Review: Nightwings by Robert Silverberg

“Having lost our present and our future, we had of necessity to bend all our endeavors to the past, which no one could take from us if only we were vigilant enough.”
~Robert Silverberg, Nightwings

Plot summary

“Robert Silverberg’s enduring classic about one man’s journey to find salvation for a planet on the brink of destruction.

For 1,000 years, mankind has lived under the threat of invasion from an alien race. After the oceans rose and the continents were reshaped, people divided into guilds – Musicians, Scribes, Merchants, Clowns, and more. The Watchers wander the Earth, scouring the skies for signs of enemies from the stars. But during one Watcher’s journey to the ancient city of Roum with his companion, a Flier named Avluela, a moment of distraction allows the invaders to advance. When the Watcher finally sounds the alarm, it’s too late: the star people are poised to conquer all.

And so with the world in turmoil, the Watcher sets out alone for the Hall of the Rememberers, keepers of the past, where humanity’s last hope for survival might be hidden.” More on Goodreads

On Robert Silverberg

“Robert Silverberg (born in 1935) is one of science fiction’s most beloved writers, and the author of such contemporary classics as Dying Inside, Downward to the Earth and Lord Valentine’s Castle, as well as At Winter’s End, also available in a Bison Books edition. He is a past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the winner of five Nebula Awards and five Hugo Awards. In 2004 the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America presented him with the Grand Master Award. Silverberg is one of twenty-nine writers to have received that distinction.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Hilarious examples of what happens to place names when time passes
  • Categorization of humanity according to profession
  • Alien look into strange humanity

At first I was slightly hesitant with Nightwings by Robert Silverberg. It seemed to have FANTASY written all over it and I’m not a huge fan of the genre. But as pages flew by, I learned to really like the story. There was a strange but luring sadness in the characters and the mental landscape of the world the novel depicted.

Authors Ian Stewart and Robert Silverberg at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki. Photo: ST ©
Authors Ian Stewart and Robert Silverberg at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki. Photo: ST ©

The atmosphere in Nightwings is exotic. Humanity has transformed into something we contemporary dwellers of Earth cannot relate to and cannot begin to understand. The reader gets a glimpse of an otherness, something that most likely could not be in our thoughts of how we humans become in the future. Even the rhythm of language is quite different from what we are used to. Silverberg captures beautifully what really makes science fiction the best genre. It plays with our imagination and invites the reader to view the world from a different perspective.

“There are other themes for poetry besides immersion in the Will, my friends. The love of person for person, the joy of defending one’s home, the wonder of standing naked beneath the fiery stars—” The invader laughed. “Can it be that Earth fell so swiftly because its only poets were poets of acquiescence to destiny?” 
~Robert Silverberg, Nightwings

The main protagonist in the novel – the Watcher – experiences a late coming-of-age situation. Dominant features of his everyday life change as the story progresses. An interesting part of the novella is the fact that a lot of energy is wasted on “watching” out for the alien invasion. However, when the invasion takes place, it does not seem to have an impact to expect with all the preparation done.

The novella poses the question in what ways are we represented by the professions we hold. In the book, one’s guild comes first, individuality seems an idea that does not receive as much attention. The world in the novel is a mix of magic and the middle ages.

The invaders remain alien, to say the least. One does not get under their skin, they remain mysterious forever.

I had a chance to meet Robert Silverberg at a panel discussion on “Science Fiction Gone Wrong” at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki this August. The panelists – Ian Stewart, Anne Charnock, Alex Weinle, Annalee Newitz and Robert Silverberg – discussed failures in science fiction, be it in terms of future prediction, tastelessness with historical facts or market failures.

The 14th World Science Fiction Convention, 1956. Photo: slomuse / Flickr (Public domain)
The 14th World Science Fiction Convention, 1956. Photo: slomuse / Flickr (Public domain)

I enjoyed Anne Charnock’s analysis on Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. She posed the question why many science fiction writers have remained silent on the human birth mechanism. Artificial wombs are not found in many books. Anne Charnock’s recent novel Dreams Before the Start of Time is now on my to-read list. I also wish to explore further books by Silverberg, I really like his style.

Have a good weekend!

Other novels and stories by Silverberg
  • The Man in the Maze (1968)
  • Downward to the Earth (1969)
  • The Book of Skulls  (1971)
  • A Time of Changes (1971)
  • Dying Inside (1972)
  • Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980)
  • At Winter’s End (1988)

More information
– John DeNardo: Nightwings by Robert Silverberg, published in SF Signal on 7 March 2004, link retrieved on 17 August 2017

“It was as though our invaders had passed the word through the galaxies: SEE OLD EARTH NOW UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.”
~Robert Silverberg, Nightwings


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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