There are some stories which stay with you due to their gut wrenching plot twists, memorable characters, witty dialogue or complex emotional dynamics. Silverberg's Sailing to Byzantium, a short novella based partly on Yeat's poem which received a Nebula Award in 1986 is one of the most compelling short sf pieces I've ever read, and yet it is compelling for a reason that has nothing to do with any of the above, because it is simply beautiful.
The story takes place in the fiftieth century, in a world populated by the serene, artistic citizens. In this world are only five cities, each a reproduction of some fantastic, beautiful reconstruction of past glory. Alexandria with its famous library and lighthouse, Changan of imperial China with its fireworks and palaces, or Mohenjo Daro on the Indus valley. At intervals the cities are changed, offering a new marvel of the past to explore, a riot of parties, sightseeing and luxury.
The story however follows Charles Phillips, a man of the year 1984 who has been transported across time to this future paradise, and his romance with Joiea, a woman who is not quite as sanguine and calm as most citizens and shows a mysterious impatience with the world.
In the several works by Silverberg I have read, one gift which he has more than many writers of traditional science fiction, is an ability to explore the magical and exotic. Both the horror and wonder, the perfume of distant lands and the light of other stars. Sailing to Byzantium is Silverberg at his most gorgeously colourful, describing fantastic sites and amazing creatures with a bright economy of words, a style which both emphasises details and yet avoids being long winded or overly polysyllabic. I was also amazed to find out (when I did a little reading up on cities of antiquity), that Silverberg's historical details here, such as the height of the lighthouse of Alexandria and the uses of its great reflector, or the rigid planning and highly evolved drainage system of Mohenjo Daro, are absolutely dead accurate according to what we know through archaeology. Yet there is more depth here than just essentially a long description of an extended holiday (even if that is effectively what life in the fiftieth century is).
Silverberg also imbues his prose with something melancholy, something a little sad. A strange irony in the way the citizens view the world, and indeed a loneliness and sense of disconnection in both Charles and Joiea, quite at odds with the dreamlike surroundings.
What is also astounding, is the way the plot delicately unfolds. Charles slowly learns things about himself, about Joiea and about the world around him, but nowhere is anything violent or wrenching, indeed were the same plot being handled by a less competent stylist than Silverberg it might appear uneventful since there is no huge dark secret, just a series of gentle revelations about the world and the cast of characters which they slowly need to work through against the bright and gleaming background, revelations which often colour the ways they (in particular Charles), view the various cities they visit and the people they interact with.
And yet, nowhere does the story become maudlin or overly rarefied, indeed Silverberg introduces a larger than life character just at the point that things seem to be growing too introspective, specifically to stop the tone from degenerating too much. One minor criticism, is that I didn't like the way that while we're introduced to one city from our own future, New Chicago, we only see that city briefly, spending most of our time in the exotic cities of the past. While by no means a problem, a futuristic metropolis would've been a welcome change of setting and pace, particularly that given the stage in the story we briefly visit new Chicago, Charles is in a fairly grim state.
One other thing which astounds me about Sailing to Byzantium, is that as well as having no wrenching over dramatic revelations, it's a story where both the reader and Charles tend to think of certain people as shallower or less pleasant than they actually are, indeed one character we are introduced to who appears unconcerned and somewhat frivolous, actually proves to be far wiser and indeed kinder than either Charles, or we would expect.
The final conclusion to the story, coming as it does after several revelations and resolutions, is deftly and exquisitely delivered, albeit I did not like the way that Joiea, whose behaviour has been slowly explained by a number of revelations throughout the story, behaved slightly childishly at this point just so Charles would run after her, though arguably that might be the extremely alien circumstances she has lived through, since this is one story where other than Charles himself, the future society really is a little incomprehensible. Yet the final symmetry and beauty of the last scene, how it resonates with the story's beginning and the implications of what will happen is unquestionably extremely powerful.
Sailing to Byzantium is a novella, albeit at a three hour length a rather long one. While on the one hand we're left with a host of questions about the world, and about where things will go next, on the other, had the premise been dragged out to a full novel length I do not know if it would've maintained the breathless heir of exotic yet melancholy beauty that pervades the story. Available now as a stand alone, as well as in several notable collections, this is evidence for the fact that the sf writers of America weren't idiots when handing out Nebula Awards, and a story I’d highly recommend to anyone, especially lovers of language, antiquity and a little romance, certainly it's one that both my lady and I greatly enjoyed.
Review by Dark
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