The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. 1: Secret Sharers

This is not the later collection of Silverberg’s shorter science fiction by Subterranean Press. That arranges his work chronologically.

This was the first in a series of one by Bantam Spectra though I understand HarperCollins of the UK did follow through with more volumes in that project.

Always an efficient writer, Silverberg recycled some of the story notes in this series for the Subterranean Press series.Secret Sharers

Raw Feed (1993): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: Secret Sharers, Robert Silverberg, 1992.

“Introduction” — Introduction where Silverberg talks of his commitment to writing short stries as well as novels even though the former are harder for him to write and don’t pay as well.

Homefaring” — At the core of this story is an old idea – around since at least H. P. Lovecraft’s “A Shadow Out of Time”: consciousness being displaced in time to inhabit the body of another sentient being. In Lovecraft’s story, the protagonist’s consciousness switched with that of a being of an ancient race. Here a man from the future goes even further, in his disembodied consciousness, in the future to inhabit the body of a giant lobster. It’s a hoary idea but Silverberg pulls it off with slick skill and grace, makes it believable and interesting. In his introduction to the story, Silverberg sees himself working in the giant creature sub-genre of sf. At story’s end, I agreed with the protagonist. The life of a giant, sentient lobster of the future is not at all a bad thing. It’s a life of dignity and community. I liked Silverberg’s world of many different kinds of intelligent invertebrates in the global sea of a future Earth. Silverberg also does a real nice job at showing the emotions of his protagonist: first shock at being in an unexpected future. He expected to only go a 100 or so years into the future to a still human world. He ends up in a world where humans are a geologic memory, is surprised at the attraction of the lobster society, reluctant to return home while there are yet sights to see and is troubled at readjusting to his world and faintly longs to return to his “true kind” – the lobsters.

Basileus” — As Silverberg himself says in his introduction to the story, this is an essentially corny idea: computer nerd uses computer to talk to angels. But as he also says – and proves absolutely with this story – no idea is corny if done right. Silverberg writes a compelling story, filled with details (from pre-existing lore and his own invetion) of angelic apearance and dates, about a computer programmer who has constrained angels to do his bidding via his computer, a man who works for the military on an anti-missle defense program and whose life is so empty that he really can’t think of a good reason not to end the world and cull it before the celestial court of judgement as he assumes the role of angelic judge of worlds, Basileus.

Dancers in the Time-Flux” — I liked this tale of a pilgrimage through a bizarre, surrealistic world of the far future where mankind has split into several forms, cultures, and philosophies (Eaters, Travelers, Awaiters). I liked the inclusion of historical personage Oliver van Noort, 16th century Dutch circumnavigator of the world. I liked his transformation – after he is swept into this far future – from a traveler for profit to a traveller for wisdom, the friendship he strikes up with Traveler Bhengarm, and his ultimate decision to being physically transformed into a Traveler. [This is set in the same world as Son of Man.]

Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory” — The subject of this story and its style reminded me of medieaval dream literature like Langland’s Piers the Plowman, and, of course, the very title refers to the classical idea of false and true prophetic dreams. I liked the dreamy, hallucinogenetic quality of this story, and it has a very true statement and emotion at its core. The narrator, somehow dreaming of a future where death has been vanished, where there is happiness and plenty, rages that this future is so close yet forever closed to our generations, perhaps the last to taste death. It’s a potent idea, and, given advances in technology, perhaps a plausible one. I think of this when reading about nanotechnology and cryonics and their possible advances in technology. I suspect Silverberg has similar thoughts though this story was written too early to take nanotechnology in account. The last bit of the story, where the narrator is given immortality by the inhabitants of the future before they return him to our time, didn’t quite work in generating a final irony or more emotion. Silverberg resorts to the idea of a coming dark age before the future golden age. Still, the narrator will have to view the death of his world and loved ones knowing he won’t share their fate, that salvation is close but denied. On second thought, the ending does generate some emotion.

Amanda and the Alien” — Another old idea: an alien that devours people and animals and assumes their identity. But Silverberg proves yet again he can make these old ideas work well in this story of smart, shallow, amoral, hedonisitc teenage Californian Amanda who, because she’s bored one weekend, helps said dangerous alien elude capture by giving it important fashion and social pointers on how to blend into California life since said alien is markedly affected by spices. The alien kills her boyfriend who stood her up for the weekend’s date. Amanda tries sex with the alien after he’s assumed her boyfriend’s appearance and, after it bores her, turns the alien in. As Amanda herself says at story’s end, California teenage girls like Amanda are a lot worse than any shape-shifting alien. Horror, humor, and good satire from Silverberg.

Snake and Ocean, Ocean and Snake” — Tale of an telepathic, extramarital affair carried on by a man and woman. Both have had trouble finding any other telepaths even sane enough to talk to much less be romantic with. It’s a simple, well told tale of telepathic, sexual love that can’t be comfortably, physically requited. (Telepathic emanations become painful close up and the shielding required kills intimacy.)

Tourist Trade” — Another good Silverberg story (this one, according to the introduction, was quite hard for Silverberg to write) based on another old idea used at least, if I remember its plot, Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal. This one had some bizarre, unwholesome, but oddly attractive elements. Specifically art-dealer and quasi-smuggler Eitel longs for sex with a beautiful woman – even after he discovers it’s an alien inside a “traveling body”. The experience is a collectible one for the alien, another bit of experience from its trip to Earth. The alien reveals that its race doesn’t have strict male female divisions. For Eitel, its an exhilarating brush with the unknown, and he suspects he may try to repeat the experience with other alien races on Earth. It’s a sleazy yet understandable yearning Eitel develops.

Multiples” — This story has a very original premise. In the future, multiple personality types have developed a subculture that revels in what was formerly a malady. (Appropriately enough it’s in San Fransisco. I suspect Silverberg picked the locale not only because he lives in the area but because there are several parallels with San Fransisco’s homosexual cultures. Multiple personality disorder is reveled in, not considered a disease just as homosexuality went from a psychological disorder to a personal statement. There are bars for multiples where they can bring out more than one personality at once just as gay bars are a big thing in San Fransisco. And there is a certain clubbishness to both subcultures. Most interestingly, multiple personalities can sometimes be induced. This story has sort of the same flavor about it as Silverberg’s “Tourist Trade”. Both feature protagonists mysteriously – and somewhat understandably – attracted to sex (and romance here) with the bizarre. Some might consider an intimate relationship with someone who might become someone else at a moment’s notice disturbing and frightening, but, for protagonist Cleo, a singleton, it’s the only kind of man (or, rather, men) that attract her. She’s even willing to fake MPD to get a date with a multiple. He sees thorugh her acting immediately but is still attracted to the intensity of her longing to be a multiple and tries, unsuccessfully to turn her into one. The love affair is doomed. But Cleo, at story’s end, is willing to try it again though I’m puzzled by what she hopes to do since presumbably (I thought this a weak point in the story) any multiple man will see through her. Silverberg seems to have many stories about lonely people finding communion and companionship in strange places and/or subcultures: “Tourist Trade”, “Homefaring”, “Sundance”, this story, and “The Feast of St. Dionysius” to name a few. Alternately, as in his Man in the Maze, several stories of his deny this need of humanity.

Against Babylon” — This story has another hoary idea at its heart: aliens come down to welcome us into that old “confederation of worlds” and take away a human ambassador to visit their planet. And it’s another good Silverberg story as he brings – as he characteristically does to those old ideas – a great depth of emotion to this tale and more of his typical rumination on what this event means for human relations. Specifically, this tale concentrates on the husband of the woman who chooses to leave with the aliens and why she chooses to. Silverberg also brings other nice touches. The three landing spacecraft accidentally touch off fires that consume – it’s heavily implied – all of Los Angeles. Silverberg’s love/hate relationship with the bustle, cultures, and unreason of this Babylon on the Pacific inspired this story. Protagonist Carmichael may have LA’s flakiness, may believe his wife Cindy to be uncorrupted by the city she loves, (and he hates) but he realizes she shares the love of dream, fantasy, and wonder that marks the city even though she is different enough to actually go with the aliens. He looses the center of his life and dies fighting the flames surrounding the city, flames caused by the aliens that took his love away.

Symbiont” — I liked this grim, nasty tale written as a homage to the pulp Planet Stories. This story involved a symbiotic organism (not harmful enough to be a parasite but certainly not beneficial) infesting a man, said organism the offspring of a war with the alien Ovoids where both sides use parasitical organisms against the other. But this organism has complete control over the nervous system (inducing and inhibiting erections, messing around with the bowels, causing pain), is a palpable entity to the mind of the host, and prevents the host from committing suicide. There was an element of the revenge tale with the host tracking down the old war buddy who was supposed to kill him when he became infected. There was bitter irony when the war buddy’s girlfriend takes up the cause of murdering the host to free him and herself and has to be killed by her lover when she was infected. Another hoary idea polished up with Silverbergian emotion and character relations.

Sailing to Byzantium” — There’s a philosophical flavor to this story like Silverberg’s Up the Line and C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and Silverberg’s sequel “In Another Country”. The idea of history as entertainment and the horror this creates in the people on the stage. Yet, Silverberg also knows the grandeur and horror of history is entertainment to us, that, like the denizens of this world, our knowledge of history is imprecise, jumbled, mythic (though here actual mythical beasts are recreated). I also noticed that Silverberg creates an engrossing story but takes a long time to introduce conflict. He gets by for a long time on the dreamy quality of his resurrected history.

Sunrise on Pluto” — Of all the stories in this collection so far, this probably has the most original idea behind it: lifeforms on Pluto that have superconducting “circuits” for metabolism and helium II for “blood”. Even Pluto’s day is too hot for them, and they shut off. The story’s simple, but adequately made, point is that the discovery of life off Earth would have as profound of psychological consequences for humanity as the work of Copernicus did especially since man in this story has explored the rest of the solar system and assured himself it harbors no life – not even in the most likely areas – but comes across it in the most unlikely place.

Hardware” — Silverberg is right in his introduction. This is a light story about an intelligent artifact built by the race that inhabited the planet that was destroyed to make the asteroid belt. (Silverberg is well aware that this idea of the asteroid belt’s origin has been scientifically discredited.) Said destruction was a simple matter and, in recounting its history, the sentient computer is all too happy to share the knowledge with humanity. The narrator knows its but a question of time before man recreates the technology.

Hannibal’s Elephants” — Humorous (unusual for Silverberg) tale of alien invasion. It had a few laughs. I especially liked the expanding timeshare condo which goes from one room in the day to three at night and has all the furniture on tracks.

The Pardoner’s Tale” — A tale of Earth under an oppressive alien yoke. The aliens draft people to work on their various projects whether it’s the hard labor of building walls around cities or the horror of being tested to total destruction. The Pardoner is a genius hacker who sells pardons (mostly genuine – but not always since he doesn’t want to get a reputation big enough for the alien Entities to start looking for him) that exempt people from the labor draft. I liked three things in this tale. I find grim tales of alien occupation fascinating. I thought the character of the protagonist/narrator pardoner was realistic. He could just assign free money to himself rather than sell pardons. But he likes the hack as well as doing good deeds. He also enjoys challenging other hacker’s to duels – a trait that gets him into trouble when he unknowingly challenges an android, part of an Entity anti-hacker program, tied into the alien mainframe and gets caught. He is psychologically shattered when he’s beaten – until he finds out his opponent wasn’t human. This seems a realistic portrayal of a hacker’s ego, arrogance, and dedication to the hack. Lastly, I liked the irony of a woman the protagonist stiffed long ago for a pardon granting him a pardon after his arrest. I also thought his motive for stiffing the woman – she ignored his romantic advances – was plausible. Nice, grim, psychologically true tale.

The Iron Star” — With this story, Silverberg proves he knows his science and is willing to do a story grounded in hard sf. I liked this story’s ending: the protagonist, descended from dispossessed American Indians, condemns the first aliens humanity meets to death in a black hole since they express no regret at not warning a nearby alien race of the supernova that kills them. They’re looking for their ancestrial sun that has mysteriously vanished – they never developed the idea of black holes in their astrophysics. The narrator, understandably and, perhaps correctly, decides such a callous race does not need to know of man’s existence. Humanity may never meet them again.

The Secret Sharer” — I read the model for this story recently: Joseph Conrad’s (an idol of Silverberg’s) “The Secret Sharer”, and this story is a good translation in terms of tone and plot – though, as Silverberg points ou,t the story is not just one of changed nomenclature. The sf elements are important. I liked Silverberg’s portrayal of the Service culture made up of people who have forsaken the dirt of planets (and sometimes their body too) to live for centuries in the isolation (they often go for weeks without seeing other crew members) of huge starships. And I liked the masterly job Silverberg did in describing the wonders of those vessels which have annexes, extensions, and “virtualities” beyond their regular reality. (Silverberg borrows the language of quantam physics to describe them in terms of probability waves). There are some interesting plot differences (and similarities) between this story and its model. Conrad’s tale ends with the escape of the young officer, destined to wonder the earth like vagabond Cain. Here the young female stowaway leaves ship to meet a certain death though she leaves a sort of psychic impression (a potent memory) behind in the captain. Like Conrad’s tale, both captain and stowaway share a desire to flee their homeworlds and feel alienated from their orgins. In Silverberg’s story, however, there are a lot of differences between the stowaway’s impulsive recklessness and the staid calculation of the captain though the captain realizes his decision to let the stowaway’s matrix pattern hide in his mind is an impulsive one. I find it interesting that the physical space of the captain’s cabin in Conrad’s story is transformed here into mental space. Just as the captain’s cabin is frequently entered by others in the Conrad story without the stowaway being discovered, people, via jacklinks, enter the captain’s mind here. However, in this case, the stowaway is discovered. Both stories feature a captains uneasy relation with his crew and the ship being jeapordized at story’s end to enable the stowaway’s escape. In this story, the death the stowaway causes is an accident caused after breaking free of the matrix confinement she can’t bear, an imprisonment of a sort. In Conrad’s tale, murder is committed by the stowaway in anger while he’s trying to save the ship and then he’s imprisoned.

House of Bones” — Nice story of pre-history (via time tunnel) from Silverberg showing there’s not a sub-genre of sf he can’t do. Silverberg brings rich prehistorical detail to this tale of a time traveler stranded with Cro-Magnons on the steppes of Western Asia. Silverberg’s Cro-Magnons are attractive, artistic, joyous people full of life and who rightly regard our hero as a “retard” though he contemplates turning them on to beer, bridges, and swimming. Silverberg takes a swipe at his sex novels of the past and other pre-history stories by having his narrator remark that all sexual practices were invented long ago. The plot itself is nifty. The hero thinks the tribesmen want him to kill one of the last of the extant Neanderthals, but he can’t bring himself to kill the friendly, dog-like creature. He’s afraid the Cro-Magnons will kill him. In fact, he’s passed their test of humanity, and he’s introduced to the secret languages and practices of the tribe.

The Dead Man’s Eyes” — Silverberg takes a really hoary idea here, actually a superstition, and turns it into a competent story with the Silverbergian emphasis on relations. Here the idea is that a murdered person’s eyes show their killer. (Silverberg does a nice job of rationalizing this idea by a index listing of neurological, computer, and legal terms in one paragraph. It’s pure suggestion by association without actual explanation.) The murderer, in his life as a fugitive apart from his beloved wife, changes from the impulsive man who kills his wife’s lover and ruins three lives to a more moderate, different man. This transformation is outwardly symbolized by the alteration of the face which marked him as a fugitive. I suppose Silverberg’s point is how the commission of a crime can not only profoundly – and adversely – affect the victim but also the perpetrator.

Chip Runner” — The surly, brilliant, anorexic, teenaged hacker of this story is unpleasantly realistic. However, what I noticed most about this story is that it’s sort of a mediaeval dream quest into the sub-atomic world. (I liked Silverberg’s description of anorexia as an expression of a supreme ability, a show of ultimate will in denying a primal urge and need.) . There is no real rationale given for the hacker’s ability to descend into the microcosm. You can even argue that there is no real proof of the reality of his visions. The narrator/psychiatrist (or psychologist – it’s not preisely stated which he is) shares his vision in part and (through a dream vision no less) thinks the hacker descends into the bottom, ultimate reality level of the microcosm upon his death, but there’s no proof of that. Is the narrator speculating and/or perhaps wishing this is true? Lastly, the obsessive pursuit of the hacker to view the smallest, most basic level of reality and his ascetic discipline of starvation to achieve that end reminded of a mediaeval monk’s pursuit to know God. A curious flavor for a story ostensibly involving high tech circuits for computers.

To the Promised Land” — I liked this story better on a second reading. I think Silverberg’s introduction notes help in showing what his intent was – to show a world without the effect of Christianity. First, I couldn’t help thinking that the climax of this story – the Jewish rocket (and the world’s first manned rocket) blowing up – story was probably inspired by the 1986 space shuttle Challenger blowing up. (This story was written in 1987.) Second, I liked a religion based on a disasterous rocket accident and an exodus to space. (A great leap of faith assuming you’ll find a habitable planet.). I liked the decadent Second Republic (which seems to be rather behind in science and technology judging by their poor cars – I place this story in the early 21st Century) as a sprawling empire whose religious and cultural diversity has dissipated its energy. It’s an interesting speculation.

The Asenion Solution” — This story proves that Silverberg can write humorous and gadget/hard sf (not necessarily the same but this story exhibits features of both subgenres). This is an amusing story, a tribute to Silverberg’s dear friend Isaac Asimov for the tribute anthology Foundation’s Friends and has its orgin in a feud between Silverberg and Asimov. The latter thought a Silverberg joke was a sign of scientific ignorance. (specifically about the isotope plutonium 186 – an impossibility since it would rapidly declare though I must confess said point was not immediately obvious to me). The two reconciled, and this story was a lark by Silverberg to fully heal the rift. The result is a story that has the wit and style and learning of an Asimov piece, a story about the irritating genius (half based on Asimov says Silverberg in the notes) Ichabod Asenion (a misspelling of Asimov that once occurred in a magazine) and his solution to said problem of disposing of plutonium 186. It involves that miraculous substance thiotimoline (subject of a spoof PhD thesis Asimov wrote before getting his own PhD) whose molecule is contorted into “adjacent temporal deminsions” – i.e. the past and future. A fun story, a warm tribute to Asimov and a pretty good imitation – intentional or not – of Asimov’s writing.

A Sleep and a Forgetting” — On this second reading of this story, I noticed how often Silverberg blantantly refuses to offer a complete rationale for his sf stories. Here the wonder of speaking to citizens of a distant and alternate past is cheerfully acknowledged to violate physics and unexplained. This raises a philosophical/literary question on defining sf as fantasy with a scientific or pseudoscientific, technological rationale. (On second thought, the physicist speculates that the spacetime warping of the sun has produced this effect.) To define a story as sf just because uses the terminology of science and technology even if its to say there is no explanation for the fantastical events given? (Of course, such things as aliens are evoked by evoking unstated assumptions of sf). Perhaps the best course is to fall back on an operational (Silverberg’s “Chip Runner” is another which uses science and tech terminology but presents even less of a rationale – part of the reason for its medieaval dream quality) genre definition and say if the author wants to present a story in an sf context to readers bringing sf assumptions and conventions to bear than its sf. Even on second reading, I liked the notion of the “hypercautious” historian/narrator unleashing the checked energies of a Genghis Khan (here a devout Christian.) on an unsuspecting world, inviting us to speculate on a militant, vast Christian Empire. I think this story benefits in being presented separately from the place I first read it: What Might Have Been; Vol. 2: Alternate Heroes. Like many of the stories in that anthology, it deals more with the moment history changes rather than the consequences of that change and that’s rather disappointing for an alternate history. Here we’re left to speculate on our own, and, divorced from specific expectations, the story seems better.

 

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One thought on “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. 1: Secret Sharers

  1. Pingback: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. 5: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82 | MarzAat

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