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

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

Who Goes There?

As author, editor, and fandom personality, Robert Silverberg is indispensable. It’d be very hard to make sense of SF’s transition from the pre-New Wave ’60s to the debauchery of the New Wave without taking Silverberg’s talent and influence into account. His original anthology series New Dimensions published seminal works by the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr., and in the late ’60s and early ’70s Silverberg wrote an almost superhuman sequence of novels that would be enough for most authors’ whole careers. He won a Nebula with A Time of Changes (which I’ll no doubt review eventually) and his 1972 novel Dying Inside is easily one of the ten best SF novels of the ’70s; the fact that it didn’t win a Hugo and/or a Nebula is scandalous. The Tower of Glass (minus the definite article in book form) is from this sequence of novels, and how does it hold up with the admittedly stiff competition upon finishing? Let’s see…

Placing Coordinates

Part 3 was published in the June 1970 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. If you want it in book form it’s not hard to fine used online at all. As for the serial, I do wanna warn you that it is unusually long compared to the previous installments; indeed it might take up damn near half the novel, which I made the mistake of trying to get through basically in one sitting. The wonky pacing might’ve skewed my opinion on the third act of this novel is all I’m saying.

Enhancing Image

The drama with Cassandra Nucleus, the android Leon spaulding had mistakingly killed at the end of the previous installment, is resolved without much fanfare: Krug signs a contract to reimburse the company that owned Cassandra, and the civil suit is dropped. Hell, Krug can afford it. For Krug, the biggest thorns in his side have seemingly been taken care of and he can return to focusing on the tower, which at this point he might care more about than his own son. Not that anyone can blame Krug, really; his son Manuel is a bit of a chump.

Something that gradually and undeniably becomes a problem with this last installment is that Silverberg a) gives into his need to be edgy a little too much, and b) feels the need to end the novel on a BANG despite so much of it being a low-key character-focused drama. I was intrigued up to this point despite there being very little in the way of action, but Silverberg is about to ramp things way up—and not necessarily for the better. His side gig as a writer of erotica also rears its ugly head with quite literally any scene involving Lilith Meson, Manuel’s android mistress and SPOILERS! part of a con to make him become a human spokesperson for android equality. Lilith and Thor Watchman have been scheming to make Manuel a player for their team, with Lilith actually having feelings for Watchman and not Manuel. Or maybe she has feelings for neither. It’s hard to figure what her deal is.

There’s a lengthy (it feels longer than it is) sequence where Lilith dresses Manuel up as an alpha android (that’s right, Manuel, presumably a white man, technically parades around in redface) and he gets a taste of what it’s like to live as an android. The experience is more than a little traumatizing. On top of the dozen other things going on in this novel, Silverberg digs deeper into the caste system among androids, between the alphas, betas, and gammas, with gammas being the least intelligent and most expendable. We travel though a gamma ghetto and it’s all rather grotesque—and yet somehow it also feels of little consequence. It’s during this sequence that Silverberg introduces yet more things, including a drug that slows down one’s sense of time and which a lot of gammas are hopelessly addicted to. Don’t think about it too hard, it doesn’t really come up again.

We get multiple sex scenes with Lilith here, which on the one hand must’ve surely struck magazine readers in 1970 as transgressive, but the problem is that they really aren’t necessary, and also, to be a little more blunt, Silverberg’s not very good at the writing porn thing. If I have to read about “breasts” (that specific word) in my SFF ever again for the next week I’m going to [YASS] myself. Silverberg is excellent at writing about the male psyche but far less convincing when trying to capture “the woman’s angle,” which is where things get ugly. Either you accept it or you don’t. Silverberg at his best is able to make you forget about his limitations and instead make you think the same things he’s thinking about, namely stuff involving identity, religion, existentialism, the works. Silverberg in erotica mode is nothing I want, though, although like I said it must’ve been more eye-catching at the time.

Anyway, as for Krug we still have at least three issues: the tower, the prospect of getting granchildren out of Manuel and Clissa, and lastly this weird little subplot that I could’ve sworn was not introduced in previous parts involving a spaceship. On top of building the tower to communicate with the mysterious alien signal coming from that distant star, Krug is also sending what almost amounts to a generation ship full of androids in that direction, although given the nature of space travel and time dilation he would not live to see the passengers arrive at their destination. The move feels like desperation on Krug’s part, but also on Silverberg’s; it’s like Silverberg added this thread at the last minute for the sake of getting the ending he wants. I’m not even sure what the androids onboard are supposed to do when they eventually get to where the signal’s coming from.

It’s not all bad. Even taking the awkward sex talk into account, anything with Thor Watchman is destined to be at least readable. His newfound religious weariness from the end of Part 2 continues to ferment, and on top of that his relationship with Lilith, which up to this point had been professional, takes a much more intimate turn. The result is a love triangle that will naturally end with one of the players getting kicked out at the end, but who and how are questions yet to be answered. You may be wondering: How does Clissa figure into this? She doesn’t, really. Oh, I’ll get to her in spoilers, but I’ll just say for now that what Silverberg does with her—a character who’s been sadly underutilized for most of the novel—is objectionable.

If I sound unusually bitter with this final installment it could be that it’s easily longer than the previous ones, and also is much busier than the others. What was merely bubbling at the surface before is now bursting and making a mess everywhere, and it’s like Silverberg realized he created about five different subplots and has to resolve all of them in a novel that, in its book form, only clocks in at about 200 pages. Something I tend to like about pre-1980 SF novels is their brevity, how even if you don’t like what you’re reading you won’t be reading it for long, but The Tower of Glass is one of those rare good novels from the period that really could’ve been improved by expansion. Even an extra 40 or 50 pages, or in other words if this was a four-part serial instead of three parts, would’ve done it favors. Silverberg fits too many concepts into too small a space, and ultimately his economy of wordage works against him.

We’ve got an almost comically tall glass tower with a tachyon beam, teleportation, ego-swapping, a caste system of androids, a family drama, a love triangle, and a Darwinian nightmare future that’s more hinted at than actually shown. YA GOT ALL THAT? Okay, time to jump to the explosive climax, which I certainly have some thoughts about.

There Be Spoilers Here

He had considered it before, but Krug finally agrees to do a shunting session with Watchman, his top android. What could go wrong? Everything. The ego-swapping reveals not only Watchman’s con with Manuel but, more importantly, Krug’s disdain for being treated as a god. Which you can’t say is unexpected. Up to this point we’ve been unsure as to how “good” a person Krug is, but the climax certainly does not help his case, which makes his fate all the more curious.

Watchman’s faith, which had been on uncertain ground before, is now shattered, and as an alpha—not just an alpha but one heading the building of the glass tower—he has authority when he announces publicly that Krug is a false god. The result is utter disaster. Androids leave their posts, go on strike, and some even kill their human overseers. A worldwide revolt of androids begins, and Krug’s empire collapses in what seems like a matter of hours. Stretching one’s suspension of disbelief a bit here, but okay. Point being, everything goes to hell. Watchman sabotages the tower and overrides its various safety measures, causing it to collapse. Manuel barely escapes an angry android mob with Clissa getting fridged in an unnervingly unceremonious fashion. Right, so about that…

The women in The Tower of Glass really draw the short stick. Lilith loses Watchman at the end, with Manuel a nervous wreck, and Clissa gets apparently raped and butchered by androids offscreen. This is not it, chief. For one, I seriously find it hard to believe that androids would go after a human woman like this, but also, given the parallels Silverberg has drawn between the fight for android equality and the real-world civil rights movement for BIPOC quaulity (which was still very much going on when the novel was being writtne, mind you), this does not look good from an allegorical standpoint. Also, it’s a waste of character. Clissa’s outspoken sympathy for androids comes to naught, something even Manuel himself points out. Why introduce a character with this viewpoint if you’re going to not only barely use her but give her so shitty an exit? Againt this is like Silverberg was running out of time on the novel.

Going back to the spaceship that was only recently introduced, Krug uses it to escape the android rebellion, but also to cut out the middle man and travel to the distant planet himself. Again I’m not sure what he hopes to accomplish when he gets there, but then it might still be preferable to staying on what is quickly becoming a hellworld. We don’t know if the androids really will take over or if the humans will be able to fight back, but it doesn’t look good. In the span of about 20 pages The Tower of Glass goes from being a domestic, if intense, drama to being a tragedy of apocalyptic proportions. On an allegorical level it mostly works (as a religious and Freudian allegory, that is) but in execution it feels weirdly rushed and tactless by Silverberg’s standards. Surely he had considered a better way to tie all these subplots together, but deadlines might’ve forced him to compromise.

A Step Farther Out

Silverberg really let me down on this one, man. With reviewing serials I’ve found that the final installment will either make or break the whole thing, the latter more often being the case, and The Tower of Glass is sadly not an exception. There are sparks of that late ’60s and early ’70s Silverberg brilliance here, but I guess the saying is true: it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Comparing it to as refined a masterpiece as Dying Inside is almost unfair, one because of that novel’s quality, but its simplicity. Both novels are short, only about 200 pages, but Dying Inside is so much more focused and yet so much more intense, never mind more elegant in its usages of the tools at its disposal. I can see how readers were impressed enough by The Tower of Glass at the time that it got a Hugo nomination, although I probably would’ve voted for Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero that year. If you want a sample of what New Wave SF was like then you could do worse than The Tower of Glass, but it’s not even Silverberg’s best novel (or even probably his third best) attempt at this particular mode of writing.

See you next time.

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