Recently I felt like it was time to re-read Robert Silverberg’s 1980 book Lord Valentine’s Castle. It’s mostly an excuse for a travelogue of his fictional world of Majipoor – a huge, low-gravity world somewhere in an unfashionable corner of the galaxy, ruled by a succession of humans, inhabited by a half-dozen different alien races who have ended up there, including the mysterious shape-shifting natives. I think it might have been the first book I ever read with that sort of setup but it certainly wasn’t the last, and I doubt it was the first one to do that kind of setting, either.
It is an oddly relaxing book. Silverberg’s focus is much more on wandering across this place than the intricacies of plot or character; the titular Valentine changes, and goes through the odd bit of danger, but once the first of its five sections is over and he’s become unequivocally convinced that he is, indeed, the Lord Valentine of the title, the Coronal of the entire planet (“king”, basically, though it’s not entirely hereditary), mind-swapped into an amnesiac body as far from his castle as it’s possible to get, pretty much every obstacle is solved by Valentine thinking really, really hard at someone and convincing them that he is the Coronal, which almost invariably results in them immediately going to their knees and accepting his complete authority. The only people he can’t sway like this are the shape-shifting natives of the planet, and since that encounter takes place midway through the book, it’s pretty obvious that he’s going to find a way out.
Those almost invariable results of “I was wrong to ever deny you anything, o great and powerful Lord Valentine!” bring me to something I’m not entirely certain Silverberg intended: this story is wholly built around the assumption that Valentine’s office is divinely ordained. There is nobody who questions whether or not he is fit to rule once they have been convinced that he is really who he says he is. He is the Coronal, and everyone across Majipoor venerates the Coronal. It’s a curiously traditional attitude for a book advertising itself as SF to take (though this is the softest of soft SF, really it’s just an excuse for a fantasy land with occasional lasers and an assortment of critters who aren’t straight out of Tolkien).
There are a couple of bits where this is vaguely touched on. Characters talk about how the false Coronal is poisoning the entire world with his succession of selfish decrees designed to enrich himself and his cronies, and to fight against his fears. Which, well, those sure resonated with the end of 2020 in the United States, where we have a con man who stumbled into being the President and ended up making the country literally sick with his botched, selfish response to a pandemic that sprung up just before the last year of the first term. Though I think Trump is more a symptom of a sickness that’s been growing in this country for my entire life, if not for its entire history.
And if you care about spoilers for a forty year old book, do not click through to read more…
Ultimately it turns out that the whole “replace the real Coronal with someone else in his body” plot comes from the mysterious shape-shifting natives of Majipoor, the “Metamorphs” who were there when Humans and Skandars and Vroons and Liimen and Hjort and all the other various aliens landed on the world and declared it theirs. The ones who’ve been bundled off to reservations in mediocre parts of the planet, the ones who’ve got a savage reputation despite some mind-bogglingly massive ruined cities scattered across the world, and a well-deserved grudge. And, well, that really does kind of turn the whole “false Coronal as a sickness” metaphor on its head, doesn’t it? Every single character in this book is a descendent of an invader who laid claim to this place, and the whole book is the story of a failed attempt to return it to the rule of its original owners. Which is pretty resonant with the sins buried at the root of the US, now that I think about it. And others atop that; not long after I finished the last chapter, a group campaigning to take down all the statues and street names honoring slavekeepers and Confederates in New Orleans paraded past the cafe I was sitting outside of.
I think Silverberg’s intended themes are more something about the power of Love to conquer All, the hero is named Valentine and he is perpetually trying to solve his problems in the least violent, nicest ways possible. But “this world is getting sick because it has a fake king, who is actually an agent of the natives of this place who have been falsely characterized as savages after being conquered” sure is what I found lurking under its surface when I read it. I find myself curious if Silverberg addresses this in the six more books he wrote set in Majipoor. I somehow suspect he does not.
Anyway. That’s some thoughts I had about a book I read.
Also: this horsebeast that features on the cover of the edition I read totally fucks. Sadly there is not an actual character of “a snarky, horny horsething” anywhere in the book. That would have been a fun foil to Valentine’s continued sweetness and light.