As I said in my previous post, I suspended reading for some weeks once the coronavirus lockdown began, in mid-March; things were too unsettled and uncertain to allow for the indulgence of sitting down and turning inward into a book. It was much more important to pay attention to everything going on in the outside world. And so instead I replayed most of the Myst games, over five or six weeks. As I finished those, or stalled on a couple of them, I returned to books. At the end of April, I began reading again: the first Asimov robot novel, then this rather incidental Silverberg novel, and since then a few more. Since I still have a backlog of 1950s “classic era” science fiction novels that I read a year ago to base future Black Gate columns on, I’ve decided to relax my purview for reading and especially reread the great SF novels from all decades since the 1950s. But more about those later.
There are reasons to occasionally read more ordinary novels from past decades, as I did with Robert Silverberg’s COLLISION COURSE (review at Black Gate here: https://www.blackgate.com/2020/04/09/a-fascinating-ordinary-1950s-sf-novel-robert-silverbergs-collision-course/). I’m a long-time Silverberg fan, especially for his mature work that I discovered in the early 1970s, yet my justification for reading his very early novels from the 1950s and 1960s is to identify the “standard SF furniture” of the time – the assumptions about space, and aliens, and ESP, and so on, that informed 1950s SF and which have lingered in popular culture via the franchises Star Trek and Star Wars, yet which have been overcome, derided, dismissed, by advancing scientific understanding, and abandoned or superseded by better ideas in the best SF of subsequent decades.
For this post, instead of copying in my complete summary notes (which sometimes I write as I read, sitting by the computer, and so which are extremely detailed), I will summarize more concisely, as a courtesy to any readers I might have.
So. Robert Silverberg’s THE 13TH IMMORTAL was, as he explained in the introduction to the 2004 Cosmos paperback edition, the first novel he wrote after winning a Hugo Award for “Most Promising New Author” in 1956. After winning that award, he pitched a novel to Donald A. Wollheim, publisher of Ace Books, which in that decade published “Ace Doubles,” in which two books were published, back to back, with a front cover on each side. He sold it, wrote it, and that’s how this novel first appeared.
The setting is some hundreds of years in the future, after a nuclear war. The entire world has been divided up into Twelve Empires, each ruled by an immortal Duke. Mutant animals, and humans, inhabit the landscape.
- Dale Kesley works on a farm in Iowa, without memories of his early life. He’s visited by a man, Dryle van Alen, who is from Antarctica, who says he’s been looking for Dale for a long time. But the key to Dale’s identity is another person, Daveen the Singer, who also needs to be found. Despite his suspicion and confusion, Dale, on the basis of his having no memories of his early life, leaves the farm with Dryle.
- They travel to Galveston, then via steamer to South America, and in Argentina are pursued by bandits. DvA disappears, and Dale is taken captive.
- He’s taken the local Duke in Buenos Aires, Don Miguel, who assumes Dale is an assassin, and makes a deal with him to travel north to assassinate the North American duke instead, in exchange for his adopted daughter.
- Dale travels to Chicago, encounters a mutant human who seems to know the future, and meets Don Miguel, who condemns him to prison. A mutant frees him; he travels south to a Mutie city, then a colony of artists in Kentucky, then to a mechanical city in Texas, then to a hobo camp, to eventually reunite with the mutant…who is actually the missing Daveen, and who has the power to magically transport them both to… Antarctica, a beautiful, high-tech city, in contrast to the squalor of the rest of the world.
- Where Dale receives various revelations: that Dale is an immortal; that the other Dukes are sterile, and the Duke of Antarctica is… Dryle van Alen.
- And finally: this has all happened before. Dryle is immortal, but not sterile, and therefore a threat to the other dukes; Dale, years before, wanted Antarctica to reach out to the rest of the world; his father refused, had Dale conditioned and hidden on a farm in Iowa to protect him from the other dukes.
- But now, Dryle agrees, he will abdicate, and Dale, now a man, will take over, and help rebuild the world.
- So, the standard sf furniture: the post-apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear war; mutants, both human and animal, resulting from that war; the idea that mutant humans would have magical powers (precognition, teleportation); the idea that the world would split into advanced and primitive societies.
- And immortality. It’s not explained early on why the dukes are immortal; it emerges that immortality was a mutation, and the rare few who acquired it gradually assumed power, dividing up the world between them, leaving the odd 13th one exiled in Antarctica.
- A running theme is that Dale never understands why all this is happening to him.
- And the notion that the protagonist doesn’t know his true identity is a standard plot device in SF and fantasy; if I recall correctly, this was also the main revelation of Silverberg’s most popular book, from 1980, Lord Valentine’s Castle.