By 1973, the brilliant star of Robert Silverberg was set to go off the main sequence of science fiction.
His furnace of production had been going for over 21 years since his first sale in 1952.
Even judged merely by awards, he was burning very bright indeed between 1968 and 1973 when his work won six awards for various lengths.
But deep within the core of the Silverberg sun, all was not well. His personal life was in turmoil. There was the general political and social chaos of the Watergate era. But there was also his recent divorce and move from the New York City to San Francisco. [Correction: Silverberg mentions being married in 1973, and Wikipedia claims a date of separation from his first wife in 1976.]
His production dropped off under the stress. In all of 1973, he wrote only 81,000 words. There had been many months in his early days when he had written more.
And what he was writing was finding less favor with his audience. While he may have been part of the “stylistic and structural innovations” being worked on science fiction in the late 1960s, Silverberg considered himself more of a “reactionary writer” compared to Thomas Disch, Barry Malzberg, R. A. Lafferty, and J. G. Ballard.
Readers, though, were getting tired of all this literary experimentation:
What was fun for the writers, though, turned out to be not so much fun for the majority of the readers, who quite reasonably complained that if they wanted to read Joyce and Kafka, they’d go and read Joyce and Kafka. They didn’t want their s-f to be Joycified and Kafkaized. So they stayed away from the new fiction in droves, and by 1972 the revolution was pretty much over.
These are stories from Silverberg at the height of his powers.
Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 4: Trips 1972-73, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2009.
The stories in this volume are not hard to find. All are available in other sources. What makes this volume special is the intimacy, humor, and honesty of Silverberg’s notes. He’s arranged the stories in the order they were written and comments on each.
There’s no casting of a jaundiced eye by Silverberg on the chaos of his world, but there’s a fair amount of wry satire.
Its techno-orgy time “In the Group”. Its members use electricity and chemicals to share all the sensations of whichever of its two members happen to be having sex in all the old meaty configurations. Its pervy protagonist has monogamous intent towards a fellow member. As Silverberg says, it’s a glossy, fast, inventive, and bleak story.
The idea that doesn’t pass Silverberg’s muster in “Ms. Found in an Abandoned Machine” is the idea that science fiction can change the world. There are Amerindian tribes fomenting revolution, a time traveler out to “de-assassinate Lincoln” in the cause of race relations, and a covert appearance by Richard Nixon. Silverberg was and is thoroughly unconvinced about putting science fiction to missionary ends.
“The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” (not to be confused with the similarly titled anthologies Silverberg edited) is ambivalent about science fiction itself. Terry Carr, who asked for the story from his friend Silverberg, said it’s a story for people who hate science fiction. I agree with Silverberg that it’s ambivalent towards science fiction, but I can understand Carr’s reaction. I liked it, though. It is about a man who loves science fiction but wonders why he likes it. Is it the gaudy surface wonders that will never happen while the wonders of his own time do nothing for him? There is a memorable scene where he has sex with a woman while watching the first Apollo landing – and feels no thrill at either experience.
“Schwartz Between the Galaxies” is another look at the strange fascination science fiction holds for some of us. Schwartz is a big time, world famous anthropologist who travels about giving speeches, but finds himself escaping from his glitzy, rich, but homogenized, future into day dreams of travel aboard an alien-packed interstellar liner.
Another Jewish hero shows up in the shockingly traditional, in terms of plot and structure, story “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV”. The settlers of Mazel Tov IV have to decide if the soul of a dead Jew really has come back to possess the body of one of the intelligent, but primitive, local aliens.
Silverberg’s view of 1960s politics was ambivalent: sympathy for some of the diagnosis of social ills but suspicious of the offered solution. Combine that with his concern about overpopulation and you get “Getting Across”. The earth is covered by a giant megapolis. But it’s not a state of harmony or efficiency. Every little section of this huge city is its own polity, and the hero goes on a quest to find the one remaining backup copy of a computer program that manages his section of the city. He encounters marauders and cannibals, thuggish street preachers, and police ‘bots. To top it off, it’s his ex-wife that has the backup. As hellish as his future city is, Silverberg says he would rather live in it than his birthplace, New York City.
Silverberg set out to do the ultimate alternate history story with “Trips”. It has a man, with no real mechanism given, traveling to twelve versions of the area around San Francisco. Those versions include the favorite “Hitler Wins” variant and the Mongols coming to North America.
One of those fragmentary and elliptical stories Silverberg was writing around this time was “A Sea of Faces”. It, like Roger Zelazny’s “The Dream Master” (which Silverberg acknowledges was first and better), is a tale of psychotherapist entering into the dreamscape of a patient, and, by manipulating the landscape of symbols, effect a cure. It was my least favorite story. I indeed thought it too elliptic and too long.
“Breckenridge and the Continuum” is another elliptical effort, but one I liked much better. Its hero is a bored young stockbroker who has bouts where his consciousness slips into another dimension, seemingly in the far future. There he is on a pilgrimage through a desert, with four other men, to find a lost city. At night, he tells them greatly reworked and often conflated myths of Earth. The whole story is built around the structuralist theory of myth developed by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.
“Ship-Sister, Star-Sister” is also sort of an experimental effort. The bored Silverberg of those years has a lot about the game of Go in the story, a story he describes as Stapledonian. It involves a starship in contact with Earth via the telepathy of twin women … and then the telepathic channel starts to go dead. Another Silverberg story of social isolation. This one eventually was expanded into Starborne.
“Capricorn Games” is one of Silverberg’s favorite stories because he met his future wife Karen Haber through it. This story, set during the night of January 7, 1999 (the future, of course, when the story was written), has a fantasy feel to it and the smell and glitter of an expensive 1960s party with drugs, astrology, sex, telepathy, and an immortal. It’s another of Silverberg story about the dangers of getting what you wished for.
“This Is the Road” is one of my favorite Silverberg stories. It’s hard not to see this tale of a motley band of future human subspecies, fleeing before the barbarian invasion of yet another, as a metaphor for life and the chaos in Silverberg’s own life at the time. Some adopt to the new circumstances. Some refuse to.
“Born with the Dead” is Silverberg’s nova story, Silverberg at the height of his power. It is justly regarded a masterpiece. In a near future where the dead are “rekindled” and form a separate society of their own, a man obsessively seeks to understand and know his dead wife’s new existence. A story of such precisely controlled tone and so lacking in rationalizing technology or science babble that it has as much the flavor of a weird story as of science fiction.
“In the House of the Double Mind” looks at the consequences of the then trendy notion of split-brain research. (This is also the basis of Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece, A Scanner Darkly, from about the same time.) The charges of its heroines are all potential oracles. The promising ones will have the tissues connecting the hemispheres of their brains severed. The ones who don’t make the cut will get “culled”.
All stories worth reading except “A Sea of Faces”.
Additional Thoughts and Observations (with Spoilers)
“The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV” was written for Jack Dann’s Wandering Stars, an anthology of “Jewish science fiction” and, given its setting and theological speculations, thoroughly Jewish. But Silverberg notes that he had started rebelling against the “conventional Anglo-Saxonicity of most science fiction” in 1971 with his novels Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls. However, as he notes, the rebellion was pretty mild — mostly just using Jewish names for his protagonists.
I’m not going to get into the Great Global Warming debate. I will, without comment, pass along this exchange from October 1972’s “Capricorn Games”:
” — they say there’s been a permanent change in the weather patterns. Colder winters from now on, because of accumulations of dust in the atmosphere that screen the sun’s rays. Until we freeze altogether by around the year 2200 — ”
” — but the carbon dioxide is supposed to start a greenhouse effect that’s causing warmer weather, I thought, and — “
“Born with the Dead” is a masterful story, and I still regard it highly after this, my second, reading of it. And it’s not just me that likes it. It won a Nebula and Locus award. (I throw this in only for those who place more stock in awards’ value than I do.) It’s been reprinted many times and translated into ten languages.
But, with Silverberg’s comments in mind, reading it this time was like looking at a jewel that is beautiful to the naked eye but interesting, at the microscopic level, in its joints and stress lines, the places where individual crystals come together.
I think the strain of writing this story slowed Silverberg down and made him recast material from his past work. The end result was brilliant, but a brilliance of synthesis and not creation.
It was not an easy story for Silverberg to write. It took him about three months. He wrote Dying Inside in nine weeks. It was another take on an idea he explored in 1962 with Recalled to Life.
Silverberg, as a professional writer, has resorted to recycling his work at times. Back in the strange days when manuscripts were produced by striking metal into dye soaked cloth which, in turn, rested on paper, revising manuscripts was a tedious project. In his “My Life as a Pornographer!” (Penthouse Letters, December 1992), he explained how, in his days churning out sex novels, he wrote up a series of sex scenes which could be inserted, via carbon copies, in manuscripts as needed. In this collection, he mentions reusing a scene from “This Is the Road” in Lord Valentine’s Castle.
Here the recycling is more thematic and uses some of Silverberg’s non-fiction writing which, in turn, is often representative of his archaeological, historical, and paleontological interests.
The dead have a fascination with extinct animals which they manage to bring back in ways never really explained. But, since they are odd and seemingly perverse, the dead like to kill their new creations. The story concludes with the words “shooting dodoes under the shadow of mighty Kilimanjaro.” This hearkens back to Silverberg’s The Auk, the Dodo, and the Oryx: Vanished and Vanishing Creatures, a non-fiction work from 1967.
The dead have antique names — Zacharias, Sybille, Gracchus. The “travels and festivals” of the dead are held in places from some archaeological atlas. The dead are beneficiaries of new science, but they haunt more primitive worlds — “Zimbabwe, to Palenque, to Angkor, to Knossos, to Uxmal, to Ninevah, to Mohenjo-daro”. Those places and civilzations echo not only the subjects of many of Silverberg’s popular works of archaeology but his later title “Sailing to Byzantium” (another story titled after a poem).
Silverberg, creator of alternate histories, also weaves one in here. The dead Sybille, subject of the protagonist’s obsessive quest, is a scholar of the history of Zanzibar. At one point, just to mock her former husband, she spins an elaborate and fictitious tale of Zanzibar’s history. Silverberg also combined his historical interests — real and alternate — in his earlier 1066, a non-fiction look (with alternative history speculation) at the Norman invasion of England.
After “Born with the Dead”, the Silverberg star faded. He wrote two more short stories, fulfilled his contract for two more science fiction novels, and then the light went out.
But metaphors can lie. Humans aren’t stars.
Silverberg came back to science fiction after four years, but it would be twice that long before he again engaged with the painful process of writing short science fiction.