Nightwings

by Robert Silverberg

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The circumstances that led to the writing of Robert Silverberg’s
Nightwings were hardly conducive to creating a masterpiece.  A fire
had destroyed most of the author’s house, and he was living out of
crates and cartons in improvised quarters. He desperately needed
money to pay bills and cover the cost of rebuilding. He was exhausted
and stressed out from dealing with insurance
company bureaucrats, putting his life back
together, and the general craziness of that
turbulent year 1968.

In this unpropitious environment, Silverberg
wrote a 19,000 word novella called
“Nightwings” in “something like five days,”
as he later recalled.  
Frederik Pohl, editor of
Galaxy magazine, paid him $500—which was
a considerable sum for the time, the
equivalent of several thousand dollars of
purchasing power today.  Silverberg
immediately began hatching plans for
two more related stories of approximately
the same length, with the plan to combine all
three of them in a single novel.

The complexity of this structure was sharpened by the dictates of pulp
fiction sci-fi. Each of the three parts needed to stand as a self-sufficient
story in a magazine, with a strong ending that would provide resolution
to the tale—yet not so much closure that the three novellas wouldn’t
flow together smoothly into a single over-arching narrative. Working
under these constraints, Silverberg created an exceptional work of
fiction, by almost any measure. The original “Nightwings” won the
Hugo for best novella the following year, and was nominated for a
Nebula. The resulting book holds up well today, both for its
imaginative conception but also—and even rarer for 1960s-era sci-fi—
the quality of its writing.

From the opening paragraph, Silverberg delights us with his
provocative combination of the familiar and the mysterious. “Roum is
a city built on seven hills,” he writes. “They say it was a capital of man
in one of the earlier cycles. I knew nothing of that, for my guild was
Watching not Remembering.”

The writing is crisp and intelligent throughout
Nightwings, and often
quite poetic. Silverberg allows his story to unfold without any of the
pulp fiction clumsiness that so often mars Asimov and Dick. Above all,
he has a sure instinct for the quasi-mythic—indeed, almost medieval,
at times—tone that also characterizes some of the most stylized works
of conceptual fiction from this era, such as
Dune and A Canticle for
Leibowitz.

Silverberg’s story takes place on a debased planet Earth, struggling in
the aftermath of disastrous scientist-induced climate change. North
and South America have mostly vanished under the expanding “Earth
Ocean.” The remnant of civilization lives in the surviving continents:
Eyrop, Ais, Afreek and Stralya. Technology has collapsed, and people
have banded together in guilds, both to find productive vocations and
for a sense of higher purpose.

Our protagonist is a Watcher, whose guild is responsible for studying
the cosmos. For centuries, Earth has been under threat of invasion
from the stars, and the Watchers need to give the alert to the
Defenders (another guild) if and when it arrives. Silverberg sketches
out a whole alternative economic structure here, with various other
guilds each playing their assigned role: Rememberers, Clowns,
Musicians, Somnambulists, Scribes, Servitors, Merchants,
Dominators, and the like. In addition, there are new biological forms
mixed in with these groups: Changelings and Fliers and assorted
visitors from outer space—a whole society creatively re-imagined by
our author.

Another writer would fill this story with battles, swordfights and
cliffhangers. But Silverberg rarely indulges in such theatrics. One gets
a sense of his restraint early on, when he presents the most significant
military engagement in the novel as taking place unobserved
overnight, while our hero sleeps. This is not
Starship Troopers or even
The Forever War
. Silverberg instead weaves a psychologically rich
narrative that deals with deep issues of redemption, both personal and
social, loyalty and betrayal, inclusion and ostracization. Even the
romance subplot here is handled with surprising subtlety, with as much
Platonic love as carnal desire appearing in Silverberg’s pages.

The tripartite structure and original publication of
Nightwings as
three separate tales forced Silverberg to introduce more plot elements
and entanglements than one might find in a stand-alone novel of the
same length. Yet the narrative never feels rushed, and Silverberg not
only resolves all the open issues in his final pages, but does so in a way
that reconnects satisfyingly with the book’s opening gambit. Against all
odds, this author created something very special here, rising above the
calamities of his personal life and the constraints of the genre in
forging one of the finest works of conceptual fiction of its era. I
wouldn't advise anyone to emulate the methodology Silverberg’s
employed in writing
Nightwings, but it is hard to quibble with results
he achieved.


This article originally appeared on
Blogcritics.
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


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