I remember reading some mind-blowing exotic planet / inscrutable alien novels years ago, but there just don't seem to be as many around these days, and the ones that are getting published don't seem as mind-blowing as they once were. Full marks to China Miéville for coming up with high-level inscrutable aliens a few years ago in Embassytown. The enigmatic Ariekei spoke a language that requires two words to be spoken at the one time. The problem for me was the Ariekei were so alien, I couldn’t warm to them. I guess that was the idea, but it didn’t quite bring back to me the wow-factor that I felt reading some of the older works.
So I reread Downward to the Earth with a little trepidation. Was the meld of brooding beauty, mysterious motivations and grotesquerie still there? I more than half-expected I’d be disappointed and was a little surprised when I again felt the full brunt of its exotica. I was again immersed in the sheer alien-ness of the world and its two species. And the full force of the story had, if anything, even more impact. I was unaware of the Heart of Darkness allusions first time around, but on this reading they gave it more depth. For me the protagonist now seemed far more complex, his motives more tortured, the climax more profound. The world is the most vivid I’ve seen in science fiction. I can only hope that this Silverberg masterpiece finally makes it to the screen.
At least I know now it’s not that I’ve changed or that these stories have lost their power. The exotic aliens haven’t been pushed into extinction. I’m looking forward to discovering some more life forms.
A version of this appeared in Aurealis #85.