“Nightwings” by Robert Silverberg

I picked up this book at the library book sale when trying to build my science fiction collection.  The cover art of what appeared to be a naked fairy and an old dude intrigued me, as I would generally assume fairies to be in the domain of fantasy, rather than sci-fi.

“Nightwings” originally began as a novella.  The novel version is simply three novellas joined together:  “Nightwings,” “Perris Way,” and “To Jorselm,” which fit together seamlessly to tell a larger story.

The story is set on Earth in a distant future.  Mankind has been specialized into Guilds, which determine their occupation and function.  As many of the tasks of day-to-day life have been replaced by machinery, the Guilds have different functions than one might expect.  Our protagonist is a Watcher.  His function is to use special instruments to look into the stars for evidence of an alien invasion.  By this point, most people (including the Watcher himself) believe that the invasion is a myth, much in the way that a lot of people today don’t really believe in the Second Coming, but still give token acknowledgement to the possibility.

The Watcher is on his way to Roum, and is accompanied in his travels by Gormon, a Changeling outcast, and Avluela, a member of the Fliers Guild.  Avluela is the fairy pictured on the cover, although we learn that the wings came about due to genetic experimentation in the distant past, and that they are only Nightwings, rendered incapable of flying during the day by the solar winds.  Oh, and you have to fly naked, otherwise you fall down.

When the Watcher realizes that the Invasion has come, it shatters his entire conception of the world and his function in it.  Losing touch with Avluela and Gormon, he embarks on a quest to find redemption.

I didn’t expect this book to be so fascinating.  It had a bit of a slow start, but by the second and third novellas, I had a hard time putting it down.  Silverberg’s writing is beautiful, and contains a variety of themes relating to purpose and salvation.

At the same time, I was a bit annoyed that Avluela was treated almost entirely as a sex symbol throughout the story.  She doesn’t really do anything until the very end of the third novella aside from looking pretty and getting raped.  I found it almost funny though, considering that the Watcher (who had an obvious crush on Avluela) was pretty much asexual.  In fact, I’d go as far to say that the Watcher had a negative sex drive, especially when comparing him to every other character in the book.

Oh, and *SPOILER ALERT* – If you have a crush on a girl, I’d generally advise against inviting her rapist to be your traveling companion for the next several months, even if she’s not traveling with you at the time.  I know this is fiction, but what the hell?!  *END SPOILERS*

Despite the streak of misogyny in “Nightwings,” I greatly enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in some vintage sci-fi.

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“Nightwings” was the 1969 winner of the Hugo Award for best novella, and also a Nebula Award nominee.  As such, I’ll be including it in the Award Winning Books Reading Challenge hosted by Gathering Books.  It also counts for both the The 2012 Science Fiction Experience hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings and the Vintage SciFi Not-a-Challenge from The Little Red Reviewer.  Oh, and let’s not forget the Speculative Fiction Challenge hosted by Baffled Books.  Yup, this one double-counts for four challenges!  Yay!

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Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , | 18 Comments

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18 thoughts on ““Nightwings” by Robert Silverberg

  1. angie

    I remember reading Nightwings a very long time ago and that it was strange and wonderful. I would love to re-read it.

    With regards to the treatment of female characters in sci-fi of that era..
    I don’t know if you are familiar with or have ever read any James H. Schmitz. He is a pretty obscure character, but was a great influence on me. In particular a story published in 2 parts in 1968 in Analog magazine. I had read the first installment of the story and then, before the next issue came out, my family moved to Chile, and I didn’t have access to the second half of the story for years and years, but I never forgot it and desperately wanted to read the rest of the story..It was literally years later, 10 or more I think, before I was finally able to locate and read the other half. I don’t know if it’s one of the best Sci-Fi novellas ever written or if it was just the long wait that made it that for me.. or the fact that as a 12 year old girl I wanted to relate to the main character, who was female, smart, capable and independent..and the hero of the story..The story was called the Tuvela in Analog, also known as The Demon Breed.. I managed to track a complete collection of Schmitz stories down recently on the web.
    Baen Books has a free online library. You will find The Demon Breed in The Hub: Dangerous Territory. Schmitz writes very strong, independent and intelligent female characters. You might find him interesting..and refreshing compared to his contemporaries.

    • I’ll definitely have to check out his writing then! It’s interesting to see how early sci-fi authors compare in their treatment of female characters. Robert Silverberg seemed to handle them poorly, despite the fact that Nightwings was such a fantastic book. At the same time, Asimov did a far better job than I’d have expected, and I was surprised to see such strong female characters in the foundation series.

      Thanks for stopping by! 😀

  2. I’m very fond of Silverberg’s work, and this is generally (rightly in my view) seen as one of his best novels, but the treatment of women in his fiction is pretty terrible.

    Interestingly, when he was trying to break into fiction he made ends meet by writing pron (re-spelled due to work filters). He did that for ten years, writing for magazines where the pictures perhaps got more attention than the stories. It kept him fed while he was trying to get his fiction accepted. Sadly I don’t think the habits learned were ever entirely shaken off, but if you can get past the depiction of women there’s a lyricism and mastery of atmosphere that’s just tremendous.

    • That’s something that I didn’t know about him, but it’s definitely interesting and gives me a new perspective on his female characters. (Despite all of the problems that I had with the way that Silverberg handled Avluela, I still named one of my characters after her in Star Wars: The Old Republic, because I loved the book that much.)

      This is the only Silverberg that I’ve read, but it made me want to read more of his books, despite his issues with writing female characters. Which ones would you recommend next?

      • Grace, if you’re interested in Silverberg tips by the way this blog is a good resource: http://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/ and it’s good anyway.

        My personal tips would probably be Hawksbill Station (which that blogger reviews), Dying Inside (terrible depiction of women again though, but that’s hard to avoid with Silverberg), The Man in the Maze isn’t quite his top tier but I’m fond of it. There’s a lot of good Silverberg actually.

        • I’m thinking I’ll have to put in an Amazon order soon… I went to three different bookstores yesterday and none of them had any Silverberg. I was disappointed, lol.

  3. I’m just finishing up a Silverberg as well, he’s one of my favorite authors. Nightwings sounds strange and intriguing, and even a little skeevy and awkward. But as you said, it’s a Silverberg, so the good outweighs the icky. I had a similar experience with his “The World Inside”. so many weird and icky sex scenes, but at the end they make a sort of satirical sense.

    Sometimes I have to wonder if some of these authors just didn’t have a freakin’ clue how to write a decent sex scene?

    • It was weird… the sex wasn’t explicit, but it just seemed a bit off, especially because the protagonist made a point of saying that he had no interest in sex, and the almost-sex-scenes he was involved in were incredibly awkward. At the same time, the entire concept of the book was phenomenal, and I loved it. I think that I’ll have to try more Silverberg eventually.

  4. I’m not sure if I’ve heard of this before or if I’m just getting it mixed up in my head with George RR Martin’s story Nightflyers. At any rate, it is an intriguing cover (even more intriguing because it actually has something to do with the story) and the story itself sounds quite interesting.

    Women getting raped is another thing (besides strange dialects which we were talking about with Foundation) that seems to crop up at least once in many of the works of the classic sf masters. I wonder why that is? It is understandable but odd when a sf story does not feature female characters or has them essentially as set decoration as that was a common but unfortunate thing of the time, but I don’t understand this rape thing at all.

    • Older fantasy tends to do the same thing… female characters often exist as eye candy or to get raped. I have no idea why, and generally I don’t mind it provided the character has some sort of other function. Aside from that bit of criticism though, I absolutely loved the story, and Silverberg’s ideas surrounding Earth’s downfall were both interesting and plausible, since they were deeply rooted in human nature.

      • In my experience it is very, very rare that rape actually serves the story in any way, which is why I tend to stay away from books and films that I know have those scenes, sometimes even when I know that it serves the story. It isn’t that I want to put my head in the sand. I know that rape occurs and I don’t really need to be educated how awful it is. And so I have a hard time knowingly making it one of my entertainment choices.

        Still, it crops up in some books and sometimes it is handled very well. Not sure if I know many classic sf novels where this is true though.

        • Normally it doesn’t bother me at all, it’s just that in this one it was just so obvious that Avluela didn’t have that much of a function other than as a sex symbol, and that doesn’t change until the last 20 pages of the book. If Silverberg wasn’t such a good writer it might be a bit more annoying than it is… especially since the only other female character was a murderous bitch.

          At the same time, Avluela’s character is so whimsical… 😛

          • I have a Silverberg short story collection I ordered that should be in any day now and I cannot wait to check out his stuff. I really enjoy his articles in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

  5. Hi, the link for January is now up: http://main.gatheringbooks.org/?page_id=230

  6. Hi Grace, I’ve been intrigued by Nightwings for the longest time now, I’m glad to see your review about it. We will have our link up soon for January and you can definitely add this one in.

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