Serial Review: The Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg (Part 1/3)

(Cover by Jack Gaughan. Galaxy, April 1970.)

Who Goes There?

It’s hard to introduce Robert Silverberg for the simple reason that there’s so much that can be said and we have only so much time. Silverberg has been a staple of SF fandom for the past seven decades; he was writing letters to the magazines when he was a teenager and he has attended every Hugo ceremony since the inaugural one in 1953. While he announced his retirement from writing fiction back in 2015, he continues to be an active in other ways, and indeed his fiction alone would mark him as one of the field’s most prolific voices. Silverberg started as a startlingly productive, if also generally unexceptional, writer in the ’50s before taking a few years off and returning markedly improved. As both an author and editor (his original anthology series New Dimensions was a big deal in the ’70s) he helped usher in the New Wave, championing daring writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. Whereas a lot of great writers start resting on their laurels by the time they turn, say, forty, Silverberg continued to produce some great fiction and commentary well into the ’80s, a period which hosts some of my favorite works of his.

The Tower of Glass (I don’t know why they got rid of the definite article for the book publication) came out during a particularly hot time for Silverberg, who was literally getting Nebula nominations (invluding four wins!) every year from 1968 to 1973 across multiple categories. The Tower of Glass itself was a Hugo and Nebula nominee, losing both to Larry Niven’s Ringworld. I’ve read Dying Inside, which is one of my favorite SF novels as of late, and The Man in the Maze, which I liked well enough, so I’m curious if The Tower of Glass will be another certified banger or if it’s “just” good.

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 was published in the April 1970 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. You’d think getting Hugo and Nebula nominations would give The Tower of Glass more time on bookstore shelves, but you’d be mistaken. If you wanna read the book version then you’re probably best off finding a used copy online, since Silverberg paperbacks are cheap and conversely really hard to find in bookstores. Silverberg took a few hiatuses throughout his career, on at least one occasion because his disillusioned with the SF market and the fact that his books kept falling out of print, and it’s not hard to see why he’d feel that way. You could get an ebook version, but it’s from Open Road Media (cursed be their name) so I’d prefert not to; the good news is that we did recently get a paperback edition, this one from ReAnimus Press. But still, finding new editions of Silverberg’s novels is not the best time in the world.

Enhancing Image

Simeon Krug (what a name) is an aging entrepreneur, the patriarch of an empire, and perhaps the single most important human currently living. Krug’s current top-priority project is a glass tower being constructed in the Canadian tundra, considered the closest to an ideal location for what would be the most advanced communication tower on the planet despite the harsh weather. Much like the ancient pyramids, the glass tower is being built by hundreds of workers, living off next to nothing, but whereas the pharaohs would have used slave labor, Krug uses a somewhat different method: androids of his own design.

The world of The Glass Tower is one in which humanoid life is split into three castes: the natural born, i.e., those just like us, then there’s the ectogenes, essentially test tube babies, people who are still biologically human but who were grown outside of the uterus, and then there are the androids, the synthetic humanoids. The androids themselves are split into three groups, those being the alphas, betas, and gammas, with the alphas being the most intelligent, most privileged, and rarest of the lot. An alpha android would serve as Krug’s second in command, and indeed we get that with Thor Watchman (what a name), an alpha who oversees the construction of the glass tower and who, we’ll come to find, may be the enigmatic member of the cast thus far.

The third point of the triangle, as far as the POV characters are concerned, is Manuel Krug, Simeon’s son, a married man who regardless is treated as a playboy and a layabout, but who nonetheless is the heir to the Krug name. We don’t get much from Manuel early on, but in the spoilers section I’ll get to his side of the story. Part 1 is a revolving door of perspectives, broken up into subplots going from Simeon to Watchman to Manuel, a revolving door which does not exactly move the “plot” forward but which does, with each successive point of view, add a great deal to both the character-centered drama slowly developing and especially the world in which these characters live. While we don’t get ray guns and flying cars, we do get some profound differences between our world and the world of the novel, not the least of these being teleportation which has rendered borders all but obsolete, not to mention the creation of a race of humanoids who are physically stronger than humans on average and who will work for super-cheap.

The androids are a whole can of worms, so I’ll wait a bit to get into them and how they see Krug, their creator, because it’s… well, it sure is something.

Silverberg seems to understand that the characters and what they mean to each other are more important than plot beats, since we come to find that at least on the face of it, not much happens in The Tower of Glass. What keeps us guessing, and keeps us reading, is Silverberg’s character work, which is mostly thorough and inventive, and for our convenience we even get what amounts to a roll call of supporting characters, some of whom are not important in Part 1 but who may figure into events later on.

Clissa, the wife of Manuel Krug,

Quenelle, a woman younger than Manuel, who is his father’s current companion.

Leon Spaulding, Krug’s private secretary, an ectogene.

Niccolo Vargas, at whose observatory in Antarctica the first faint signals from an extrasolar civilization were detected.

Justin Maledetlo, the architect of Krug’s tower.

Senator Henry Fearon of Wyoming, a leading Witherer.

Thomas Buckleman of the Chase/Krug banking group.

A Witherer, for your information, is someone in favor of the dissolving of government; I feel like there’s another word we’d use to describe that political view, but hell, let Silverberg have his fictional political parties. It’s not a totally irrational view either, since teleportation (the use of “transmats”) makes it all too easy to travel between countries, and what good are governments if the very borders of these countries are undermined to the point of being ignored?

And yes, the transmat works much the same way as a teleporter in Star Trek: you get ripped apart on one end and then put back together on the other. You die and then are reborn every time. “The transmat field ripped a man’s body into subatomic units so swiftly that no neural system could possibly register the pain and the restoration to life came with equal speed.” I never cease to find this method of teleportation amusing.

The tachyon particle had been “invented” only a couple years prior to the writing of the novel, and you can tell Silverberg (no doubt he was far from the only SF writer who did this) was eager to jump on this newfangled toy, as the glass tower is set to use a tachyon beam which will reach out into space farther and faster than any previous communication device. SF writers are always keeping an eye out for new inventions, discoveries, and trends in the realm of science. Think about all those stories from the ’70s that treat black holes like they’re the latest big-budget video game release. The technology plays a distant second to the religious and personal implications of the glass tower, however, as Krug and his team of astronomers (there is seemingly no one Krug cannot buy) are dead set on making contact with what is apparently a distant planet—a planet which, given its circumstances, is highly unlikely to support life, and yet the team had gotten a signal from that planet which implies a fellow sentient race in the universe.

Simeon Krug is your typical Silverberg protagonist to an extent in that he’s balding, he feels old regardless of his objective age, he’s highly intelligent yet deeply melancholy, something of a male chauvinist, and rather inexplicably he has no issue with picking up the ladies. This is not as much of a criticism as it sounds; if Silverberg’s protagonists are modeled after himself to some degree or other, which happens often enough, then they’re not flattering self-portraits except for the conspicuous gets-with-the-ladies angle (which is certainly worthy of criticism). Authors like to project at least a little bit of themselves into their characters, especially their leads, and if Silverberg gets away with projecting himself repeatedly like this it’s because the projections are so earnest and the emotions ring so true.

While Simeon reaches out for the unreachable in what feels like a religious voyage, however, Thor Watchman and his android fellows are already having their own religious experiences…

There Be Spoilers Here

When we get to Watchman’s subplot it’s easy to think that despite his outward loyalty to Krug, Watchman is secretly conspiring with those who want total equality for androids; actually the opposite turns out to be true, in that he might be a little too loyal to Krug. He’s against emancipation for androids basically on religious grounds, because the androids (not all, but apparently a lot of them) quite literally treat Krug as a godlike figure. In a way this makes sense, considering Krug invented the androids and oversees the factories that make them, which is certainly a science-fictional difference androids have from real-world slaves. The fervor of it is creepy on its own, but the notion that Watchman and likeminded androids are happy as slaves is even creepier, not, I suspect, that Silverberg thinks androids, should they come about in the real world someday, are fit to be manual laborers for life. I will say, however, that had this been written by Isaac Asimov we would probably get a different angle on the Krug worship thing.

The Tower of Glass is set a few hundred years from now, and the world has changed quite a bit—not entirely for the better. Actually it’s kind of a Darwinian nightmare, and even Silverberg’s narration calls it Darwinian at one point, leading me to believe we’re not supposed to see this future world as something to aspire to; this is a good thing, because hoo boy. The introduction of a race of advanced yet obedient workers who can be built and made to work for cheap has resulted in the obliteration of the working class, both in cheap human labor being made obsolete and also the physical population being dwindled. You might be thinking, “Well, maybe working class people reproduce less on account of the need for cheap labor being lowered.” There’s that, but there’s also some top-down eugenics (a form akin to China’s one-child policy) involved, which gives me the heebie jeebies.

The human population has slowed in its growth to such an extent that it has actually gone down worldwide, which I suppose is more believable than the population reaching, say, twenty billion in two centuries. Overpopulation is thus not a concern. We actually do see such population dwindling in certain parts of our world, which Silverberg posits could happen on a worldwide scale should advanced machinery replace human labor; not saying it’s a correct “prediction,” but it’s logical enough. The real point of conflict in-story, then, is whether androids should be considered people with all the human rights involved. Manuel and Clissa are in favor of android emanicpation, although only the latter is outspoken about this and the two for some reason do not bond over this shared sympathy. Of course this could be because Manuel has an ulterior motive for wanting androids to be recognized as on par with humans: he beds one on the side.

The back end of Part 1 focuses on Manuel and his conflicting emotions regarding androids, along with his position as the man who will run his old man’s company someday—a position he doesn’t want. A tour of an android factory, seeing first-hand how the sausage is made so to speak, sends Manuel into an existential crisis, not least because he is quite passionate about Lilith, an adroid who, like Thor Watchman, is an alpha. (Yes I get that she’s called Lilith, how very clever, Mr. Silverberg.) Manuel loves Lilith more than Clissa but after the factory tour cannot get over the fact that Lilith, despite her personality and intelligence, is made of synthetic materials. Ironically Lilith comes off as more “human” than Clissa, despite the latter being perfectly sympathetic, on account of Lilith being characterized more vividly, and I’m actually looking forward to the inevitable drama with this love triangle. We get hints of a showdown but Silverberg is keeping things only fizzling with a sure hand, and I mean that in a good way.

A Step Farther Out

The first installment of The Tower of Glass is a curious one for sure, not least because, unlike a lot of serial installments, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger or a point of peril for the characters. So far the plot has actually been kind of lax, but what’s interesting is that I very much look forward to what happens in the next installment, despite the relaxed pacing so far. Silverberg weaves a few subplots together here, and fittingly he also crams in a good deal of worldbuilding and thematic juiciness so that there is always something to read into, even when nothing “important” is happening on the page. We have what is ostensibly a religious narrative in which someone likens himself to God, or at least a prophet, and this person is trying to make contact with what might be sentient life from a distant planet. We also get a caste system, racism, loneliness, yearning, and other things typical of Silverberg from his late ’60s to early ’70s period. Silverberg repeats himself a bit with these elements, yes, but The Tower of Glass, like his best work from this period, is all but unmatched in its ambition and intensity.

Of course we do have a caveat or two. If you’re expecting well-drawn female characters then you’ll probably be disappointed. Lilith comes close, and in the rest of the novel we might come to understand her more, but right now none of the (admittedly few) women featured are as psychologically realized as their male counterparts. Not that I should have to remind you that an old-timey SF story from more than half a century ago is not great with female representation, but it’s frustrating with Silverberg especially because he knows better—it’s just that for some reason, at this relatively early point in his career, he chose not to. A small price unless that sort of thing really bothers you, I just wanted to point that out, because otherwise this installment gets high marks from me.

See you next time.


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