A retro review from February 20, 2012 …
Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Two: To the Dark Star, 1962-69, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2007.
Just buy the book, buy this whole series whether you’re only curious after hearing Silverberg’s name or if you have some of his collections and novels or if you’re a hardcore Silverberg collector.
Yes, with the exception of “(Now + n, Now – n)”, all these stories seem readily available in cheaper versions – theme anthologies, award anthologies, best of the year anthologies, and, of course, many of Silverberg’s own collections.
So why should you pay for this expensive, limited edition collection (or even the cheaper Kindle edition)?
Well, if you’re new to Silverberg, it’s a way of sampling the variety of this amazingly prolific and protean author via some nice, handsome editions without the repetition you’d get by collecting Silverberg’s previous collections.
If you’ve already got some Silverberg collections in your library, it’s a way of seeing his development as a writer since the stories are arranged chronologically.
And everybody will benefit from Silverberg’s lengthy notes which help place each story in the literary and commercial contexts of science fiction at the time. And you can see not only Silverberg’s variety but his occasional returns to characteristic themes and tropes – history and time travel, specifically – or how he works variations on an idea in a few back to back stories.
This volume picks up after a four year gap between it and the first volume of the series. In 1958, the bankruptcy of a major magazine distributor resulted in the end of many science fiction magazine titles, and Silverberg’s markets dried up. Silverberg may not have been writing science fiction short stories, but he was making a comfortable living writing softcore sex novels, popular works on archaeology and history, articles for men’s adventure magazines, and a juvenile science fiction novel. Editor Frederik Pohl lured him back into writing short length science fiction with an agreement to buy everything Silverberg wrote – even if he didn’t publish it – if Silverberg would put aside glib and “quick-buck hackwork”. And so he did. The years covered in this volume saw the writing of some of Silverberg’s most famous and enduring works and his first nominations and award victories. These were the years just before Silverberg’s most prolific – and darker, more sardonic – era.
Those famous works are many:
- “To See the Invisible Man” where those deemed antisocial are sentenced to a legal invisibility.
- “Flies” whose hero is altered by aliens and sent home to wreck havoc on his ex-wives.
- “Hawksbill Station”, in the Late Cambrian Epoch, is where future political exiles are sent.
- “Passengers” is a chilling science fiction horror story of alien possession.
- “Ishmael in Love” one of those 1970s dolphin stories but a funny one.
- “Sundance” where aliens, genocide, and his past elaborately and puzzlingly mix in the Amerindian protagonist’s head.
- “How It Was When the Past Went Away” is what happens when San Francisco’s water supply is tainted with LSD.
- “A Happy Day in 2381” is a jaunty look at an overpopulated future – except its hero thinks things are just fine. This was the first of six stories that became the novel The World Inside.
- “After the Myths Went Home” has the bored denizens of the future resurrecting legendary figures from myth and history. That spoilsport Cassandra has some things to say about the future
The lesser known stories, still all worthwhile reading, are:
- “The Pain Peddlars” are future reality tv producers who literally record pain and transmit it to their bored audiences.
- The “Neighbors” are two men on a sparsely populated planet who wage war on each other with robotic armies.
- “The Sixth Palace”, seemingly inspired by all those popular archaeology books he was writing, is about an alien treasure horde guarded by a robot who, Sphinx-like, gives lethal quizzes.
- The “Halfway House” is a place where a human, in exchange for a cure of his cancer, toils away screening charity applicants for aliens. One of the lesser stories here given the ending seems a bit contrived.
- “To the Dark Star” is one of the first science fiction short stories to use a black hole.
- “Bride 91” is a future farce of galactic miscegenation.
- “Going Down Smooth” has a computer covering up, with its therapist, its anxieties and nightmares.
- “The Fangs of the Trees” is sort of an Old Yeller story mixed with the lesson that the universe sometimes doesn’t give good choices.
- “Ringing the Changes” features a malfunctioning body switching service which complicates the lives of its customers but also offers new and permanent options for change.
- “(Now + n, Now – n)” is Silverberg attempting humor of a sardonic sort but, mostly, it’s an interesting time travel story involving three versions of the narrator.
- “The Pleasure of Their Company” tries out the idea later used in Silverberg’s Time Gate series – simulating the personalities of historical and fictitious persons. Grafted to that idea is the story of a man fleeing in the wake of an unsuccessful political revolution.
- “We Know Who We Are” a lesser, far future story about the price of being adventurous.