Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories of Robert Silverberg

SFWA Grand Master Robert Silverberg turns 85 today. He's been part of my reading for almost 50 years -- when I was 11 or 12, I happened across his first "novel", a juvenile called Revolt on Alpha C. I confess that didn't make much of an impression on me, and I'm not sure I made any connection between that novel and the (much better!) Silverberg stories I began to read a couple of years later, when I started into books like the Nebula Award volumes. His Nebula winning novel A Time of Changes was one of the first books I bought from the Science Fiction Book Club, early in 1975. Since then I've read dozens of his novels and countless short stories, often truly outstanding, and from very early in his career, never less than professional and engaging.

In the past I've posted reviews of several of his Ace Doubles here, but I've not looked at his short fiction. Here's a set of reviews I've done, some from early in his career, and some from quite late, after I began reviewing for Locus. As with many of these review sets, I haven't covered his very best work -- most of which I read before I was writing about what I read. But this is a nice cross section of some fine work from across his career, including his last novel (unless you count Roma Eterna, a fixup of linked short stories.)

Astounding, December 1957

Robert Silverberg's "Precedent" is set on a world of somewhat primitive aliens, who have been contacted by humans. Humans are the dominant force in this section of the galaxy, and indeed they have never encountered an alien race at a comparable level of development. Their policy is to engage the alien races as friends, trying to avoid "Cargo Cult" reactions. One arm of this policy is that humans on the planet are required to be subject to alien laws. Curiously, this has only been a problem once before, and the man who mistakenly violated a law was sentenced to trial by ordeal, which he survived. Now it has happened again -- a Lieutenant rather brazenly ate his lunch on the temple steps at a sacred hour.

The story is told from the point of view of the base commander, and we learn that this is all part of his plan. Apparently he is disgusted by the local laws, so he has set up the Lieutenant to violate one. The guy is a ringer, of course, an expert boxer. So when, during his trial by combat, he defeats the much larger alien champion, and confesses to his guilt anyway, the aliens are presented with a conundrum -- how can their legal system be correct if it allows contradictory results? I have to admit, I'm not convinced that the local authorities would react as planned.

If, August 1958; Science Fiction Adventures #20

Silverberg's "The Wages of Death" is a reprint from the August 1958 issue of If. On a colony planet that has just rebelled and declared its freedom from Earth, the few remaining Loyalists face a sentence of death. They decide to hire an adventurer to guide them across a continent to a spaceship which will take them to a safer world. The story centers on the relationship between Macintyre, more or less the leader of the Loyalists, and their cynical, in-it-for-the-money guide, Wallace. Wallace is portrayed as a man who will do anything necessary for his own good -- and Macintyre begins to wonder if that includes double crossing his group. The ending is a bit shocking (though well established), and quite a bit cynical. It's hard to decide who if anyone to like in the story, which may be the point. (Even the larger question of whether Earth or the colony planet is right in their struggle is not clear cut -- and I have to wonder if the story resonates a little differently for English readers than for Americans.) Really, not a bad piece of work. Silverberg, even from the earliest, was ever a competent writer, and ever a readable writer. If this early work doesn't compare to the stories from the mid-60s on -- well, so what? Comparison with Brunner's career seems interesting. At any rate, this early story is a pretty effective effort.

Galaxy, December 1965

Silverberg's "The Warriors of Light" is about an ambitious acolyte in a future religious organization, the Brotherhood, built on scientific principles, and devoted to achieving life extension for humanity. His ambition trips him up, and promises to stunt his advancement, so he becomes vulnerable to recruitment by a heretical splinter group, which arranges for his transfer to the hub of the Brotherhood's research program, in exchange for his agreement to spy for the splinter group. The whole working out is rather cynical, in a believable way. The story seemed to call for both predecessors and sequels, and it turns out that indeed it is the second of five stories which were knitted together into one of the first of Silverberg's middle period novels, To Open the Sky. (I haven't read the novel.) This is fine work, though not as intense nor as absorbing as much of the great work that was coming from Silverberg in the succeeding years.

Locus Online review of three serials, 2002

(Cover by Fred Gambino)
Robert Silverberg's new novel, "The Longest Way Home", was serialized in the October/November and December 2001, and January 2002, issues of Asimov's.  It's about 87,000 words long.  It's more or less a Young Adult novel, featuring anyway a 15 year old boy as protagonist, and a fairly clear cut moral issue for him to ponder as he quite explicitly Comes Of Age,  and some sweet initiatory sex.  I found it quite fun to read as well, very fast moving, not particularly complex but interesting.  As with much later Silverberg, the furniture of the novel seems heavily influenced by Jack Vance, though of course the prose is pure Silverberg, no trace of Vance at all.

Joseph Master Keilloran, the 15 year old eldest son of Martin Master Keilloran, heir to the families large estate in the southern continent of Helikis on the planet Homeworld, is visiting his cousins on the northern continent, Manza.  One night he is woken by gunfire and explosions.  Soon he realizes that the Folk of his cousins' estate are rebelling, and slaughtering the ruling Masters.  Joseph escapes with the help of a sympathetic Folk retainer.

We learn that the planet Homeworld was colonized from Earth millennia  previously by the ancestors of the Folk.  The Folk established a rather agrarian, low tech way of life.  Centuries later, they were conquered in turn by another wave of Earth colonists, the ancestors of the current Masters, who established a higher tech system, quasi-Feudal, with the Masters ruling, and the Folk basically serfs.  As presented (from Joseph's POV, of course) the Masters' rule has been quite benign, but it's still oppressive, of course.  And there is a good deal of racism in the Masters' view of the Folk.  The planet is also inhabited by a variety of intelligent species, most notably the so called Indigenes, who have approximately human intelligence.  The other "higher" species have somewhat lesser intelligence, but are clearly sentient and sapient, with spoken languages at least.  Probably in part due to a habit of coexistence with other intelligent species, and in part due to a somewhat contemplative and fatalistic philosophy, the Indigenes tolerate the presence of both the Folk and the Masters -- and after all, as far as we are allowed to see, humans of both waves of colonization seem to have been quite careful and non-exploitative in their interactions with the Indigenes and other intelligent native species of this world.

Joseph decides to find his way home.  He has no idea of how widely spread is the Folk rebellion against the Masters; and he has to travel several thousand miles to the southern continent to boot.  On foot, with nothing but a backpack and a few implements.  The basic theme that emerges is that he will have no chance without help and cooperation.  He is first helped by an inscrutable "noctambulo" -- part of a species which has different "consciousnesses" during day and night.  This being feeds Joseph grubs and the like, then guides him to the nearest Indigene village.  Joseph, by this time severely injured, is nursed to some semblance of health by the Indigenes, who soon realize that he has some basic medical knowledge (essentially just First Aid plus a tiny amount of vet stuff learned from farm work) which they lack, and Joseph ends up in essence trading his medical services for first shelter and food, then travel southward, as the Indigenes shuttle him from village to village for some months, generally going south.  After that stops working, Joseph escapes again and wanders through the mountains, only to be rescued from near starvation by some free Folk, Folk who lived in a remote enough place to have never been subjugated by the Masters.  Eventually his wanderings continue ... until, much changed both externally and internally, he is finally restored to his family.
(Cover by Jim Burns)

The story, then, is really very simple.  But it's interesting throughout, and Joseph is a nice enough character to spend time with.  The aliens Silverberg imagines are fairly neat.  The central moral learning that Joseph must undergo is obvious enough -- more or less that the Folk are real people and don't deserve to be enslaved, no matter how benignly, but still this message is presented well.  And we can hope that he might be able to help guide the southern continent into a more just political and social change than the Rebellion in the north, which is clearly accompanied by atrocities on the level of say the Rwandan genocide, even if at some level probably understandable.  Though Silverberg doesn't really suggest what Joseph may do to accomplish this.

Locus, March 2003

Speaking of continuing series, Robert Silverberg's latest Roma Eterna alternate history is "The Reign of Terror" (Asimov's, April), in which a decadent and spendthrift Emperor drives his two Consuls to extreme measures to root out corruption in Rome: but extreme measures have a way of corrupting those who use them. This is one of the better efforts in this project.

Locus, June 2003

The strongest story of a fairly strong June issue of Realms of Fantasy is a reprint, Robert Silverberg's "Crossing Into the Empire". Gateways into a mysterious city of the past open up every six months or so, and men cross over to trade modern trinkets for ancient art. One such man is caught, and ends up facing a logical and interesting fate.

Locus, April 2006

The latest SFBC collection of novellas is Gardner Dozois’s One Million A.D. The six stories here are all set nominally at least several hundred thousand years in the future, and mostly they do a pretty good job of actually suggesting a fairly radical future. Perhaps Robert Silverberg’s “A Piece of Old Earth” is the exception – it’s set in his New Springtime world, that is to say, on Earth after humans have been succeeded by the Six Races who have been in turn been succeeded by a new civilization emerging from a long hibernation. So it is far in the future, but the tech level is not even quite present day, and the main characters are monkey-derived folks who act pretty much like us. But the story is entertaining, about a young architect who has an affair with an aristocratic historian, and is thus drawn into a journey across the sea to encounter the sad remnants of a pre-Winter race.

Locus, August 2011

The August Asimov's also features an enjoyable Majipoor story from Robert Silverberg, “The End of the Line”, in which a loyal assistant to the Coronal investigates the issue of Majipoor’s native sentient species, the shapeshifting Metamorphs, in hopes of avoiding war.

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