth in the machinations of one character and hints of France’s various éminences grises in another.

I am certain that Silverberg was being quite deliberate in his choice of these parallels from literature and history rather than any unconscious borrowing. Neither instance though detracts from the scope of his epic offering: Prestimion’s attempt to regain the throne of Majipoor after Korsibar — despite Prestimion’s position as heir apparent — blatantly usurps the title of Lord Coronal. Does Prestimion succeed despite his many setbacks? Do the outcomes pan out as the reader is led to expect they will? Will there be a happy ending, albeit at great human cost, or will this this turn out to be the tragedy we’re led to expect from Greek and Renaissance drama?

What makes this title different from historical novels centred on court intrigue, conspiracies and counterplots is that it’s also science fantasy. Set on the giant planet of Majipoor many millennia hence, Sorcerers of Majipoor is, as its title suggests, predicated on magic — its existence in the face of scepticism and its dark twin superstition, its efficacy where its believers and adherents are concerned, how it differs from applied science as the latter may exist in the future. That Prestimion is sceptical where some of his companions are not is one of the drivers of the story, and here Silverberg cunningly has his cake and eats it — as all his Majipoor novels ultimately do. Unlike many pulp novelists though his plotting is not simply about goodies versus baddies: he is interested in human psychology, how individuals might react when faced with dilemmas, how they interact with others, how decisive outcomes can rest on whims as much as on careful pre-planning.

Be advised though: this is no great literature. For all its Machiavellian and Shakespearean aspects this remains clever escapist storytelling. Its often slow plotting suits its epic pretensions but occasionally strain credulity; dramatic situations, despite their surprises, too often seem to plod under the enormity of their serious intent; and a clumsy deus ex machina is introduced at the end so as to maintain continuity with later events described in earlier novels. But, as with the best pulp novels, the final judgment must lie with how well the reader’s attention is engaged. That was certainly the case with this particular reader.

3 thoughts on “Destroying an empire

  1. Pingback: Choices – calmgrove

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