Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2010.
“Our Lady of the Sauropods”, I called it, and when Omni published it in the September, 1980 issue, the cover announced, “Robert Silverberg Returns!” I imagined the puzzled readers, who surely were unaware that it was seven years since I had deigned to write short stories, turning to each other and saying, “Why, wherever has he been?”
There wasn’t anyone to turn to when I first read that story. I was alone in a pickup truck during downtime at a construction site in the summer of 1980. But I recall being slightly puzzled at the implication Silverberg had been gone.
With this volume of Silverberg’s stories, I enter that part of his career where I read a lot of these stories when they first appeared. Others I first came across in Bantam Spectra’s first in a series of one volumes collecting Silverberg’s stories.
Many I hadn’t seen before.
A surprising number are fantasies or non-fantastic stories of Americans having strange experiences in Third World Countries. An American academic recovering from the “wreckage of his marriage” tries to wheedle his way into a mushroom-worshipping cult in Jerusalem in “A Thousand Paces Along the Via Dolorosa“. Silverberg’s fascination with cacti and a story from his friend, botanist Paul Hutchinson, gives us “How They Pass the Time in Pelpel“. How the inhabitants of a remote village in Chile pass their time is following a strange auto race.
Silverberg has an admitted fascination with Mexico, “its mixture of tropical sunlight and eerie pre-Columbian darkness”, Mexican dance masks, and that shows in two tales. A collector of those masks has a chilling encounter with something that only looks human in a remote Mexican village in “Not Our Brother“. The death of Silverberg’s friend Philip K. Dick led to the Dickian reality-slip tale (rather like Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) “The Changeling” where, outside the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, a man slides into a world where he has a wife and a new job.
Paleontology is another Silverberg interest and “Our Lady of the Sauropods” has dinosaurs, brought back into existence via cloning and put on a space station, plotting their return to Earth.
Elegiac and quite, “Waiting for the Earthquake” was written for Harlan Ellison’s Medea. In it, a man roams that planet. All the colonizing humans have left because the periodic and very destructive earthquakes are about to return. The hero sits out the end with a native — whose race, of course, has adapted to the earthquakes.
“The Regulars” is Silverberg’s one and only bar story — a bar that’s a sort of platonic ideal of bars with a changing cast of regulars.
“The Palace at Midnight” was one of those stories I read on first publication, and I liked this tale of a future, balkanized America just as much the second time. It’s the tale of how the weary protagonist, advisor to the Emperor Norton of San Francisco, conducts diplomacy to stave off a migration of refugees from the north. We hear of the Republic of Monterey, the Realm of Wicca in Oregon, the Free State of Mendecino (there are eleven states between Los Angeles and San Francisco), the Voodoo principality out of New Orleans, a Sioux state in Wyoming, a court of circus freaks (King Barnum & Bailey III in Florida), the Grand Duchy of Chicago, the Three Kingdoms of New York, and the Holy Carolina Confederation.
“The Pope of the Chimps” is one of Silverberg’s personal favorites. A group of researchers observing chimpanzee culture decides to introduce the idea of death, religion, and afterlife to them.
“Thesme and Ghayrog” is a placeholder for all of Silverberg’s Majpoor stories. In it, an angry young woman leaves her city of colonists to live a solitary rural existence and develops a relationship, in every sense of the word, with one of the world’s many aliens.
“At the Conglomeroid Cocktail Party” is one of Silverberg’s frothy tales of future sophistication and bitter disappointment. It’s set in a future where people design bizarre bodies for themselves and wear them for a short time as we do with fashion in clothing.
Before HIV and AIDS, there was genital herpes and that, transmuted to the metaphorical zanjak parasite, is “The Trouble with Sempoanga” from 1981.
And, of course, there are Silverberg’s signature time travel stories.
I’ve already talked about “The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve” for its World War One content. From the other side of the “terminator year of 2187” a man and woman flit from celebrated urbus to celebrated urbus: Nero and Caligula’s Rome, London during the Black Death, Cleopatra’s Egypt, Revolutionary Paris and Sarajevo 1914. But jealousy and suspicion start to intrude.
Invited to contribute a story for an anthology where the writers’ identities were solutions to a spot-the-style puzzle, Silverberg wrote “The Man Who Floated in Time“. It’s hero turns down a chance at time travel.
Resurrection via time travel occurs in “Gianni“. One Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, his early promise to surpass Mozart cut short by his death at age 26, is brought into our time and sets out to conquer the music business — no matter what genre of music his patrons think he should pursue.
A husband’s marital satisfaction and fidelity is shattered when he learns the unusual pedigree of his romantic competition in “Jennifer’s Lover“.
If “The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve” is a play on C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season“, “Needle in a Timestack” can be said to be a riff on William Tenn’s “Brooklyn Project”. In this world, temporal tourism constantly rewrites personal histories — and supporting documentation, naturally. But, for three or four hours after such a “phasing”, you know somebody has accidentally or deliberately altered your past. And the protagonist thinks his wife’s ex-husband is trying to sabotage their marriage.
In my review of The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. 1: Secret Sharers, I’ve covered some of the other stories here, and I don’t really have much to add this time around:
- “Dancers in the Time-Flux”
- “Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory”
- “Amanda and the Alien”
- “Snake and Ocean, Ocean and Snake”
Themes and Motifs (with spoilers)
Looking at these stories, conveniently presented chronologically, in the context of Silverberg’s divorce and the 1970s and, probably, Silverberg’s proximity to San Francisco, I sensed a certain social conservatism, a skepticism of the attempts of modern mores to rewrite marital relationships, and a reconciling to less than perfect romantic pairings. This also plays in with Silverberg’s characteristic themes of alienation and loneliness.
Out of alienation with her own kind, the Lady of the Sauropods chooses dinosaurs over humans.
The hero of “Waiting for the Earthquake” sees no reason to leave his home and join his kind even if it means his death.
Acidic jealousy and suspicion leads to the end of the not-so-chaste, not-so-monogamous love affair at the heart of “The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve”. Sex with the historical natives is fine but not sex with another temporal tourist.
“Jennifer’s Lover” is an attack on the self-fulfillment of Jennifer when she goes off into the future and leaves her husband and children. When she return years later, she finds they have no time for her.
“Therme and Gharyrog” is a realistic portrayal of a young woman who lurches, perhaps out of young contempt for her own culture, perhaps to deny her own bigotry, into a strange and casual sexual relationship with an alien — who can not reciprocate her love no matter the physical pleasure he grants. She ends up healed, wiser, and back with her own kind.
The fleeting sexual pairings of “At the Conglomeroid Cocktail Party” go hand in hand with a very modern disdain for the categories of biology and nature. The brave new world does not erase the old problems of cliques and introduces new ones.
Dangerous casual sex is at the heart of “Not Our Brother”. The hero of “The Trouble with Sempoanga”, reconciles himself to a relationship with the woman who infected him with the zanjak parasite and doomed him to quarantine on the planet.
Another threat to marriage, successfully overcome, is at the heart of “Needle in a Timestack”.
He Shows Up All Over
“Amanda and the Alien” was made into a movie, and Silverberg has a cameo — as a Jeopardy contestant.
A few years ago, while watching Professor Robert Greenberg’s lecture series How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition, Silverberg’s “Gianni” was mentioned in connection with Mozart. Greenberg loved the story and is a neighbor of Silverberg.
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