Tag Archives: A Time of Changes

A “best of” worthy of the name

bestofsilverbergI have been a fan of Silverberg for some time, but up until now I had never read any of his numerous story collections (although I had read an isolated story or two in various anthologies). And what can I say about The Best of Robert Silverberg except “damn, the man can write“? I very much enjoyed seven out of the ten stories included here, and 70% approval is an unprecedented situation for me and short stories. Of course, out of the hundreds of stories the man wrote, I’m sure there are quite a few I wouldn’t care for; but not many of them found their way into this volume. I guess there’s a reason it’s called “the best of…,” rather than “the mediocre of…” or some such.

This collection was published in 1976 and contains stories from the late 50’s through the early 70’s, presented in chronological order to show some of the evolution of the author’s style. Each story is also prefaced with Silverberg’s comments on the circumstances of the story’s creation or inspiration, containing numerous tidbits of fascinating information.

“Road to Nightfall” is a chilling look at the horrifying temptation of cannibalism in a nearly post-apocalyptic future world suffering from starvation.

“Warm Man” is a nicely structured tale about two people with different telepathic gifts, one a “sender” and the other a “receiver,” and the tragic results of them not recognizing each other’s powers until it’s too late.

The idea behind “To See the Invisible Man” came from a line in Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Babylon Lottery”:

“Like all men in Babylon I have been a proconsul; like all, a slave . . . . During one lunar year, I have been declared invisible; I shrieked and was not heard, I stole my bread and was not decapitated.”

For Borges this was simply a bit of colorful background, but Silverberg took up this concept of social invisibility as a punishment and ran with it, resulting in what is easily my favorite story in this collection, and destined to be one of my favorites, period. It’s the tale of a man who is sentenced to invisibility for a year, and a keen exploration of the psychological effects that result: both the early sense of freedom from consequences (under penalty of law you must ignore an Invisible, even if he steals from you), and then later the piercing and maddening effects of total isolation (as, again, the Invisible is completely ignored by friends, family, strangers, everyone). Interestingly enough, the crime for which he merits this punishment is exactly the opposite of the main character’s crime in my favorite Silverberg novel, A Time of Changes (in the latter the “crime” is baring one’s soul to others; in the former it’s not doing so). The story was a joy to read because I felt so tuned in to this Invisible character. I would think to myself, hey, if I were in this situation, I’d try this….. and several paragraphs later, the character would do exactly this. Or I’d see a possible consequence of his actions that might not be obvious, and hope it wouldn’t be overlooked, and again, paragraphs later, that consequence would be acknowledged. It was almost as if the author was reading my mind. A fantastic story about an unusual punishment for a bizarre crime, and the relationship between society and the individual.

“The Sixth Palace” is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but one that is extremely well-told, and with a bit of Zen philosophy thrown in. There’s also a moral here: even when you think you’ve won, you can still lose by being too cocky.

“Flies” was Silverberg’s entry in Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology; and I did not know this, but it was Silverberg who first suggested the idea for that anthology — if not the title — to Ellison. This is a rather shocking and disturbing story about a man who is altered by aliens who want to study humanity — except they make a slight error in their operation and erase his conscience.

“Hawksbill Station” again addresses crime and punishment and the psychological effects thereof, as political prisoners of a corrupt government are sent to a unique prison existing a billion years in the past.

“Passengers” is, on the surface, a story about incorporeal alien beings who invade our planet and frequently take over our bodies for their own use and amusement. A little deeper, it’s about not being afraid to connect with other people and seek happiness, even in a chaotic and unpredictable world, and about living life during the time you have available.

For whatever reason, these last three stories were the three I didn’t care for: “Nightwings” (alien invasion of a strange far-future Earth with a rigid class society), “Sundance” (a story about genocide, the despair of the victims, the guilt of the perpetrators, all set on an alien world), and “Good News from the Vatican” (about the first robot to become Pope; far too whimsical for my taste).

Bottom line: these are some of the BEST stories by one of science fiction’s BEST writers. Recommended? Definitely.

Narrative hooks: some favorites

First a definition, courtesy of wikipedia:

A narrative hook (or hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep reading on. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally is the opening sentence.

I’ve been thinking for quite some time of sharing some of my favorite narrative hooks from science fiction novels; but through a combination of laziness, forgetfulness, and being busy with other things (mostly lots of reading), the idea has been sitting on a back burner, undeveloped. However, I recently got an inspirational kick in the posterior when I read an io9 article about Great Opening Sentences From Science Fiction.” Some of the examples in that article are good ones, some not so good, but then that’s just my opinion. A great hook for one person may be totally boring to another. But for what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite hooks from science fiction (and fantasy). And by “favorite” I don’t mean judged by some abstract literary measurement; I simply mean that they worked for me. They drew me in and made me feel compelled to keep reading, and that always helps make the reading experience more pleasurable. I won’t restrict myself to single sentences, as the io9 article did, because a good hook usually takes at least several sentences to develop. So……

I mentioned this one a while back in my review of Heinlein’s Friday:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

That works beautifully to capture the reader’s curiosity. What is a Beanstalk and why is it in Kenya? Why is this one person following the other person, and what could be so important about this that it should involve death? Was the death justified (morally, legally) or not? It sure kept me reading.

Here’s the beginning of one of my all-time favorite novels, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg:

I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself.

That statement is so strange to me that it screams in my eyes. I look at it on the page, and I recognize the hand as my own — narrow upright red letters on the coarse gray sheet — and I see my name, and I hear in my mind the echoes of the brain-impulse that hatched those words. I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself. Incredible.

When I first read those words I had no idea it was a science fiction novel, nor any idea who Silverberg was. It was just some book I found in a box from a yard sale. But once I opened it and read those first words, I was hooked. I just had to know why this Darival character was shocked at himself for what he wrote; I had to know why it was “incredible” to him.

Another very effective hook comes from Roger Zelazny’s Nice Princes in Amber:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three times.

The room grew steady.

Where the hell was I?

That first sentence is a pretty good hook in its own right. But the more you read on, the better it gets. The first several pages constitute a fantastic hook for the novel, but I’m not going to quote that much.

All of the above examples depend on creating an air of mystery. Another way to go is to set up a grand flamboyant atmosphere, as Alfred Bester does in The Stars My Destination:

This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…. but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice…. but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks…. but nobody loved it.

It can’t be an accident that he uses the word “fascinating” in there, because the whole effect of those lines is to fascinate me and make me want to learn more about this future time.

Then there’s the deep and/or philosophical and/or metaphysical sort of opening, as for example in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep:

How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.

Wow! If even the omniscient viewpoint can’t handle what’s about to be described, then I’m pretty damn sure it’s gonna blow my mind.

So there you have some examples of the kinds of opening lines that hook me. What hooks you?

What was your introduction to sci-fi?

I certainly hope it was more elegant and, umm… cleaner than in this story Nancy Kress shares about one of her fans. Of course, if the young lady had to go through that to get some good science fiction, at least she was lucky enough to find such a superb novel. One could hardly do better than starting off with Beggars in Spain as one’s first sci-fi reading experience. Kress says she herself started with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

My memory is a bit shaky going that far back, but I think the first sci-fi book I ever read was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. That would have been in grade school, I’m sure, because I have a clear memory of the book being in the grade school library. I just don’t recall what year it was, exactly. Most likely I was around 9 or 10 years old.

It’s possible I read some other juvenile-type sci-fi around that time that has completely escaped my memory. The next thing I remember is reading whatever fantasy was in the school library, which wasn’t that much: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and Quag Keep by Andre Norton. Those were around age 11-12.

I think I was 14 when I was looking through a box of old books my parents had picked up at a yard sale. In it I found a hardcover book missing its dust jacket, called A Time of Changes, by some fellow named Robert Silverberg whom I’d never heard of before. I didn’t even have any idea it was science fiction. Out of idle curiosity, I opened to the first page for a brief scan to see if there was anything interesting. And there was. I was drawn in by the fantastic narrative hook, and before I knew it I was finished reading what was to become one of my favorite novels ever. At age 15 I happened upon another “favorite novel ever” — Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune. By that time, I was thoroughly hooked and and my sci-fi readings became more frequent.

So there you have it, some of my foundational SF experiences. All in the usual manner, I might add…. nothing strange, no stickiness involved, nothing like that. Just me and some great books.

So what’s your story?