A fine example of early Bob Silverberg, To Open the Sky is the absorbing story of an overpopulated and economically depressed world clinging to the outcome of a religious schism for its salvation. But is the schism itself a pure public relations ploy, a machinated affair whose intricacies are known only to its elusive and enigmatic founder?
Silverberg effectively constructs a narrative on an epic scale — nearly a century of time between 2077 and 2164 — within a taut 200 or so pages, demonstrating once again that the present-day tendency towards bloat in SF and fantasy publishing is not necessarily the only way to convey big ideas set against a big canvas. Noel Vorst is the founder of a new religious movement rooted squarely in science. Though there is plenty of spiritualist window dressing to appeal to the emotional needs of the disaffected, the promises of the Vorsters are materialist to a fault. There is the promise of potential immortality, as well as the ultimate colonization of the stars, a promise unfulfilled so far due to limitations of technology.
But interfering with the Vorsters' plans are the Harmonists, a renegade sect founded by the apocryphally-named David Lazarus, martyred for his opposition to Vorst's political and economic ambitions. The Harmonists have since emigrated to Venus, whose colonists have had to undergo dramatic physical alteration to adapt to the environment. One by-product of their genetic changes (and this will probably annoy hard SF purists) is a sharp increase in such paranormal abilities as telekinesis, which Vorst sees asthe key to breaching interstellar distances. Yes, ordinarily my eyes roll so much they making a sloshing noise when I encounter such things as ESP, precognition, and other psychic hooey in a science fiction novel. (In a fantasy they're fair game.) This is very much a plot device of Silverberg's here, explained perfunctorily as a genetic thing rather than anything magical. But the upshot is that within the context of his story, Silverberg hasn't undermined To Open the Sky's effectiveness, because the principal thematic focus is the relationship between the Vorsters and the Harmonists. Over all of this is a convincing and often trenchant examination of the way religion is, first and foremost, a business and a political force in society that serves its own ends before any other consideration.
When a surprising development — the discovery of Lazarus' burial place on Mars — stands to change the balance of power in the schismatic struggle for humanity's future, each side is brazenly honest (at least with themselves) about whether or not this will be good or bad for business.
To Open the Sky is episodic, but due to its brevity and efficient pacing, there is never a feeling of narrative disjointedness. And each of the book's five parts offers compelling character development, following the fates of several key players as they fall into the clutches of either the Vorsters or Harmonists and each side's hidden agendas. Most interesting the Faustian tale of Christopher Mondschein, who joins the Vorsters but is undone by his overweening ambition. Immediately conscripted as an unwitting spy by the Harmonists, Mondschein finds himself facing a fate that he must turn to his advantage, though it is as far from where he had originally hoped to end up as it could be. When the machinery of politics and religion are in motion, human lives are often lost in the backwash.
The book's unresolved ending might seem anticlimactic to some, if only for the fact that we've been conditioned to expect Big Finishes. I was okay with it. In real life, there really is no such thing as a problem that is solved as ideally as they are in pop entertainment. Most highly recommended — more proof, if any were needed, that used bookstores are your friend.