Looking back in my posts after posting a review of volume six in this series, I see I hadn’t posted anything on volume one. I suspect that’s because, for whatever reason, I didn’t make notes on the last story in the book.
That makes this a …
Low Res Scan: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: To Be Continued, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2006.
“Introduction” — An interesting introduction to this, the first volume in what Silverberg says is the third attempt to collect his stories. Silverberg continues to amaze me with his prolificness while not working weekends and while in college. Here he casually mentions all the stories, as a professional writer (not working weekends but while in college), he sold in the years 1953-58. He says that he will let his mediocre sports and mystery stories languish. Silverberg is unapologetic about being a hack to fund sf projects he did care about. It was only years later that he discovered that the writers he admired, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon weren’t supporting themselves by in the same way. Leiber had an editorial job. Bradbury sold to the high paying slicks. Sturgeon simply lived near starvation — which Silverberg decidedly didn’t. However, he is happy to reprint his early pulp stories which he thinks show compentency and that he has affection for.
“Gorgon Planet” — Silverberg justly points out that this, his first professional sale, is nothing special. But it is pretty good for an eighteen year old, and he’s right in showing that he had an early command of effectively linking exposition and dialogue. The plot itself is a lackluster retelling of the Perseus-Medusa myth in a sf context.
“The Road to Nightfall” — This story of cannibalism in a New York City (Silverberg’s hometown) bombed out in a nuclear war is compelling. He had a hard time selling it. He suspects it was because the ending, where the hero morally collapses, and resorts to cannibalism, was not in the optimistic tradition of sf heroes solving problems. (A spirit Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” was obviously a rebellion against.) On a rationale level, I kept wandering why New Yorkers didn’t simply leave and stop trying to rely on food imports from their neighbors — which stop coming. I also didn’t buy the notion that deliberately radiated strips had effectively hindered travel and cut America into several separate, de facto nations. However, on an emotional level and in maintaining your interest, the story works and is impressive for one so young.
“The Silent Colony” — This story, which Silverberg says was a deliberate attempt to imitate Robert Sheckley (he says imitation of admired authors is an honorable tradition for young writers) is kind of silly if short. (Silverberg doesn’t try to justify it on its merits, just as an example of the imitative work he did.) Aliens from the outer solar system detect what they think are members of their species on Earth though they wonder why they are so mute and dumb. Well, it turns out the aliens are composed of millions-of-years old snow. Needless to say, no futile scientific rationale is offered.
“Absolutely Inflexible” — Silverberg says this was the first of his time travel paradox stories (a genre he perhaps produced the ultimate example of with Up the Line) and owes (as he says all time travel paradox stories do) something to Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps”. Both stories are solipistic. The protagonist is in charge of exiling time travelers from the past to the moon so their dangerous, disease ridden bodies can’t infect civilization. (Needless to say, the idea that future man has rid himself of germs and has no immune system, is not one that has fared well with the advance of science.) He is “absolutely inflexible” in this. In experimenting with a strange, two-way time travel device he finds on one traveler (the technology is all one way) he goes back in time and then to his own time where he exiles himself.
“The Macauley Circuit” — This 1955 is very much of its time in its concern that automation, particularly aided by the computer, would eliminate various jobs and even artists. (Compare this story to Walter M. Miller’s “The Darfsteller”, also from 1955, where robots replace actors, or C. M. Kornbluth’s 1951 story “Not With These Hands” were portrait painting is being automated.) There’s nothing particularly novel or new about the story in that context, and Silverberg mainly notes that he anticipated the musical synthesizer and some of the problem of the computer age. While we have libraries of perfect notes that can be assembled by human producers and composers and, for a long time, we have had synthesizers, we haven’t yet progressed to the point in this story where electronic circuitry actually composes music instead of just aids in its sampling and cutting and pasting.
“The Songs of Summer” — Silverberg says, in his notes, this was another attempt at imitation though here the model wasn’t an sf writer but the use of multiple viewpoints and mulitple narrators as seen in William Faulker’s As I Lay Dying. He also notes the theme of group minds was one he was to return to again and again (including, I believe, his “Sundance”). I didn’t find all that much of interest here though I note that Silverberg doesn’t even bother rationalizing how his 20th century man Chester Dugan gets transported to the 35th century. And Silverberg is pretty glib about the work and technical knowledge required to reconstitute a city as Dugan does. (L. Sprague de Camp, after all, based a whole novel around the difficulties of a time traveler merely trying to preserve civilization in his Lest Darkness Fall.)
“To Be Continued” — I found this tale of a very long lived man so charming that I was willing to overlook the glib coincidence of the narrator, who assumes multiple identities simultaneously, just happening to come across another a virtually immortal woman who does the same. I also liked English major Silverberg having his narrator being a longtime fan of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi after seeing one of its first performances. This story reminded me very much of Poul Anderson’s later The Boat of a Million Years.
“Alaree” — Another example of Silverberg’s fascination with gestalt minds. Here a crew of Earth explorers meet the alien Alaree, a component, unknown to them, of an ecosystem-wide group mind. When he meets humans, he individuates and can no longer be a part of his native group mind — indeed they insistently reject him. He can’t live as a mental individual nor is he able, of course, to form a new group mind with humans, so he dies.
“The Artifact Business” — As he notes, Silverberg has long had an interest in archaeology. Indeed, he says he wrote more from 1961-1970 in popular archaeology than sf. This story combines both interests with an alien culture who produces wonderful artwork — that no one wants. Rather, the stylish fad (and this story is a satire on fashion) is for antiquities so the aliens and their human accomplices fake an entire past and produce bogus artifacts for it. At story’s end, they are branching out, with the help of the narrator, into faking artifacts from Earth’s past.
“Collecting Team” — This story from June 1956 (its date of writing) reminded me strongly of the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “People Are Alike All Over” which is supposed to have been based on a 1952 story called “Brothers Beyond the Void” by Paul W. Fairman. Both stories feature (presuming the tv screenplay is a representative adaptation) humans held in alien zoos. Here the crew of a spaceship find the reason they’ve encountered a bizarre “ecosystem” on a planet — it’s a zoo. Silverberg says this story has proven to be unaccountably popular since it was anthologized several times though it was a throwaway story written for an “instant deadline”.
“A Man of Talent” — I’m not sure what to make of this somewhat autobiographical story. Silverberg attended the first Milford Science Fiction Writer’s Conference in September of 1956. Surrounded by his revered sf elders, Silverberg (and Harlan Ellison) were chided for writing “conscienceless” plotboilers and heard the woes and pain of writing. Silverberg says he didn’t (and given his output, you have to believe him) think writing involved agony, only “discipline and concentration”. He resolved not to give up his lucrative and glib stories but, on the side, to write more important stories. This story, he says, was an attempt to come to terms with the experience of the conference. In the story, a noted poet seeks an out of the way planet where he hopes to practice his art. The locals keep inviting him to their social functions though they note he’s only a poet. He thinks they’re just dismissing poetry’s value, but it turns out they are almost universally multi-talented: painters, poets, composers. His only value to them is as an audience (and they don’t find his poetry that good). He resolves to be an audience but continue to produce poetry for his sole amusement. I suspect Silverberg may have slightly resented being told he wasn’t agonizing enough over his work yet acknowledged, at this time, that many older sf writers were better. Perhaps, like the story’s protagonist, he didn’t feel he could compete on their level but would try to produce things for himself that he valued. One of conference attendees was Jame Blish, a harsh critic of bad sf. Blish put this story in an anthology about the future of art.
“One Way Journey” — A psychological story full of — as you would expect from a story from the fifties — Freudianism. Here a spaceship’s captain has to discover the psychological reasons why a crew member wants to remain on a planet, married to a repulsive alien. He cures the man — who resents him for expelling him from womb-like comfort.
“Sunrise on Mercury” — I was glad to read this story — not because it’s that great of a story, but because it is one of Silverberg’s efforts motivated by an old pulp tradition of writing a story for a cover illustration. And I remember this cover illustration and title from Brian Ash’s The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction — the book that really got me started on this whole sf thing and one of the most influential books in my life.
“World of a Thousand Colors” — This is actually the second time I’ve read this story. It’s kind of a biter-bitten story. A man impulsively commits murder to take the place of a man selected to undergo the Test on the World of a Thousand Colors. The murderer had applied for the Test before but was not selected. When he arrives at the world, he undergoes a sort of melding of minds — each symbolized by a color. The seven testees must mold together into a successful composite mind or all die. But they can’t assimilate the protagonist’s black — so they kill him. This was Silverberg imitating Jack Vance (there are colors in the title after all) and again messing around with the theme of group minds.
“Warm Man” — This is a story of, as Silverberg says, “psychic vampirism”. However, there is not the usual vampire leeching energy off its prey and leaving despondent, weakened husks. Quite the opposite. Vampire Hallinan leaves people feeling good and happy after being with them. He’s actually more like an addict in that he ultimately overdoses on spending too much time with his neighbors, being the warm man in their lives. Silverberg says the whole thing was inspired by C. M. Kornbluth cryptically uttering “Cold!” at the Milford Writer’s Conference. It was Silverberg’s first sale to Anthony Boucher, editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction and was the beginning, since the story was anthologized many times, of Silverberg learning quality counted more, in the long run, than quantity in his work.
“Blaze of Glory” — Right in his introductory notes, Silverberg calls this story “non-wonderful”. It’s fairly slight. Obstinate, temperamental, violent spaceman insults some allegedly pacifistic aliens — who compel him to give his life to save his crew members after an equipment malfunction. The selfish man becomes a martyr.
“Why?” — Another slight story from Silverberg — and another one custom written to a cover illustration (which I’d like to see). Essentially, alien plants overgrow a spaceship when it lands. They turn out to be intelligent and are insanely jealous at mobile Man. There is the glib profundity of man’s unique gift being his exploratory drive.
“The Outbreeders” — Silverberg seems to have an interest in matters of genetic destiny be they innate superpowers or the future evolution of man. This story of forbidden love between members of two warring clans is something a rumination on genetic drift and speciation as each clan breeds only with itself due to isolation brought on by a personnel conflict between members of the founding colony. At story’s end, the young lovers, now four, will bring back some genetic vitality into the human stock of the world and interbreed in new areas.
“The Man Who Never Forgot” — This is an interesting story. First, it’s about the drawback of superior mental powers (something Silverberg says he addressed 15 years later in his Dying Inside). Here the power is to never forget things. This proves, not surprisingly, the source of great social friction (as anyone who has argued over past remarks they or somebody else made knows). Rather than be a ticket to academic success or fortune, it becomes a burden; the protagonist drifts from place to place and forms no permanent relationships after running away from home. After being beaten, coincidentally near his mother’s home, he is reconciled with her and his lot. Secondly, there is something a bit autobiographical about this. Silverberg says he had, when younger, a truly exceptional memory which got him ostracized in school though, obviously, his adult life didn’t suffer.
“There Was an Old Woman” — This was another interesting story from Silverberg. It involves a brilliant biochemist who gets herself impregnated (by a Wisconsin farmhand — gold standard of physical looks and prowess?) and then creates 31 zygotes from the egg and gets 31 sons. In an experiment designed to prove nurture’s dominance over nature, she sets out to deliberately mold their personalities and intellect for specific jobs (one even is trained to become a criminal). The ending, where the young men rebel against their designated career paths and kill their mother, isn’t exactly a triumph of nature (that would mean they would all want the same job or types of job), but it’s not a triumph of nurture either. Silverberg notes that the idea of “multiple ex utero births” was one he would use again eight years later in Thorns, his first mature literary novel.
“The Iron Chancellor” — I have fond memories of this story from the one and only time I read it almost 30 years ago. I was surprised to find out that Silverberg considers this story as owing something to one of his idols, Henry Kuttner.
“Ozymandias” — Silverberg’s introduction doesn’t say much about this story other than to note it’s adequate and again shows his lifelong preoccupation with archaeology. From 1958, it could be said to have some political commentary with how the narrator and his fellow archaeologists make their missions, which are basically military, more palatable to the paying public under the guise of science. Ozymandius is sort of a giant, tour guide robot waiting to give whomever comes along a tour of alien ruins. However, the robot not only has knowledge of the city of the dead aliens but also of their weapons, weapons that ultimately destroyed them. The poem ends with the famous lines from the Shelly poem: “Look on my works, ye mighty — and despair.”
“Counterpart” — This story, written in May 1958, was an attempt by Silverberg to not only do the hackwork that paid for his ever bettering lifestyle but also do something more serious — especially since people like Lester del Rey and Frederick Pohl constantly chided him for not producing good work and that good work made more money in the long run. (Ironically, Silverberg started to self-consciously produce better work about the time the market for magazine sf crashed.) This is an interesting example of viewing the mind and personality as information that can be manipulated technologically. (Here the tech is described in terms of “tape” inputs and recordings of personality.) A down and out actor, formerly successful, is engaged by his friend to test a new process. His personality and memory are recorded over a period of many months. The memories and personality are edited and fed into the mind of an ambitious politician who wants an actor’s ability to adopt personas. The process is reversed with the actor who needs the politician’s drive and need for dominance. However, they both find out who the other is and meet in a tense meeting, tense because each knows all the needs, history, and tricks of the other. They are both on an upward trajectory in their career — and the inventor of the process thinks they may eventually kill him to keep their secret.