The Sorcerer of Majipoor

18 Jan

Robert Silverberg’s creation of the giant world of Majipoor ranks almost alongside Frank Herbert’s Dune as one of the most iconic settings in all of science fiction. Majipoor, which has a diameter at least ten times as great as that of Earth, was settled in its distant past by colonists from our own planet, who made a place for themselves amid the Plurivars, the intelligent indigenous beings, known to the new arrivals from Earth as ‘Metamorphs’ because of their ability to alter their bodily forms. Majipoor is an extraordinarily beautiful planet, with a largely benign climate, and is a place of astonishing zoological, botanical and geographical wonders. Everything on Majipoor is large-scale, fantastic and marvellous. The Majipoor series has been both successful and ground-breaking but Silverberg might never have written it following the collapse of the market for science fiction stories at the end of the 1950s. Silverberg was a voracious reader and writer from childhood and made his start contributing science fiction short stories to pulp magazines almost as soon as he graduated from Columbia University, where he studied English Literature in the mid-1950s. It was only in the mid-1960s that science fiction writers were allowed to become more literarily ambitious and Frederik Pohl, then editing three science fiction magazines, offered Silverberg carte blanche in writing for them. Thus inspired, Silverberg returned to the field that gave him his start, paying far more attention to depth of character development and social background than he had in the past and mixing in elements of the modernist literature he had studied at Columbia.

In the Majipoor series – which consists of more than a dozen novels, novellas and short stories written over a period of thirty years – Silverberg examines all sorts of subjects which affect the human condition, like race, war, economics and spirituality. Over the course of thousands of years friction between the human colonists of Majipoor and the Metamorphs eventually led to a lengthy war and the defeat of the natives, who were penned up in huge reservations in remote regions of the planet. During those years, also, species from various other worlds came to settle on Majipoor – the tiny gnomish Vroons, the great shaggy four-armed Skandars, the two-headed Su-Suheris race, and several more. Some of these – notably the Vroons and the Su-Suheris – were gifted with extrasensory mental powers that permitted them to practice a form of sorcery. But throughout the thousands of years of Majipoor history the humans remained the dominant species. They flourished and expanded and eventually the human population of Majipoor came to number in the billions, mainly occupying huge and distinctive cities of ten to twenty million people on Alhanroel, the largest of Majipoor’s three continents. Zimroel, the second continent, is a place of gigantic cities interspersed among tremendous rivers and great unspoilt forests while the torrid third continent in the south, Suvrael, is largely a wasteland of Sahara-like deserts. The planet is ruled by an unusual tetrarchy: an adoptive Coronal rules in a highly visible and symbolic manner from his palace atop Castle Mount; the previous Coronal retires to become the Pontifex, the head of the bureaucracy in an underground Labyrinth; the Coronal’s mother becomes the Lady of the Isle of Sleep, promoting the morals of Majipoor by sending dreams to its inhabitants; while a hereditary King of Dreams on the distant continent of Suvrael punishes wrongdoers by visiting them with nightmares. Ultimately a fifth position, representing the Plurivars, is created when the humans and Metamorphs of Majipoor at last reach an understanding of sorts.

The first of the Majipoor novels, Lord Valentine’s Castle, tells of a conspiracy that succeeds in overthrowing the legitimate Coronal, Lord Valentine, and replacing him with an impostor.  In the sequel, Valentine Pontifex, the now mature Valentine, having successfully reclaimed his throne, must deal with an uprising among the Metamorphs, who are determined to drive the hated human conquerors from their world at last. The story collection, The Majipoor Chronicles, depicts scenes from many eras and social levels of Majipoor life, providing detailed insight into a number of aspects of the giant world not described in the novels. The novella The Mountains of Majipoor, set five hundred years after Valentine’s reign, carries the saga into the icy northlands, where a separate barbarian civilization has long endured. The Prestimion Trilogy, set a thousand  years prior to Valentine’s time, tells of an era in which the powers of sorcery and magic have become rife on Majipoor. We learn little of the galaxy that exists beyond Majipoor but there are references in the books to the fact that the planet receives the occasional starship. For a number of reasons the reader is left with the impression that Majipoor is considered a backwater planet. Metals of all sorts are scarce, since the planet has a very light crust. Technology is both pervasive and rare at the same time. For example, draft animals are used for farming and transport, but the animals used (called “mounts”) were created genetically in the distant past. Many great engineering works are referenced, but these were created in the past also. Many modern technologies, such as computers, televisions and radios, seem to be non-existent or of very limited use. The average Majipooran lives a peasant lifestyle, and agriculture is a common occupation. Silverberg’s creation therefore has strong echoes of the universe of Frank Herbert, where machines are mistrusted and technology is rudimentary. It is a fascinating series and planet, virtually unique in all of science fiction, and one which I hope you’ll be encouraged to explore.

7 Responses to “The Sorcerer of Majipoor”

  1. LediaR January 18, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    Sounds intriguing. I think I will look up the Majipoor series. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Samir January 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    My reading list is growing… But that’s ok when I read an informative and trust-worthy article like this 😉

  3. Raymond Frazee January 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    I have the first two books; bought them when they were first published. It is a fascinating world, and I wonder why they’ve not received more attention.

  4. David April 29, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    I bought and read the first three Majipoor books as they came out in the early 80s. Recently I decided to re-read them and have enjoyed them immensely. I have one more, The King of Dreams, which I will tackle next. I will try to find the four I haven’t seen. I think it’s a great world, and everything is ‘over the top’. The city of Ni-Moya, for example. On p85 of Valentine Pontifex people are enjoying ‘dark fireworks’. Thank you for your good article on Majipoor. It’s too bad other authors haven’t attempted such an elaborate construction. Like films, you are always in just a few places on a new planet, whereas Silverberg is always reminding you about the totality of the planet.

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