Serial Review: The Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg (Part 2/3)

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

Who Goes There?

Robert Silverberg retired from writing fiction in 2015, but who can blame him? His output is so prolific and far-reaching that he wrote enough for at least three people; few things make the folks at ISFDB sweat more than organizing Silverberg’s bibliography, with his short fiction tracking quite literally in the hundreds, a good portion of it under several pseudonyms. Silverberg won a special Hugo in 1957 as a promising new writer (he began a few years earlier, but the dam only break in ’56) when he was barely out of his teens, and by the time he turned 25 he had a whole career’s worth of fiction under his belt. It was only after a short hiatus in the ’60s, though, that Silverberg started producing the work he is now most acclaimed for, including but not limited to a a rapid-fire series of novels written between 1967 and 1972, although only 1971’s A Time of Changes won a major SFF award. He won three Nebulas for his short fiction, however, including one for the mythical and emotionally stunning novella “Born with the Dead.”

The Tower of Glass (or just Tower of Glass as it’s known in book form) is one of those novels that was written at a time when Silverberg could almost do no wrong, and so far that level of quality has been met. Part 1 introduced quite a few characters and a lot of intrigue, yet it didn’t feel overstuffed; Silverberg forgoes long descriptions of places and people’s bodies in favor of getting to the meat of the matter and making it all very readable. Now, calling something “readable” feel like faint praise, because really most writing in a language you’re fluent in is “readable,” but Silverberg has a vigorousness that’s hard to match and which often makes his writing intoxicating. How well does Part 2 hold up? Stay tuned.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 was published in the May 1970 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Galaxy was in a bit of a rough state at this point, after Frederik Pohl stepped down as editor, but it was a pretty good time to be Robert Silverberg in the magazine; he had no less than four of his novels serialized in Galaxy between 1969 and 1972, and generally the serials that ran in the magazine during this period are more impressive than the short fiction. As with honestly too much of Silverberg’s output your best bet, if you want a book copy, is to look in the secondhand market, with the bright side being that used copies of Silverberg books are not hard to find.

Enhancing Image

I actually don’t have that much to say about Part 2, which with egards to any work of fiction can mean one of two things: either it’s really good in a way that is almost self-evident, not requiring a great deal of analysis, or it’s such a piece of shit that I don’t care to discuss it much. Part 2 falls into the former category, which probably wasn’t clear before. My gripes with the first installment has been all but removed, at least for now, on account of Silverberg focusing on certain characters and pushing others to the sidelines, at least for the moment.

For one, the female characters whom I felt before to be somewhat lacking in characterization play little to no part in this installment, which I guess is a fine enough solution. Lilith only appears in the final scene, and I don’t think Clissa even makes an appearance, let alone has a line of dialogue. We do get a new female character in the form of another android, Cassandra Nucleus, but she’s only in one scene, and as I’ll explain soon it seems that Silverberg thought her much more useful than alive. The result is that Part 2 is closer to being a sausage fest, which would be more of an issue if the male main characters weren’t so engrossing.

We still have our three-man band of Simeon Krug, his son Manuel, and Thor Watchman, although Watchman gets a good deal more screentime (pagetime?) than his human co-leads. It’s with Watchman that the novel zeros in on its themes, namely those of religion and racial equality; the religious understones in the first installment have now become overt, and Silverberg borders on sermonizing here, but thankfully he is quite the capable sermonizer. Ironic, I know. The glass tower that serves as the primary background for the novel has taken on a transcendent tinge, not just in its sheer size (its projected height is stupidly high), but its ambition, with astronomer Niccolo Vargas at one point calling it “the first cathedral of the galactic age.” Unbeknownst to Vargas, and even Krug, there’s an actual cathedral hidden away near the construction site—only this one is secret, and made for androids.

I said in my review of the first installment that Watchman is, if anything, overzealous in his loyalty to Krug; he sees him as a godlike figure. It’s only now, though, that we come to understand just how Watchman feels about Krug, the man, the idea of the man, as God made flesh for androids. Religious zeal, and the struggle to protect that faith, is the backbone of the conflict for Part 2, and it looks like it will boil over into the concluding installment. Very interesting. Everyone is being tried here in different ways: Krug, with his dream of making contact with an alien race; Manuel, with his conflict of interests as a very well-to-do human man who is hopelessly in love with an android; and Watchman, an android who is torn between his loyalty to his creator and his loyalty to his race.

An aside, but it took me a while to realize androids’ “last names” are often occupations. Thor Watchman, Siegfried Fileclerk, Lilith Meson (as in the particle), and Cassandra Nucleus. (Most likely androids are named either after occupations or having to do with physics. There’s another android, for instance, whose last name is Quark.) It’s as if androids are names after their capacity to do work—as if that’s the extent of their worth in the eyes of humans.

We also get a new gadget in this installment, whose application is yet to be seen, which is shunting. By some process that Silverberg doesn’t care to explain much (nor should he), shunting is basically ego-swapping, wherein two people can quite literally swap perspectives and walk around in each other’s bodies for a bit. A shunt room, where the action happens, sounds like one of those things that rich people use when they get bored, although there’s a hint it might be used to help the strained relationship between Krug and Manuel. Krug considers shunting with his son for a moment, but rejects it on the grounds that it would feel wrong, and in fairness to him the Freudian implications of such a device would be nigh-endless. Lucky for the both of them (or maybe not), there’s a much bigger problem that will soon arise and give Krug, at best, a major headache.

You see, the aforementioned android cathedral was built in secret, and not even Krug knows that his own androids worship him. The result of android religion being made public could be disastrous; therefore, presumably any measure necessary must be taken to avoid this becoming known to the human public. When Leon Spaulding, Krug’s private secretary and local test tube baby, comes close to finding out about the secret cathedral, the androids mislead him by saying Krug is in danger, which Spaulding naturally reacts to. What happens next is something that neither side could’ve predicted, and which will cause a great deal of pain for both of them.

There Be Spoilers Here

Krug gets confronted by two members of the AEP—the Android Equality Party. We have Siegfried Fileclerk and Cassandra Nucleus, the latter of whom will be dead in just a minute. I do have a question first, though: If androids are property then how do they hold political positions? Obviously their potential for upward movement would be limited, but it seems like if an android is able to be some congressman’s secretary then the likelihood of politicians becoming sympathetic to android rights would be very high. Actually there’s the unspoken question of how slave labor have become normalized once again in Western society, but given the awful things that have happened in recent years maybe it’s not that far-fetched. What’s important is that Krug is not happy to see these people; he even takes some issue with them calling themselves “synthetic persons.”

There’s some debate as to what exactly Krug thinks of androids (it doesn’t look good, mind you), but tragedy strikes before we can get a clear answer on that. Spaulding, under the impression that the androids are assassins, kills Cassandra Nucleus with a “needler” (yes, I’m thinking of the Halo games, although apparently a needler is not an uncommon name for a weapon in old-timey SF) while she’s only a foot or two away from Krug. The action is a real security hazard, but the real cause for drama is that Cassandra and Siegfried are not assassins, not to mention they’re property, which means Cassandra is damaged property. The court case with the company that owns Cassandra will no doubt empty Krug’s wallet a touch. The fallout among the androids proves more painful, though.

The highlight of Part 2 has to be the lengthy political discussion Watchman has with Siegfried after Cassandra’s death. Silverberg wrote this novel in the wake of Martin Luther King’s death and there’s this sense that he’s responding to what was then the unwinding of the civil rights movement, although curiously his characters do not mention said movement; they do bring up the American Civil War, and even the treatment of first-generation Christians in ancient Rome. Watchman is a pseudo-Christian who thinks his faith in Krug, his ability to withstand punishment, will help lead to android equality (how much Watchman actually believes in android equality is left ambiguous) while Siegfried is more proactive. It’s a political debate, but it’s also a religious one, which leaves Watchman with some questions about Krug’s character, along with his own faith.

His faith had not wavered before Fileclerk’s brusque pragmatic arguments but for a few moments, while they were thrusting and parrying beside the body of Cassandra Nucleus, Watchman had felt the touch of despair’s wings brushing his cheeks. Fileclerk had struck at a vulnerable place: Krug’s attitude toward the slaying of the alpha. Krug had seemed so unmoved by it! True, he had looked annoyed—but was it merely the expense, the nuisance of a suit, that bothered him? Watchman had riposted with the proper metaphysical statements, yet he was disturbed. Why had Krug not seemed lessened by the killing? Where was the sense of grace? Where was the hope of redemption? Where was the mercy of the Maker?

The installment ends with Manuel and his buddies getting word that an android had been killed by accident, with Krug involved. How could this escalate? We’ll just have to wait and see.

A Step Farther Out

The plot thickens.

My enjoyment of this novel goes up with each chapter; it gets better as it goes along. I’ve adapted myself to reading novels in serial format, more or less, but even by my standards this was a breeze. I got through about fifty magazine pages (or 75 book pages, to make a guess) in two sittings, and I got through most of it in the second sitting. Silverberg can write. He’s not exactly a poet, but he has the superhuman ability to get you wrapped up in his world when he’s on the ball, and The Tower of Glass (unless it fumbles in the third installment) is definitely Silverberg on the ball. He does the Philip K. Dick thing where he jumps around between different characters’ perspectives and puts us inside their heads so that we empathize if not necessarily sympathize with them, no matter how detestable their actions might be. Could he fuck it up at the end? Maybe. But I don’t think he will.

See you next time.


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