Sailing to Byzantium • 1985 • Far future SF novella by Robert Silverberg


This is the first entry of this reading project. What a great start 🙂

Synopsis: In the 50th century, only a few thousand people remain on Earth, living in five cities. The cities recreate historical sites like Alexandria, Timbuctoo, or New Chicago, filled like a theme park with human-like “temporaries” for scenery and as servants. Every few years, a city is dismantled and a new one created in a different place.

The narration follows Charles who was brought to the scenery of Alexandria from his 1984 home in New York. He doesn’t remember exactly of his former life, but has been around with one of the never-aging beautiful citizens.

Life is easy, they don’t have to work, get everything they ask for. After visiting Alexandria’s famous library and the huge lighthouse, they relocate to Chang-an, attending the emperor’s feasts.

Charles wonders about historical accuracy, because there are also Dragon races and different mythological beasts included. The world starts to feel very foreign, and his girl-friend disappears.

Review: The title of this novella cites a poem by Yeats, and includes citations from the poem. Silverberg discusses immortality, identity, and reality in here – not as a boring philosophical treatise, but in his trademark accessible and effortlessly flowing masterful style.

The length of the novella gives Silverberg enough room to explore the glorious historical sites as well as Charles’s character. Charles realizes in several stages the working of the world as he follows his girlfriend, passing through several emotional states.

Silverberg extrapolated from the basis of Yeats’s poem, and it is up to the reader’s taste if this endeavour is successful. I didn’t look back too much on the poem and enjoyed the story in and of itself.

While I think that other works from Silverberg like Lord Valentine’s castle are even better in narrative style, this novella is near perfect. With two very strong contenders for awards from Zelazny (24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai) and Tiptree (The Only Neat Thing to Do), it won the Nebula and was placed second in Hugo and Locus.

Highly recommended for readers of far future SF, interested in another utopian/dystopian view by this Grandmaster of SF.

Meta: isfdb. It won the Nebula award and was placed second in Hugo and Locus. I’ve read it it in the anthology Best of the Best Vol.2.

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15 Responses to Sailing to Byzantium • 1985 • Far future SF novella by Robert Silverberg

  1. bormgans says:

    I’ve read two novels by Silverberg so far, that guy can write for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pdtillman says:

    And bookstores! I mean, sure, you can find anything online. But it just ain’t the same, as fondling the book before you buy it! Not to mention, serendipity. Not to mention: that’s where most of the author talks took place!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Redhead says:

    I’ve got a copy of this, but haven’t read it yet. Really loved Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Vintage Month #SoManyLinks | the Little Red Reviewer

  5. lydiaschoch says:

    Sailing to Byzantium sounds like such a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lexlingua says:

    Wow, that’s a lovely review. Haven’t come across the library at Alexandria in too many books. And I can see the appeal of a novella that runs across cities and explores their histories.

    For some reason, I first confused this with a book by Guy Gavriel Kay, then I remembered that one is “Sailing to Sarantium”. Wonder if there are any parallels to Yeats’ poem there as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      Thank you Lexlingua (is that how I should call you?) 🙂
      That’s a nice catch, and I completely forgot about GGK’s book. Thanks for bringing it up.
      Sarantium is indeed GGK’s version of Byzanz, and if I remember correctly, Kay admitted that the title is based on Yeat’s poem (sorry, I have no reference here).
      Now, a literary analysis could uncover the relevant topics (eg immortality) in that work and relate it to Silverberg’s work. Alas, it’s too long that I’ve read that novel, and have only shallow memories.


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