In a world numbed of feeling, he felt deeply. In a world drained of passion, he loved fiercely. In a land of anti-people, he dared to search his soul and find himself. Prince Kinnal Darival was an alien in his homeland, a traitor to the realm his fathers ruled. Yet it was Kinnal Darival who would decide the destiny of Velada Borthan. For the planet's fate lay in a drug which promised any man a meeting with Infinity, a drug which could spread throughout the planet and destroy it — a drug contained in a small flask which the Earthman Schweiz was holding out to Kinnal Darival...
All of Velada Borthan (the northern continent of the planet Borthan) abides by the Covenant, a set of guidelines laid down over a thousand years ago, not long after the planet was settled by humans. The Covenant holds that we should keep our problems to ourselves and not burden others with them, that we should be strong and self-contained. The greatest sin they can imagine is self-baring, the sharing of thoughts and feelings with another. In fact, it is a breach of etiquette to use a first-person singular pronoun. When they speak of themselves, they must use the third-person
one. An offshoot of this is that it is improper to say
I love you. The closest they come is
One feels love for you, which is not quite the same thing, and is a risqué thing to say, as it shares too much self.
But on the southern continent, called Sumara Borthan, people do not hold to the Covenant. They use a drug there which is the supreme abomination to the northerners: it dissolves the wall between people and enables complete sharing of thoughts and emotions.
In this book Silverberg invented a unique society — I can think of nothing very like it in all of science fiction. It may sound bizarre in the brief description I've given, but in the book it is explained so well that it seems plausible. And those who hold by the Covenant are (for the most part) treated sympathetically, not ridiculed for their beliefs. In fact, the only people who are shown negatively are the hypocrites who claim to hold the Covenant but in fact violate it. There are some veiled criticisms of aspects contemporary religion, particularly the Catholic practice of confession.
After Kinnal takes the Sumaran drug, he becomes a sort of evangelist for a new way of living, one where people can share their lives and emotions with others, where it is possible to love one another. For when people share the drug, they are not horrified by each other's inner thoughts and petty faults, but see them so completely that there can be nothing but love between them. Deep down, we are all worthy of love. This is a fiercely positive statement for the Silverberg of the early 1970s, who was known for his dark and even depressing stories (like Dying Inside and The World Inside). But don't expect a happy ending.
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