Nightwings by Robert Silverberg

Silverberg’s (1969) novella follows an old man’s journey across a superannuated and decrepit Earth, enslaved by off-planet conquerors, where only vestiges of advanced technology remain, and where society has become rigidly stratified into ‘guilds.’ He is joined by a cast of characters from all over this society; nobles, merchants, fallen women, and changelings, on a journey which evolves into a quest for redemption and spiritual renewal.

The mix of old and new icons presents several memorable images. Rome, Paris, and Jerusalem are an intriguing amalgam of crumbling relics and high technology. The scientific and magical are also thrown together to create images that are mystifying, compelling, and sometimes poetic. In particular, the depiction of a race of humanoids with translucent butterfly wings is well done.

Thematically, the author is concerned with how a man and a planet can be renewed and redeemed in order to achieve a better society. Man is depicted as cursed, because each body confines the soul in isolation. By this, mankind suffers war, greed, and cruelty. By adopting a communal spirituality, the soul can rejoin others, and so mankind can be more perceptive, understanding and loving.

Silverberg’s prose is as velvety smooth as I have encountered in two other novels from him in the same period. The tone throughout is reflective and observational, in the authentic manner of an old man’s recollections. Being 150 pages, the novel does not outstay its welcome either. Overall, a good hybrid fantasy/sci-fi tale which combines escapism with thoughtfulness.

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