“Sailing to Byzantium” is a long “short” story of 59 pages from Robert Silverberg. Silverberg, who sold his first story in 1954, went on to become one of the most respected writers in all of science fiction. He is a particular favorite of mine because of his special talent for creating fully developed, believable characters to inhabit the pages of his science fiction and fantasy stories. No matter how outlandish or speculative the plots of his stories, it always feels like they are happening to real people.
“Sailing to Byzantium” is set in a 50th century world in which only five cities exist. These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, ordinary cities; they are replicas of major cities from the past that have been reconstructed here as they were in their prime solely for the pleasure of this world’s citizens to explore and experience them. From time-to-time, one of the cities is “retired” and replaced by a new one so that people will always have a new experience to look forward to. Since no one in this world seems to have a job anymore, rotating the cities on a regular basis plays a major role in keeping boredom to a minimum.
The five cities are all staffed by “temporaries,” a group of people there to play the roles of those who lived in the actual cities in the past. As the story begins, the current cities are: Chang-an, Asgard, New Chicago, Timbuctoo, and Alexandria. The story’s central character is a “visitor” to the 50the century, a tall man who has vivid memories of the “Old Chicago.” The man knows almost nothing about himself except that he is different from everyone he has met so far. He remembers that his name is Charles Phillips and that he has somehow been transported here from his 1984 life…whatever that may have been like.
Phillips wonders about the true nature of the “temporaries” he encounters as he explores different cities with his 50th century girlfriend. Are they real or are they something less than human? But wonder as he might, definitive answers are hard to come by until he meets another “visitor” from the past for the first time ever. Phillips is astounded to learn that this Viking warrior from a period in time much older than his own has figured out a few things for himself that never occurred to Phillips’ more “modern” self.
“Sailing to Byzantium” is first class science fiction, but it really hits its stride when it shifts into a story of true love between the twentieth century Phillips and his doomed fiftieth century girlfriend. This story is too easy to spoil by saying much more, so I’m going to stop right here. Silverberg fans are probably already familiar with this one and how it turns out, but if you are not one of those hardcore Silverberg fans, I recommend that you find “Sailing to Byzantium” and enjoy it as a standalone read. It’s a good one.