Monday, March 11, 2024

Two Linked Novels by Robert Silverberg: Regan's Planet and World's Fair, 1992

Two Linked Novels by Robert Silverberg: Regan's Planet and World's Fair, 1992

a review by Rich Horton

I have been trying to finish reading all of Robert Silverberg's "early period" novels. This may seem a silly quest, for after all Robert Silveberg is celebrated as a writer whose early career was marked by extreme prolificity more than by particularly strong work. And I don't deny this at all! Still, I'll say that he learned to write skillfully and professionally very quickly, his early novels, while none of them are of truly lasting value, are mostly quite readable, and often engage with worthwhile and interesting ideas. 

Famously, Silverberg "retired" from science fiction around 1960, and turned to writing mostly popular science and history -- and doing so quite well. But around 1963, Frederik Pohl, editor of Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow, lured him back, urging him to write more ambitious fiction. Silverberg quickly produced some exceptional short fiction, and by 1967 he was also publishing exceptional novels. 

There's a curious interregnum there, however -- what about those novels that appeared between 1961 and 1967? Some may have been -- some certainly were -- novels already in the pipeline, or novels based on already published short work. And there were a few YA novels. But one at least stands out as neither of these -- Regan's Planet, from 1964. Silverberg states in his introduction to the 1982 reprint of World's Fair, 1992, that he wrote it in 1963. Clearly he was not "fully" retired from SF -- but does this novel stand with his best later work? No. 

Anyway, I feel like I should call it a transitional work of sorts. It's well written, in a very professional fashion. But it is not as ambitious as most of his post 1967 novels. It's not in any sense experimental. And, it's never been reprinted -- it's only publication was a 1964 paperback.

For all that, Silverberg did produce a sequel -- the other book under review here, World's Fair, 1992, which appeared in hardcover from Follet in 1970. It was marketed as a YA novel, but it did get a reprint, from Ace Books in 1982. During the late '70s and early '80s, several of Silverberg's early novels were reprinted by Ace, sometimes in omnibus form, and with couple of different book designs. These featured genial introductions in which Silverberg explained the genesis of the novels and admitted that they weren't up to the quality of his later work but were, in his view, worth resurrection. This edition of World's Fair, 1992, doesn't really seem to be part of that series of reprints -- the novel is a later work, for one thing, and the book presentation is much different. But it does have a genial introduction, discussing the writing of each novel, and, most importantly, clearing up some confusion. Apparently -- and, to my mind, not surprisingly -- many readers assumed that World's Fair, 1992, was simply a retitling of Regan's Planet. (This claim even ended up in some bibliographies.) It was a somewhat plausible claim for a couple of reasons -- one, that World's Fair, 1992 is a thoroughly reasonable title for Regan's Planet; and two, that neither the paperback edition of Regan's Planet nor the original hardcover of World's Fair, 1992 were readily available to check. Instead, World's Fair, 1992 is a YA novel, set during the period of Regan's World's Fair. (Regan's Planet ends just as the Fair begins.)

Regan's Planet is centered around Claude Regan, the head of Global Factors Inc, which by 1990 has become probably the most powerful corporation in the US, having bought up a lot of companies during the Panic of '76. Regan himself, only 35, took over the corporation years later in a power play in which he ousted his uncle. And suddenly he is summoned by the President, who asks him to take over the running of the planned 1992 World's Fair in the US, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage. It's 1990 -- so Regan has only two years, and a site hasn't even been selected.

The bulk of the novel follows Regan's efforts to stage the Fair. His biggest innovation is his choice of a site -- instead of choosing one of the many US cities angling for the job, he decides to have it in space. He will have a large satellite built, 50,000 miles* up, and also build a fleet of spaceships to shuttle visitors back and forth. In this depiction, the biggest problems aren't engineering -- he hires a Brazilian firm to build the satellite, for example, and they seem to slap it together in no time. His biggest problems are financial, and the novel shows him making some desperate maneuvers, which risk bankrupting Global Factors. He also has to fight off an internal takeover attempt by people unhappy with the financial chicanery he's trying. 

Other aspects of the novel include a depiction of a much changed international political order. The US and the USSR are still important, but clearly on a downward slide, with countries like Nigeria, China, and Brazil becoming the new world powers. The book attempts to portray the other countries in a positive manner, but there is some stereotyping (and one cringey sideways reference to South Africa.) There is essentially only one female character, Regan's wife, and their marriage is displayed as quite toxic. 

The plot, besides the financial aspects, turns on the difficulty of attracting enough visitors to pay off the debts Regan incurred to set up the space station. There is a lot of reluctance, partially due to the cost of the trip, and partially due to fears after some apparently spurious threats to attack the station surface. But Regan comes up with a spectacular, if icky, solution -- there are colonies on Mars, and very recently men have discovered a few living "Old Martians" -- the indigenous inhabitants, a dying race. Regan decides to build a representative Old Martian cave on the station, and invites a few of them to come and live in the cave for a year. And if they're not interested? ... well, I'll leave that for the reader to see.

It's slickly written, and a quick read, and there are some interesting aspects, and a moral conundrum (well, not THAT much of a conundrum!) and a decision for Regan to make at the end. I thought the science and engineering aspects were brushed over a bit -- which is to say, I was not convinced that the space station could be built in that time and be suitable for so many visitors, nor was I convinced by the Mars colonies or especially the Old Martians (who seem very similar to those in the otherwise unrelated middle grade novel Lost Race of Mars). Regan himself is not a very inspiring character, though his eventual fate suggests a better path for him. And, of course, the future history up until 1992 bears little resemblance to real history -- indeed, the book was written a few months before JFK was assassinated, so it was already obviously out of date when published in 1964. But you can't blame the author for that! In the final analysis, it's a pretty minor book, more evidence of Silverberg's professionalism but no real evidence of his ability to treat deeper themes that was soon to show up in his novels.

A little bit to my surprise, I liked World's Fair, 1992 rather more than Regan's Planet. The protagonist is Bill Hastings, a high school senior interested in xenobiology who won an essay contest to spend a year on the World's Fair satellite. His essay concerned the possibility of life on Pluto, and while on the satellite, he will be part of the team maintaining the exhibit of the Old Martians. 

Bill soon realizes that most of the other young people working at the Fair got their positions due to their families' wealth or influence, and he's rooming with a couple of wealthy young men, though they seem decent enough. He's also met (literally) a pretty girl of about his age, who ran into him as he was trying to find his way after arriving. This is Emily Blackman, the daughter of a Senator, and she seems to be a fairly, well, bitchy young woman. As Bill's roommates warn him -- one of them is her cousin, and the other also knows her socially.

Work in the Mars Pavilion turns about to be pretty interesting. Seven scientists are using the opportunity to study the Old Martians as extensively as they can. Bill is adopted as a gofer, but also as a bright young student who they all want to recruit to their branch of xenobiology. Over time Bill seems to make a slight connection with the six Old Martians, who remain stoic and not terribly interested in anything outside their own situation. Bill also realizes that the scientists are all, to one degree or another, appalled with the decision to uproot the six Martians and bring them to the Fair. Bill also has a chance to spend some time with Emily, and he starts to feel attracted to her, and to feel that she is attracted to him. But the Fair in general isn't doing so well -- after an early rush of interest, attendance has fallen drastically. There is a risk that the Fair will have to close early. (This is clearly a change from the implied situation at the end of Regan's Planet, but to be fair, that novel did end only as the Fair was starting.)

But Claude Regan has a plan. (He always has a plan.) His company happens to have magically developed, in the nick of time, a nuclear-powered spaceship that can get to Pluto in only a couple of weeks. He has sent an unmanned probe there, which has found evidence of life -- life resembling the sort of life Bill Hastings has speculated Pluto might feature. So now he wants to send a manned expedition, in the hopes that they can grab some samples of Plutonian life and open a Pluto Pavilion, to attract more visitors. And -- he wants Bill Hastings to be on the expedition, to take advantage of his having, sort of, predicted all this.

Well -- we can guess the outline of the resolution. Will the expedition find samples of life on Pluto? Will there be some adventure, even some danger, making Bill a hero? Will the expedition over all be a success, and save the fair? Will the notoriety gain Bill a foothold on the xenobiology career he wants? Will this raise Bill's status with Emily enough to make his dreams come true?

The answers to these questions are smoothly revealed, and really they make a lot of sense in the context of the novel. Is a lot of it a bit silly? Sure -- like the convenient appearance of frankly unbelievable two week travel times to Pluto. But I took a lot of this in stride, as consistent with a lot of SF shortcuts, particularly in YA novels (but adult novels too.) The emotional core of it all pretty much works -- Bill's interest in xenobiology, his worries about Emily's vastly different social status, the attitudes of the scientists to their morally queasy study of the Old Martians, and to the potentially similarly queasy issues raised by the discovery of the Plutonians. It's a smooth read, of course, and interesting even though implausible, and I liked it. A reprint of both Regan's Planet and World's Fair, 1992 in an omnibus edition would be kind of neat, though I daresay the audience for it wouldn't be all that huge.

*The orbit is stated to be "fixed" over the United States at 50,000 miles, but that really makes no sense (and the fuel costs of maintaining position over the US (not a true "orbit") would be, er, astronomical.) A geosynchronous orbit (at a radius of some 26,200 miles from the center of the Earth) would be more logical, even though it would not always be over the US.


  1. Ah, I missed this review -- sorry!

    What would you rank as his best pre-Thorns novel?

    I've had very little luck with his earlier novels to be honest. But, as you point out, they are told in a slick way despite how fast he was cranking them out. To Open the Sky (1967) was an okay fix-up.

    1. To Open the Sky is indeed a decent fixup -- of exactly the stories he wrote at Pohl's urging him to be more ambitious. I'd say that his best before then are The Seed of Earth and Recalled to Life -- both early '60s reworkings of stories he wrote in the late '50s. Both show more ambition that his earlier work, but with enough frustrating missteps that they don't quite hold together.

      I also retain a sneaking fondness for his Nidorian stories, co-written with Randall Garrett as by "Robert Randall".