Open Road Media was kind enough to provide me with this electronic version of Robert Silverberg's novel At Winter's End. It is the first part in a duology and is written after his 1975-1980 retirement from writing science fiction. May people feel Silverberg produced his best work in the early 1970s but this later phase in his career has yielded a number of interesting novels. I don't think this one will be ranked as one of his best but it is a very interesting read nonetheless, especially for readers with a taste for post-apocalyptic fiction.
Hidden away in a cocoon a small group of 60 or so creatures is waiting for the end of an asteroid bombardment that has rocked to planet for hundreds of thousands of years. Their way of life has been shaped by the need to survive on few resources and keep sheltered form the falling debris and subsequent drop in temperature. But, as predicted by the ancients, the bombardment won't last forever. The signs of impending spring are felt by the community. When they discover their hideout is being threatened by huge Ice-eaters, it is the last push the need to leave what has been their home for countless generations and venture out into the empty world and reclaim it.
Silverberg takes an interesting approach to post-apocalyptic fiction in this novel. Such a huge expanse of time gapes between the civilized world that has been destroyed and the cold and desolate place our heroes discover on their departure that everything that was known about it, has turned into myth. One of the main characters, a boy named Hresh, is the keeper of a stack of ancient written records that have been handed down for generations, copied and then copied again, until the language appears archaic even to the trained mind of Hresh. In effect, they are facing the world like it is a new planet. There are things of things left behind but the truth hidden in the ancient text has to be rediscovered. Time and again Hresh and his tribe run into things that would be obvious to the reader but hard to accept for anyone not used to it. Silverberg obviously kept that in mind while writing the novel. He pays a lot of attention to the recapturing of concepts from a more complex society.
One of the first riddles Silverberg presents to the reader is the nature of out main characters. They think of themselves as humans, their chronicles tell them they are, but from the description it is obvious to the reader from the very first pages of the book, that they are not. Silverberg builds on this throughout the novel. He casts doubt on what has been written in the chronicles for one thing. This is something Hresh in particular, will be struggling with. He also provides the tribe with the quest of finding out about their origin. As the tribe comes across more and more hints that they are not what the ancients thought of as human, they are forced to redefine their position in the world, just as the reader is forced to question what it is that makes us human.
Another challenge that runs through the entire novels is the huge shift in focus, from a society that is forced to strictly regulate their numbers to one that has the space to expand rapidly. During their time in the cocoon, Silverberg's tribe have imposed an age limit on themselves. Voluntary death at the age of thirty-five to make space for the next generation. It's unclear what the natural lifespan for the species is, but it is quite a bit more than that. The age limit is one of the first taboos that is broken during the trip as the tribe needs everybody in order to replace their losses and build a new society. It one of many such taboos. There are others regarding mating and sex as well as restrictions of knowledge and very well defined social roles for each member of the tribe. When exposed to the outside world, all of these structures crumble and the tension this cause in the community inevitably results in conflicts.
At Winter's End is not an action-packed story but rather a tale that exposes the fault lines in the tribe's culture and stresses them to the maximum. We get to see a culture stressed to the breaking point, on the edge of violence and exposed to circumstances the ancient ones didn't prepared them for. Things get even more interesting when they find other survivors of the long winter. A group whose culture has drifted in quite a different direction. I thought is was interesting to see that in a world so empty, people can still find reasons to fight over possessions of territory.
Technically I suppose you could call this novel science fiction but with the treatment of the distant past as a time of myth and great wonders, it has a clear fantasy atmosphere to it. Maybe Silverberg felt the times were changing, anticipating the rise of fantasy at the expense of science fiction. This novel is a blend that will appeal to readers of both genres. There is a lot of things hidden in the text for the reader that points back to our world and more advanced civilizations but to the tribe, all the ancient stuff is mostly magic and work of the gods. Only a few characters try to understand what they see beyond placing it in their religious framework, introducing yet another source of conflict in the story.
There is more than meets they eye to this book. To a superficial reader it might seem a tad slow and in need of a good dose of action but it provides what a science fiction novel is supposed to provide, food for thought. And plenty of it. The position the characters find themselves in invariably mirrors some shift in the culture and societal structure of the people, and finding out what is going on on that level is perhaps even more fascinating that following the lives of the tribe's individual members. It is perhaps not the most interesting novel for those who like very character driven stories but if you like looking at the big picture, At Winter's End is a novel you'll enjoy.
Title: At Winter's End
Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: Open Road Media
First published: 1988