The Face of the Waters by Robert Silverberg

The Face of the Waters book cover
Rating 8.7/10
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea

It is rather sad that from being one of the late twentieth century’s most prolific sf authors and editors, Robert Silverberg seems to have slightly fallen off the map these days. Even when other notable past masters like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke are remembered, people either do not remember Silverberg at all, or dismiss his material as simply sensationalist. Oddly enough however, despite the fact I’ve read far more Clarke and Asimov than I have Silverberg, Silverberg’s novels and short stories stay with me far longer. Part of this, is that Silverberg, more than many other sf writers, was much more concerned with poetry than scientific accuracy. Not for him playing with the rigidly defined rules of robotics or sticking in sly digs about religion in an evolution dominated future. If you want a science fiction author who really is concerned with exploring strange new worlds and going where no one has gone before, Silverberg is definitely your man, and most worlds don’t come quite as strange as this.

A hundred years before, Earth’s sun expanded and the planet burned, forcing humanity to scatter to the farthest corners of the galaxy. To Doctor Valben Lawler, the planet Hydros seems like the galaxy’s farthest, and meanest corner. Once a penal colony, Hydros is covered by a vast, planet spanning ocean teaming with a variety of monstrous sea life. Small communities of humans eke out a living on artificial islands constructed by the planet’s main intelligent species, the seal like Gillies. When however the ambitious Nid Delagard offends the local Gillies, the entire population of Sorve Island are exiled from their home. Yet, Delagard has a plan, an insane ambition to use his shipping fleet to transport the Sorve community to Hydros one fixed island, the near mythical face of the waters.

One thing I have always loved in Silverberg, is his ability to create wonderfully weird worlds. From the second the book starts, presenting us with a series of alien monsters, and a death which is as horrific as it is unexpected, I knew I was reading a book where the very planet of Hydros itself; like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Brandon Sanderson’s Roshar would be one of the books most central and surprising characters. From the Gillies raft like islands, to mats of variegated seaweed that change the colours of the ocean, beds of kelp or phosphorescent coral, rarely have I seen an environment this alien or this diverse; particularly considering the entire world is covered by water.

I’ve always had a fondness for journey stories, and from Voyage of the Dawn Treader to The Odyssey, for sea stories in particular. Even in a time when aeroplanes can fly across the earth in seconds, there is still something captivating in the idea of a ship slowly sailing its way across uncharted waters towards a mysterious goal, facing dangerous beasts, hunger and thirst and all sorts of perils along the way.

The marine life of Hydros is no less diverse than the landscape of its oceans, from glowing octopi as large as skyscrapers to flying fish that rain a caustic acid, even Lawler and his companions, being refugees on Hydros and only having seen a limited portion of the planet have no idea what exactly is out there, making each surprise or new danger as shocking to them, as it is to the reader.

Silverberg is not a horror writer, and his undoubted gift for description is just as able to deal with the beautiful as the terrible, however fans of the monstrous won’t be disappointed; particularly since you're never quite sure what the true monsters are or whether the lovely flower like giant crustacean your seeing will suddenly turn out to throw poisoned barbs, consume flesh or do something equally nasty.

Of course, all of this glorious scenery would make the book a simple travelogue if it weren’t for character. Fortunately, Silverberg’s descriptive talents are just as able to give us complete portraits of our human crew as they are of the alien seas.

This begins by giving us an intense view of the life of humans on Hydros, existing only at the sufferance of the alien gillies with barely any resources in small, insular communities. Indeed, I was getting a realistically third world vibe from a lot of the descriptions of their life, especially when for example Doctor Lawler was contrasting his own hard won medical experience and basic tools with the technological marvels available elsewhere in the galaxy.

Valben Lawler himself is a wonderfully complex protagonist, a forty year old physician who is so aware of his own inadequacies that he has resorted to drugs to numb his emotions, who feels at the same time a desperate desire to belong to the community, and yet a constant sense of loneliness in his longing for old earth; even cutting himself off from all romantic relationships to maintain his distance. What makes Lawler’s story particularly sad, is that he often doesn’t recognize either his own strengths or how well regarded he is by the community he feels so apart from.

In terms of relationships, one thing I always admire in Silverberg, is the way he deals with romance, both with his beautifully honest yet complementary physical descriptions, which can at the same time admit that a person is not necessarily physically attractive but still intensively desirable, and his sheer emotional straightforwardness in showing people’s vulnerabilities up close. Scenes which in other hands might look like romantic wish fulfilment or overly fervent clichés, such as when the gentle Pelia Brown makes her interest in Lawler blatantly obvious, always have a slightly different tenor to them, for example, while the reader can see that the intensively lonely doctor would probably benefit from such a supportive partner as Pelia, who is quite open about her wish to find a husband settle down, Lawler is too wrapped up in his own detachment to believe that he might be anything but bad for her.

The relationship Lawler does form with the free spirited Sundira is slow, nuanced and complex, particularly since Sundira is casually sleeping with the thoughtless but elemental Kendrickson at the same time. Indeed, rarely have I seen a writer be able to depict a romance where one party is quite casual about the fact they’re with someone else, without making that party feel either fickle, or adolescent, yet, given Lawler’s reluctance to actually emotionally commit himself or admit that his attraction to Sundira goes slightly farther than a pleasant interlude, Sundira’s behaviour, especially for a lady with such a sense of freedom actually makes sense.

Sundira herself is just as complex a character as Lawler with her own history, motives and backstory, though I do rather wish that she’d remained an interesting character once she and Lawler finally admit their feelings, since sadly Silverberg does fall into the trap of making her a mildly one dimensional, if poetically described love interest once she makes it clear she’s interested in love.

With several of the supporting players Silverberg is just as nuanced. Nid Delagard might be a completely loathsome, abusive, imperialistic scumbag, however the ways in which his loathsome, imperialistic abusive scumbaggery manifest themselves are ever varied. For example, when his own greed and ambition offend the Gillies of Sorve island, Delagard responds by a profuse and abject apology obviously calculated to gain the people’s trust, even offering to exile himself for the good of the community, never mind that Delagard has plenty of wealth and resources elsewhere; he reminded me of a certain nineties American president famous for his self-serving apologies.

Similarly, so many characters have hidden vulnerabilities, even the apparently basic Kendricson, or Liss; Delagard’s large and in charge wife.

I do wish some characters such as Pelia Brown had seen a little more development throughout the story following her introduction, though of course even with a main cast of only about fourteen people, Silverberg couldn’t deal with everyone in detail. I was also slightly unsure of Father Quillen, a doubting priest who comes to Hydros searching for some way to rekindle his faith in God. While on the one hand, it’s always nice to see a writer (especially a science fiction writer), actually deal with people’s religious beliefs in a substantive way, at the same time, Quillen’s rather rambling theology did at times distract from moments of character, particularly given Lawler’s rather detached scepticism on the subject. Then again of course, in one sense Lawler’s almost mystical reverence for old Earth might itself have been a form of meditation, and since the book’s conclusion leans heavily on this, it is possible that Silverberg’s parallel here, between faith in the divine and yearning for past glory was deliberate.

Having so few characters however, also made the possibility of death far more poignant, indeed it’s refreshing to read a book replete with alien monsters with almost no red shirts whatsoever, where almost every person you lose has a place and their own weight, even if just as background.

My only problem in terms of character loss was with the other ships of the fleet, since Silverberg did not seem to know exactly what to do with them. At times earlier in the book Lawler travels between the ships on his medical rounds, and we get a brief glimpse of how those ships have formed their own communities, some of them (such as the rather overblown monastic community of women), very different to Lawler’s ship. However, at various points throughout the story, ships of the fleet go off course and are quite literally lost at sea, with absolutely no word coming back to explain their fate, not even wreckage. While I can understand why Silverberg perhaps wanted to only have the book’s conclusion feature Lawler and company rather than complicating matters with extra characters, at the same time, such a huge number of inconclusive ends, especially for characters with significances to the Sorve community and to Lawler himself made this strand of the book feel less than satisfying.

The book’s climax however was nothing short of stunning. Indeed, in some ways it reminded me of Dawn Treader since the promised mystical end of the journey, the hints we got and the actual reality gelled together perfectly. Not that the conclusion was a huge action fest, but the sheer beauty of Silverberg’s description, and the logical change which puts so much more of the world into context as well as finishing a lot of the book’s themes from theology to worship of the past to romance was absolutely apt. I particularly appreciated how Silverberg was able to so accurately balance mystical revelation, the conclusion of several character’s journeys, change the very nature of the world and yet still leave some major mysteries for the reader to ponder.

My only slight issue with the book’s end, was that while several characters emotional arcs, even that of the loathsome Delagard met a perfect trajectory, others did not, or at least, it would’ve been nice to know why such characters (especially the likable Pelia), finished where they did.

Looking online, it seems there are roughly two divided opinions on Face of the Waters. Those who found the book too slow, both on an emotional, and on a progressive level, and those who just relaxed and revelled in the whole experience. If you are not a fan of exploring alien landscapes; well seascapes, simply for exploration’s sake, or of getting fully immersed into the life and experience of a people on a distant planet, with no battles save the battle to survive, you probably won’t enjoy this book. Similarly, if you are looking only for characters who bicker and argue and swap romantic partners, and cannot appreciate characters whose defining features are far gentler and more poignant, you probably will find the characterisation too slow.

If however, you can just relax into a perilous journey across the sea, marvel at the wonder and horror of alien creatures and see humans being calmly, quietly human, then here’s the gangplank, feel free to hop aboard and expect a truly fantastic voyage.

This The Face of the Waters book review was written by

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