I’ve never entertained the idea of reviewing all the works of Robert Silverberg. That would be a colossal undertaking given his volume of work even in science fiction.
But I do seem to have reviewed a lot of Silverberg’s short fiction.
And I read some more this past summer with more in the pipeline to review.
Low Res Scan: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: We Are for the Dark, 1987-1990, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2012.
It’s a low res scan because I’ve looked at many of the ten works here before and don’t have much to add on re-reading.
Three of the pieces are novellas.
This time around “In Another Country”, Silverberg’s variation on the themes of C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”, reminded me just how many stories of his play with the motif of rich time traveling tourists (and, here, definitely white) from the far future visiting the past: “Sailing to Byzantium”, Up the Line, “The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve”, and “When We Went to See the End of the World”. Granted, “Sailing to Byzantium” has super sophisticated reconstructions of the past, but it feels like time travel. “When We Went to See the End of the World” inverts the theme with near future time travelers.
Silverberg’s introductory notes for the story reveal his admiration of Moore. As to the story itself, this time I noticed Thimiroi, alone of the time travelers, finding beauty in the flat, discordant, unplanned beauty of the unnamed city of the late 20th century. To him, it’s the energy of a people who have survived the brutal horrors of that time.
“We Are for the Dark” is a story very dear to Silverberg. The novella captured, he says, the “sweep and grandeur” that first attracted him to science fiction.
The story does have sweep and grandeur and several of Silverberg’s characteristic themes.
I recently came across a piece by Robert Bee reminding me how many Silverberg stories revolve around religious ideas of communion, redemption, and hubris. That’s all here as well as other Silverberg themes: alienation, overpopulation, and archaeology.
A religious order has taken control of an overpopulated Earth and, using a complicated combination of nanotechnology and self-powering matter transmitters, colonized alien worlds. The colonists are carefully selected by the narrator as people who will conform to the order’s Darklaw. But evidence comes in that the plan is going awry, and the narrator is the fall guy. Stripped of his rank, he starts out into a journey into the Dark to see what went wrong.
However much Silverberg liked the story, it was disappointingly received and has been published just twice, in its original magazine appearance in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and here. I can kind of see why because it feels too long to get to that grandeur. It takes 32 pages out of a 66 page story before we start into the Dark.
“Lion Time in Timbuctoo” is set in the same world as Silverberg’s Gate of Worlds. An alternate history, it postulates that the Black Death almost completely killed the population of Western Europe. The Ottoman Empire moved in, and there was no exploration of the New World, no Renaissance.
It’s the year 1960 by our calendar. The king, the Big Father, of the African state of Songhay lies dying in Timbuctoo, and ambassadors from the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Aztec Empire, the Incan Empire, and England (which freed itself from the Ottomans in 1901) have gathered for the funeral and the crowning of the new king, the Little Father. But the Aztecs, English, and Russians have plans of their own for Songhay’s future, plans complicated by triangle between a member of the English contingent, the beautiful daughter of the Turkish ambassador, and Little Father. It’s an engaging story, but I never bought the setup for reasons I’ll discuss in the spoiler section.
“A Tip on a Turtle” put me in mind of another Silverberg story, Dying Inside. Both are contemporary stories, this one is set in Jamaica rather than New York City, and both feature alienated men with psychic powers. Here the melancholy protagonist hangs around a vacation resort telling people which turtle to bet on in the daily races a resort holds. He strikes up a relationship with a divorcee. But he knows the fate in store for him. This 1991 story put me in mind of one of the best episodes of The X-Files: “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” from 1995.
As to the rest of the stories, I don’t know have a lot to add what I’ve said before.
The psychological deterioration of the protagonist in “The Dead Man’s Eyes” seemed more striking this time as, in his life on the run, he sees the face of his wife in all kinds of places.
“Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another” (where Silverberg recycles some of his research for his nonfiction books on the conquistadors) still seems a strong story. This time around I noticed the shadow of Pizarro,
an ignorant illiterate Spanish peasant wearing a suit of ill-fitting armor and waving a rusty sword
who conquers, with about 200 men, “a great empire of millions of people”, looming over a future United States in a state of civilizational malaise. The unexpected success of the project to recreate true versions of the consciousness of historical figures promises new worlds to conquer – though the project director imagines using the technology to create a sort of battle of champions with historical figures from nations’ past battling each other.
I’ve looked at “To the Promised Land” twice before, but I found Silverberg’s introductory notes of interest. He had been doing recreational reading on Roman history and originally wanted to do a world where the Roman Empire endured. The story is set in the year 2723 of the Roman calendar (which would be about 1973 by my reckoning). He decided to take up Edward Gibbon’s thesis in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Christianity destroyed the Empire. So how to get rid of Christianity? Silverberg decided not to do the trivial thing of killing Jesus when young. Some other messiah might have come along. Best to get rid of Judaism but how? Present the original Exodus as crushed. Though this story was written for Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg’s What Might Have Been?, Vol 1: Alternate Empires, his contract allowed a magazine publication, and Ellen Datlow at Omni made Silverberg do a lot of cuts. Silverberg was later thankful for that since he spun his story out into a whole series of stories set in this alternate history which were collected into the fix-up novel Roma Eterna.
“Chip Runner” seems to be a good case study for science fiction writers on how to present exposition via hostile dialogue, here between a boy obsessed with starving himself into the subatomic level of the world and his therapist.
The element of “A Sleep and a Forgetting” that came to the front this time was the personal contrast between the conservative, quiet, and long-time married narrator and his friend, head of the project which has found a way to talk to people in the past. Here the party on the other end of the line is an alternate history version of Genghis Khan, another example of Silverberg writing a sort of ghost story, and here the ghost is what Genghis Khan was in our world and what he could be in this one.
And I have absolutely nothing to add on my further observations about “The Asenion Solution”, something of a joke story and Silverberg patching a minor rift between him and Isaac Asimov. Silverberg was surprised how popular it was as opposed to “We Are for the Dark”.
“We Are for the Dark” struck me, in its mood and motif of a constant journey through turbulent lands, of Silverberg’s earlier “This Is the Road”, which also offered a sort of stoical acceptance of fate as its moral.
My objections to “Lion Time in Tumbuctoo” are not on the dramatic level but the underlying alternate history rationale. (And, again, I don’t know if Silverberg answered these objections in his earlier novel in the same universe, Gate of Worlds.)
There was no Renaissance in this timeline, but technology does not seem to be that retarded. There are references to steam engines. I don’t buy that technology would have advanced that far without a Christian Europe. Christian Europe provided a peculiar set of circumstances: the legacy of Greek philosophy coupled with the Christian notion that the world could be taken apart into pieces and examined with reason to reveal the mind of God. The geography of Western Europe may have helped as per a notion put forth in William McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power: the difficulty of consolidating a large state led to many warring nations which created an arms race that helped spur technological innovation.
Nor do I buy that the Incan and Peruvian Empires would be players on the world stage or would have had the technological ability to do so.
There are other political curiosities. That Ind (India?) is a state seems incredible given its fragmented past though Silverberg doesn’t define its boundaries. Korea and Japan are independent states, but I don’t think these countries would have roused themselves from their slumbers to become world players without the spur of European colonization. China is dominated by the Russian Empire which is peculiar but not totally inconceivable.
And I don’t buy that Africans would last long as competitors to European powers (though their demise may be after the story). The disease load on the people of that continent is heavy, and there is a paucity of human capital there to this day. Silverberg subtly provides some hints he hasn’t ignored African backwardness. Selima teases Little Father with the primitive superstitions that still are practiced in his land.
The story also has some interracial sexual obsessions of the cliched, but not untrue, sort. Selima wants to bed a black man. Little Father wants to bed another blonde white woman like the English anthropologist he once had. Though, of course, bedding blondes seems to be a somewhat universal male desire not limited to Africans.