In the late 1960s, Robert Silverberg’s home caught fire, forcing him to start afresh in a variety of ways. Wallowing through insurance bureaucracy and trying to dig himself out of the ensuing financial hole, he wrote a novella called “Nightwings” out of desperation for cash. Despite the circumstances, the story was well received, winning awards, and prompted Silverberg to continue the story by writing two additional novellas, “Among the Rememberers” (also called “Perris Way”) and “The Road to Jorslem” (also, “To Jorslem”). In 1972, the three were collected into a single edition called simply Nightwings, the subject of this review.
While each novella’s storyline closes on itself, Silverberg achieves the superlative by simultaneously advancing the umbrella story of the three to an expanse of literary magnificence. One novella suffusing into the next, readers are left with a strong sense of spiritual empathy for the struggles and atonement of the protagonist. Evolving through a variety of names, this man begins as the Watcher, a guilded worker whose job it is to wander the earth and scan the heavens for invaders. Recently humbled, humanity is entering its Third Cycle and is on its toes, wary of species seeking revenge for the hubris and downfall of its Second Cycle. In his travels the Watcher’s companion is a Flier, a biologically altered teenage girl whose gossamer wings are only capable of bearing her weight at night. As times fall suddenly into uncertainty, the two seek to redeem the past to have a life for the future.
Silverberg’s prose is velvety smooth. Words, sentences, and paragraphs move effortlessly, a tone of soft beauty gently buoying the story onward. In a poetic tongue rare among sci-fi writers, inner monologue on loyalty, shame, pride, subjugation, faith, and hope are the foremost ideas expressed. The Watcher’s choices and consequences thereof - paralleled by humanity’s history - are exposed and dealt with at an introspective level. Though these themes will seem familiar to readers of Downward to the Earth, the mode by which the characters of Nightwings overcome the problems they face are more religious in nature than the cultural terms of Gunderson and the Nildor/Sulidor. That Silverberg uses future Earth as the setting and a variety of familiar place names and concepts – geography, Western religion, Jerusalem, etc. - also grounds the novel in sentiment more strictly human and less alien.
Due to the fact the book began as a novella and only later were its three parts collected into a single edition, “Nightwings” is not as well known as Silverberg’s other works, Dying Inside, A Time of Changes, and the Majipoor series. Thus, fans of those books, along with Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz will undoubtedly want to check out Nightwings as well. From a theoretical standpoint, Ken Wilber’s theory of Integral Psychology has perhaps never been represented so well in fiction. Beautifully crafted, containing wonderful symbolism, and a having a strong moral and spiritual core, this work easily exists in the upper echelon of science fantasy. As writing the book was an act of transcendent catharsis for Silverberg, so too will its reading be for the reader.