The best fiction makes us think about the real world in new and challenging ways. Robert Silverberg’s Tower of Glass is one book that has made me think quite a bit. Silverberg is one of the greats of New Wave science fiction that had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. In Tower of Glass, originally published in 1970, Silverberg offers up a plot that has echoes of the Tower of Babel, as well as Christian theology and other questions being raised. There will be SPOILERS in what follows. There are sexually explicit scenes in the novel.
The core of Tower of Glass‘s plot is that an alleged alien communication has been received on Earth and the wealthiest man in the world is trying to build an immense tower that will allow him to communicate via tachyons with these purported aliens. The man, Krug, was made wealthy by his inventions, the androids. The androids are separated in a kind of caste system by their abilities. They’re not robots, because they’re made of organic material, but they’re effectively a kind of specialized clone, so far as I can tell. These androids and their interactions with humans are the other major part of the plot.
The central question of the narrative, on a surface level, is whether androids and humans are equal. There is a political party dedicated to android equality. The androids themselves have developed a religion. It directly parallels Christianity in many ways, with its own symbology, liturgy, and hymns. It also has a distinctly trinitarian quality in which Krug is seen as a Christ figure for them, while they also worship a transcendent Krug. At one point in the novel, we’re told humans have cast off religions as a kind of relic of the past, but the plot itself leads to asking whether that is truly a way for humanity to transcend its roots or abandon reason.
Manuel, Krug’s son, is having an affair with one of the “Alpha” (highest functioning) androids, Lilith. The name is intentionally a reference to the woman from Jewish mythology, and the parallels between her manipulation of Manuel and the Talmudic Lilith are certainly a thread to pursue. After one scene in which Manuel has sex with her as he’s trying to reassure himself that he believes androids are equal with humans, she convinces him to go to his father to speak with him about android equality. Manuel brings one of the android holy books to his father, showing Krug that he is the center of their religion and hope for equality. Krug utterly rejects this, essentially undercutting himself as the androids’ god. The androids revolt, going on a mass rampage that will change the Earth forever. Krug kills his most loyal android, Thor Watchman, after he discovers Thor has caused the great Tower of Glass to topple. Krug then rushes to the spaceship he’s been building to try to get to the aliens for whom he’s building the tower. A few loyal–or perhaps nostalgic–androids aid him, and send him to the stars in the final scene of the book.
There are layers upon layers of meaning in this novel. I’ll start at the end. The Tower of Babel was described in the Bible as an attempt by humanity to reach the heavens–the realm of the gods. The Tower of Glass was an attempt by Krug to reach out to possibly mythic aliens, an obsession that he becomes increasingly enamored by as the novel goes on. The collapse of the Tower of Glass happens as worldwide rebellion strikes, sowing confusion, chaos, and fire. Babel’s construction was halted by confusion caused by the scrambling of languages in the biblical story. Krug takes it one step farther, finally escaping Earth in a real and symbolic rise into the heavens, the realm of the gods, as he pursues his own ends. We don’t know how his journey will end, but the possibility that he will simply be burned to a crisp by the star on the other end of the voyage is very real. The symbolism of the event in the novel is ambiguous. Accompanied by the fall of the Tower of Glass, it certainly resonates with the story of Babel, but in what way? Is the Glass like Babel–its own attempt to reach the gods in space and try to claim their arcane knowledge? I don’t know, but it’s this kind of science fiction that I love. It’s the kind that keeps us thinking.
The android equality movement and the question of the humanity of androids also looms large. The resonance of their clearly false religion with Christianity begs the question of what Silverberg is trying to say about human religion. Again, at one point Manuel notes that humans have essentially left religion behind. And with the religion of the androids being clearly false, one wonders what is being implied by this. The very object of the androids’ faith ends up a false god, fleeing from the planet during its greatest crisis, pursuing his vain dream of communicating with aliens. Yet the inherent need for a faith remains in the androids, as they send their theologians scrambling to make sense of the world events. And we also have to wonder about what humanity has done with the freedom granted by the androids. We don’t see much of broader society outside the narrow path Silverberg leads us on in the novel. But it seems that the humans we do encounter are self-obsessed, lazy, and even jealous of each other in some ways. They care little about anything except their own pleasure. Which people more closely reflect humanity in the novel? Is it the androids, with their faith seeking understanding, or the humans, who rely, essentially, on slave labor for all of their accomplishments?
Silverberg’s novel is clearly not a defense of religion. Indeed, it may be seen as an attack on religion. It could be argued either way. But what is clear is that we often make our own “towers” that we worship, creating idolatrous visions of what humanity can become if we simply try hard enough–or exploit enough resources and others–to do so. Tower of Glass is the kind of science fiction that makes us think more about our own lives and actions, and that’s the kind I love most.
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