Take the seed of Heart of Darkness, the soil of the Hainish Cycle, and water with the ideals of the 60’s peace movement. Tend for three days and you will have read Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth. Beyond left wing, in the very least you will not be disappointed by the novel’s transcendence of secular interests. It is the love child of Joseph Conrad and Ursula Le Guin.
Downward to the Earth tells the story of Edward Gundersen, a former planet administrator who returns after eight years, seeking retribution for the crimes he committed against the native population. The elephant-like nildor and ape-like sulidor – both sentient - peacefully coexisted until the arrival of humans, who subjugated them, put them to work for commercial interests, and separated them from cultural traditions practiced for time on end. Seeking to relieve the guilt he bears for preventing a group of seven nildor from participating in their rebirth ritual, Gundersen leaves the human tourists he traveled to the planet with and sets off into the jungle. Along with flashbacks, much of the story is told through the encounters he has with former friends who remained on the planet. But is in his dealings with the native population that Gundersen begins to come to terms with the consequences of his actions, agreeing to go on a pilgrimage with one of the nildor and participate in the rebirth ritual. While the ending will certainly divide readers (Silverberg takes the psychedelic drugs and free love attributes of the hippy generation on a literary journey), the fundamental link connecting the ideas of the novel remains meaningful, no matter the plot devices. There’s something to be said for good intention.
Fully realized, character and setting mesh together to form a planet that comes vividly to the imagination like the creations of Le Guin. And while the sentience of the elephant-esque nildor is an acquired taste, it’s at the point the reader accepts them that Silverberg makes one of his main points; the value of an animal or person is not to be based on situation, appearance, or environment. (Think Heart of Darkness’s examination of Europe and “the Other.”) And so while some of the activities the characters participate in may not win over the more prudent, those willing to see the novel as a quest for retribution will appreciate the transcendent ending with which Silverberg reconciles the interests of the involved. The sub-theme of colonialism, though now called “globalization,” remains relevant.