Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Eight: Hot Times in Magma City, 1990-95, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2013.
The penultimate book in Subterranean Press’s Robert Silverberg series has what you would expect from him: tales of history (alternate and straight), time travel, and urbane protagonists. This time around there’s also alien invasions and fantasies.
As always, a large part of the book’s appeal is Silverberg’s introduction and notes even if you can find all of the stories elsewhere.
Here he ruminates on the difficult birthing of some stories and how only “sentimental oldsters”, beginners, and part-timers bother to practice the art of the science fiction short story these days. The pay rates for short fiction are worse now than when he started his career.
One new motif here is the drug addict as protagonist.
Alcohol was the original drug of choice for the main character of the fantasy “It Comes and It Goes”. Playboy made him change that before publication. He’s back to being an alcoholic of the recovering variety here and keeps seeing a house come and go in his neighborhood, an alluring blonde woman in its doorway. And the males of all ages who go in it don’t come out. He develops an obsession with the house to match his old one with liquor. It doesn’t help when he sees the house in more than one town.
There’s a whole halfway house of ex-addicts in “Hot Times in Magma City”. Los Angeles’ Citizen Services puts them to work hosing down the outbreaks of lava from the volcanoes now added to the city’s woes. Head of the house, Cal Mattison, has his hands full directing this erratic, damaged bunch in their dangerous work. Told in a casual present tense, the details of apocalypse and managing it are just as interesting as the ex-potheads, ex-cokeheads, and ex-drunks battling it.
I mentioned in my review of the sixth book in this series about another minor theme running through some Silverberg stories: the sexual allure of the exotic and the resulting destruction.
“The Way to Spook City” postulates a future America with a big chunk taken out of its middle. The humans living outside of the Occupied Zone sometimes pass through the energy field that makes up its border and take a walkabout as a rite-of-passage. Demeris crosses into the zone of strange sights and strange human communities formed by those who stayed behind to find his brother Tom who didn’t come back after his crossing into the zone. The mayor’s daughter from one of those communities offers to help him look. Is she one of the alien Spooks in disguise? Does it matter if he had sex with her?
“In the Clone Zone” reminded of Silverberg’s “Blindsight”. Both feature authoritarian states with economies based on peculiar services. In the latter, it was an orbital settlement specializing in hiding criminals. Here the Republic of the Central Andes offers cloning services. Both feature biological engineers with close relationships with the dictators. The man who developed the cloning services of the country – and all the doubles the dictator uses as screens from assassination – just wants to return to the country of his birth after exile. But all those clones have ambitions and plans of their own for him.
Another fantasy, “The Second Shield”, has some “distinctly autobiographical passages” admits Silverberg. Its hero is a dream artist, a man who literally dreams sculptures and sometimes even animated objects into existence – at least until they disintegrate at some unknown point in the future. And he has no control over what he creates. So when an irate patron is upset that that nice Shield of Achilles, a real masterpiece, that Beckerman dreamed for him didn’t last two years, that’s a problem. Especially when said client, a very rich shipping tycoon, has a very forceful henchman who isn’t going to take no for an answer about creating another one.
And, of course, there are the time travel stories and Silverberg’s sophisticated and satisfying resurrections of the dead past.
The time travel isn’t into the past but the future in “The Red Blaze in the Morning”. It has an old archaeologist, Halvorsen, struggling to find remains of a proto-Hittite civilization in Turkey. But at night, it’s not voices of the past he hears. It’s the voice of the far future, an archaeologist of the Fourth Mandela, who proposes she trade minds with him.
Time travel by timeslip is how “Crossing into the Empire” goes. The Constantinople of various eras, abuts Chicago about twice a year. Travel across time is possible for a couple of days. The Byzantines are afraid of the golden glow around their city at such times, but ambitious traders from Chicago like Mulreany aren’t. With a bag of Coke, some Swiss Army knives, lighters, perfume, and binoculars, he’s off to trade for magnificent art and manuscripts. Of course, the Byzantines regard traders as sorcerers and put the word out to apprehend them. As you would expect, Silverberg does a superb job of evoking Byzantium.
And, while we’re on the subject of Byzantium, there’s “Death Do Us Part”. It’s not a time travel story and doesn’t even mention Byzantium, but, in theme, it reminded me of Silverberg’s classic “Sailing to Byzantium” in that it’s another story of a sophisticated future of plenty and long life and a lover that is not what they seem. It ends on an uncharacteristically ambiguous note for Silverberg, its conflict not resolved.
It’s the old back-to-the-dinosaurs time travel story in “Hunters in the Forest”. It’s another of Silverberg’s story’s with bored futurians getting their kicks in the primitive past. Here a woman proposes to another time traveler that he just stay with her in the Cretaceous.
I’ve covered “Looking for the Fountain” elsewhere, an alternate history where Ponce de Leon helps create a “great warlike Christian Kingdom” in Florida.
It’s alternate literary history in “The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James” that first appeared in the Kevin J. Anderson anthology War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches. It has the pudgy, timid Henry James accompanying his always lecturing friend H. G. Wells as they watch the Martian invasion of Earth. Wells talks about struggle and precarious existence, but Adams has the time of his life, and it’s him and not Wells that will write its definitive account.
Literature is also the inspiration for “A Long Night’s Vigil at the Temple”, a rare science fiction tribute to J. R. R. Tolkien and from a man who has never read The Lord of the Rings. In some ways, this is a reversal of Silverberg’s “We Are for the Dark”. Here the wardens of a temple devoted, on a far future Earth, to the memory of the Three Visitors, aliens who came to Earth, make discoveries underneath it that may change their faith forever.
All the stories are good (even the unresolved conflict of “Death Do Us Part” works in the story), but the masterpiece is the novella “Thebes of the Hundred Gates”. A new member of the Time Service, Edward Davis, is sent to Ancient Egypt on a rescue mission to see if that’s where an equipment malfunction stranded two researchers of Ancient Rome. It’s a story of sensory overload, survival, and the pleasures and dangers of going native. Yes, those researchers did end up in Egypt …
Additional Thoughts (with spoilers)
The allure, often sexual, of the exotic doesn’t often get you killed in the Silverberg stories where it shows up. Demeris ultimately leaves his Spook lover, but his brother takes the “Spooks’ nickel”. He’ll get all his desires fulfilled for life – if he lets the Spooks run psych experiments on him. For her part, Jill the Spook lover, seems to be the alien flipside of this attraction to the exotic. She offers to marry Demeris and live with him as a human woman.
On the other hand, the man in “It Comes and It Goes” ends the story by waiting for that house with the blonde woman to appear – because next time he is going inside.