In the spirit of Thoreau and Emerson, William Butler Yeats’ 1928 poem “Sailing to Byzantium” discusses the desire for transcendence—putting aside the mortal cowl for immortality in a Grecian idyll. Grasping the sci-fi potential oozing from this concept, Robert Silverberg took the poem and developed it into an eponymous novella the genre community can be proud of. Though the prose is not up to the height of some of the Silverberg’s other works (unfortunate given the poetic motivation), the story fully represents the poem’s ideal in sci-fi parallel, and then takes one additional step.
It is the 50th century and humanity has evolved to lack for nothing. A Brave New World societal structure set in far future the main character, Charles Phillips, freely wanders the Five Cities of post-scarcity Earth on permanent holiday with his girlfriend, Gioia. Australia disappeared, the tail of South America shifted into the Pacific, and major portions of Africa swamped, the number of cities remain fixed, only their location is in flux. At the outset Asgard in the north is being torn down while Mohenjo Daro in the east is being constructed to keep the number of five Elysian playgrounds constant. But Phillips and Gioia are in Alexandria, wandering the rebuilt, ancient city. Proud centaurs and sphinxes walk the streets, there is no crime or money, and the seventh wonder of the world—the lighthouse of Alexandria—stands over all, a symbol of the glory and power of humanity’s control of life.
But yet, not all is perfect in Eden; Phillips does not look like the other humans. He knows he is somehow a product of the 20th century, but lacks the knowledge how he came to the 50th. And likewise Gioia, despite her physical beauty, seems to be fading. Her colleagues remaining infinitely young and beautiful, a slow change is coming over the woman for reasons she hides to herself. Discovering his past while getting at the heart of Gioia’s ageing becomes Phillips mission. What the two discover together, well, Yeats’ poem serves as an excellent hint.
Silverberg being Silverberg, Sailing to Byzantium’s narrative moves effortlessly. The glorious splendors of ancient Alexandria, the emperor’s palace in Chang-An, and the labyrinthine streets of Mohenjo Daro shimmer in the background while the movement and emotions of Phillips, Gioia, and their wandering group of friends motivate the story. The cities mere playgrounds, all of the characters deal with the perfection of life in different ways. With the world as stage, Silverberg has plenty of room for thematic discussion, all captured well in character and story.
For those familiar with Yeats’ poem, it will come as a surprise Phillips does not represent the yearning voice of the poem’s narrator. The ideal manifesting itself differently, Silverberg takes the yearning to the next logical step. Doing so in a fashion available only to science fiction, the mode may, in fact, be a point of contention for some readers. The expression of Yeats’ desire wholly spiritual in content, Silverberg brings it “down to Earth”, realizing the longing in realist, albeit futuristic fashion. There is thus a bold line to be drawn between the novella and the poem: one covets while the other takes the next step and supplies the object of desire. It is of course up to the reader whether this extrapolation upon the poem is a positive or a negative.
In the end, Sailing to Byzantium is a simple yet beautiful sci-fi story of human proportion. Yeats’ poem the impetus, no knowledge of it is required to enjoy the story, though, having read it would enforce the denouement in idealistic terms. The one “downside” to the novella is that the prose lacks the characteristic smoothness—one of Silverberg’s trademarks as a writer. Lord Valentine’s Castle, Nightwings, and others of his work lexically stronger, Sailing to Byzantium has an overall inconsistency—like a gear missing a tooth—that detracts from the airiness of immortality being driven at. That being said, Silverberg on an off day is still better than many who slave to produce mediocrity.