For those who reach the voyage's end, the last chapter of The Face of the Waters will determine whether one loves or hates the book. Till that point, though, the voyage presents heavy sailing.
The author starts with a strong premise: human criminals have been exiled to Hydros, a world of floating artificial islands whose inhabitants, the "Gillies," grudgingly grant the intruders asylum. After the earth's destruction makes their exile permanent, they must build a society on the fringes of the Gillies' world.
Conflict arises on Sorve, where the family of Valben Lawler, the island's hereditary doctor, has lived in precarious contentment for generations. When, though, Nid Delagard, a crass, but powerful shipowner who makes Sorve his port, accidentally kills some semi-intelligent marine mammals, the Gilles peremptorily order him and all of the other humans on the island to leave it within thirty days, on pain of death. Even the intercession of Lawler, who trades on his family's services to the Gillies, fails to move them, and he and his companions are cast out of their marginal Eden.
The story of their quest for a new home follows the traditions of the great novels of the sea, in which the sky is the face of an impersonal god of nature, the surface of the sea a mirror of the human soul, and the depths a crucible of human experience. The goal of the islanders' quest mutates under the influence of the endless sea and of Father Quillan, an apostate priest who both doubts and longs for the exsitence of a personal God. Heeding Father Quillan's exhortations, Delagard turns his fleet away from the inhabited islands and towards the Face of the Waters, a mysterious natural island taboo to the Gillies. There, the voyagers learn the true nature of their adoptive world and face a choice that will evermore alter their nature.
In telling his sweeping tale of a voyage of discovery, Mr. Silverberg deliberately frustrates many of the conventions that would involve the reader in it. Meticulously described, fascinating alien organisms emerge from the depths, only to play apparently no further role in the story. Other creatures, for no apparent reason, attack the fleet and destroy persons and ships as abruptly and unsentimentally as death does in real life.
The characters are often more frustrating than the setting is. Coarse, selfish, and short-sighted, they speak, not in the artificially clear and significant speech of conventional fiction, but in a style that faithfully reflects the ambiguities and banality of everyday fiction, and the narrowness of their own lives.
Mr. Silverberg's greatest challenge to the reader is his choice of a viewpoint character: a man alienated from his society and even from himself. Although Valben Lawler holds a respected position in his society, he himself is a loner, largely content to be a passive observer of life. (As a symbol of his distance from the world around him, he regularly doses himself with an extract of numbweed, which dulls his perceptions as well as his pain.) Wishing to preserve his memories of a happier past (the earth's and his own), he interacts only reluctantly with his crewmates. Thus, whatever joys and sorrows they feel reach the reader through the filter of an outsider's mind
In the end the novel's seemingly pointless events and disagreeable characters fall into a pattern: looking back from the Face of the Waters, one can see why the sea had to be hostile and the characters petty. At this point one's response to the ending will be as personal as an evangelist's presentation of the Gospel. What the reader brings into one's reading will determine whether one finds the ending triumphant, tragic, or trivial. Mr. Silverberg has created a work that challenges rather than caresses the reader, and leaves one to find for oneself the work's significance.