Tag Archives: Robert Silverberg

Two out of Three For Tommorrow ain’t bad

The trouble with modern life, Bryce thought, is that technology gives us the potential for newer and more intricate disasters every year, but doesn’t seem to give us the ability to ward them off.

Title: Three For Tommorrow: Three Original Novellas of Science Fiction
Authors: Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, James Blish
Year: 1969
Rating: 3/5 stars

threefortommorrowThis nifty little volume contains three novellas by three well-known SF writers — but not just any random novellas. These three pieces are the result of an interesting literary project, and they were written especially for this purpose. To be more specific: the authors were presented with a short essay written by Arthur C. Clarke setting forth a general theme for a story, and then those authors took that theme and did what they do best: they wrote a story based on Clarke’s essay, attempting to work within that framework while interpreting it in their own different ways, filtering it through their own unique imaginations. As it turns out, none of these three novellas are remotely similar to each other; and only one (Silverberg’s) seems to me to be a good fit for the concepts laid out by Clarke. That in itself doesn’t mean the other stories are bad. It simply means that this little literary experiment wasn’t quite as successful as it could have been. I liked two out of the three novellas, so hey, I can’t complain too much.

The essential core of Clarke’s essay goes something like this:

With increasing technology goes increasing vulnerability; the more Man “conquers” (sic) Nature, the more prone he becomes to artificial catastrophe. The last few years have brought a series of previews: the Torrey Canyon oil tanker and the Santa Barbara oil slick, the blackout of the northeastern United States, the thalidomide disaster….

To which we, several decades later, could add many more examples: Chernobyl, Bhopal, Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, etc etc……

Clarke continues, focusing the concept a bit more:

But the most terrifying prospects are those which involve psychological, not just technological, factors. Remember the “Mad Bomber” of the New York subway. Think of all the airliners that have been destroyed by explosives in the baggage compartment. And don’t forget that clean-cut, all-American sniper in the University of Texas clocktower.
How is the society of the future going to protect itself from an increasing spectrum of ever more horrendous disasters, particularly those made possible by new devices (high powered lasers? drugs??) in the hands of madmen? To put the matter in one sentence: When will some Lee Harvy Oswald attempt to assassinate a city — or a world?

In “How It Was When the Past Went Away,” Silverberg really takes Clarke’s essay to heart, even zeroing in on the word “drugs” as his takeoff point. His story involves terrorists who unleash massive amounts of memory-erasing drugs into a large city’s water supply, and the effects on the city’s people. This is an all-too-realistic (not to mention all-too-scary) scenario, but it’s not the only way Silverberg scores here. He also presents a financial situation, centered around a “Credit Epidemic,” that seems eerily similar to today’s world. And one of the characters seems predictive of the modern popularity of bottle water:

He was not unaware of the little smiles they gave him when he admitted that he drank only bottle spring water, but he didn’t mind; he had outlived many of the smilers already, and attributed his perfect health to his refusal to touch the polluted, contaminated water that most other people drank.

Zelazny offers “The Eve of RUMOKO,” about a project to use artificial underwater volcanoes to create new islands for a growing population, and about the sabotage attempts aimed at it, since not everyone agrees it’s a good idea, or a safe one. And as it turns out, it’s not safe, and disaster ensues. However, that part of the story seems more like a background setting for the more interesting part. In this future world, your identity is totally defined by the information that exists about you in the Central Database. One man who helped set up the system decides to opt out, to live “off the grid.” He erases all his computerized information, so he doesn’t exist. On the other hand, he can input any information he wants (via a secret backdoor in the program), so he can be anybody he wants. He uses this ability to live as a sort of freelance secret agent, and this is very entertaining since he is endowed with the kind of irreverent and sarcastic wit that is common to Zelazny characters.

The Blish story, “We All Die Naked,” is rather disappointing. The disaster angle here is a generalized environmental decay caused by humanity trashing the planet. Against this backdrop we see a small group of people figuring out that a tipping point has been reached, and that the end of the world is imminent. The various characters face the end, singly or together, bravely or cowering, and the world crumbles, and they die, and that’s that. I’m not complaining about the pessimism there, only the style (or lack thereof) with which it was presented. This story was a dull read.

But as I said, two out of three ain’t bad. I like the concept behind this book, and I hope to find more like it.

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.

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

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?

The Science Fiction Phenomenon

I found this documentary called Brave New Worlds: the Science Fiction Phenomenon, from back in 1993, which was broadcast in the UK, I believe. It’s pretty interesting, especially the commentary from various authors such as Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, as well as SF critic John Clute, some film people such as Paul Verhoeven, and others. Running time: about 54 minutes.

Note: even though in English, the videos are subtitled in a some other language, but it’s easy enough to ignore. Also, several minutes of sound are covered by static in part 2. I don’t know what that’s about, but these are the only copies I could find.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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?

Silverbergian skyscrapers and the world inside them

“Here begins a happy day in 2381.”

Such is the opening claim of The World Inside (1971), Silverberg’s take on the dual problems of overpopulation and social engineering. Contrary to that opening line, not everything here is happy; this is the tale of a deeply flawed would-be utopia.

The novel takes place in a time when there are 75 billion people on Earth. The vast majority of them are housed in gigantic skyscrapers — called urban monads or “urbmons” for short — which are 3 kilometers in height (roughly eight or nine times as tall as the Empire State Building, built from futuristic super-materials). These urbmons exist in large groupings around the planet, each one holding something in excess of 800,000 people living in extremely crowded conditions. These buildings take up 10% of the world’s land area, the other 90% being needed for farming to provide enough food for those masses. Except for a small population of farmers, everyone else lives in these massive structures, most never stepping foot outside in their entire lifetimes. The urbmons contain all the necessities: power plants, factories, theaters, gyms, hospitals…. everything a person needs…. except, perhaps, for a few minor frivolities like “freedom” and “privacy.”

Obviously it would take quite a different mindset for people to live in those conditions and accept them as natural. Indeed, urbmon society has been engineered to be balanced and harmonious, and to reduce any possible frictions between its members, because with people being so crowded together, friction is a dangerous thing. So these people live in a “post-privacy” culture. Privacy doesn’t exist. There are almost no private possessions. No doors are locked. Anyone can enter anyone else’s home at any time. Nudity in front of strangers is no big deal. Anyone can have sex with anyone else they want to; it’s considered taboo to refuse someone. It’s all about reducing friction — gotta keep everyone happy, so they don’t go stir crazy living in their little boxes, right?

Another aspect of their society, and one that is almost shocking given the conditions they live in, is that not only do they not control their birth rate, but they positively rejoice in breeding and increasing their population. They consider it their “duty to god” to reproduce as much as possible. The more “littles” one has, the better his or her social standing. Most couples have at least four or five children, and even six or eight is quite normal. But although there is a religious aspect to this, it seems just as attributable to a kind of intellectual arrogance, a certain proud thumbing of the nose at a problem, denying that it even is a problem:

We could limit births, I suppose, but that would be sick, a cheap, anti-human way out. Instead we’ve met the challenge of overpopulation triumphantly, wouldn’t you say? And so we go on and on, multiplying joyously, our numbers increasing by three billion a year, and we find room for everyone, and food for everyone. Few die, and many are born, and the world fills up, and god is blessed, and life is rich and pleasant, and as you see we are all quite happy.

Early on in the novel I thought the entire concept was absurd. It seemed completely unrealistic that these two conflicting forces could exist together — extremely crowded living conditions AND the desire to have large families. But then I started thinking about the real world, and it didn’t seem so far-fetched. People really DO keep breeding and breeding with no thoughts about ever-increasing population density. And many people DO deny any overpopulation problem, or blithely put the burden of solving it on future generations. Cities DO keep growing and growing, even though the streets are so choked with traffic you can hardly move around. Is this future urbmon society so much more irrational than the present world? Perhaps not. And after all, the whole point of a novel like this is to take present conditions and push them to an extreme to facilitate examination, the way much good science fiction does.

The problem is, even though the speaker quoted above claims everyone is “quite happy,” it’s clearly not true. The characters keep saying how great their lives are, but they give the impression of people trying hard to convince themselves. It soon becomes clear that this supposedly frictionless society is actually full of frictions: sexual jealousies, class discontents, and difficulties in dealing with the crowded lifestyle. In some it is a general sense of unease. In others it culminates in a kind of nervous breakdown; these people are called “flippos” (they flip out, get it?), and they are sentenced to death so as not to bring disharmony on others. This reminds me of the “muckers” (those who run amok, ya know?) from Brunner’s 1968 overpopulation novel Stand on Zanzibar. In both novels, the stresses of an overcrowded world constantly batter at people and break them down, sending some over the edge into madness.

The book follows the lives of several characters and how they deal (successfully or not) with those stresses. It’s a good commentary on human excesses, the folly of utopia-building, and the futility of trying to drastically change human nature. Aside from the overpopulation topic, another target is social stratification: how, even in supposedly egalitarian societies, class distinctions are almost impossible to truly eliminate. Silverberg addresses this with an elegant spatial symbolism: the blue-collar grunts live at the bottom of the urbmon, while the administrators live at the luxurious top, and the middle class is in the middle, and everyone strives to rise higher and higher in the tower during their lifetimes. It’s quite literally climbing the ladder of success, making it to the top, walking all over your inferiors… you get the point.

I like this novel for its social commentary and examination of human nature. Silverberg is usually good for that. The only criticism I have is the over-emphasis on sex. Not that I’m the prudish sort by any means, but this book is full of sex and incest and orgies and masturbation and so on; and Silverberg’s approach is less than tasteful. Now it’s possible I’m being too harsh; with sex being used as a social lubricant, it certainly has a role to play in this novel. Maybe Silverberg wants us to see it as a commonplace banality, which is what this future society has made it into. Perhaps that’s why nearly every female character in the book is introduced along with a description of her breasts, women are referred to as “slots,” etc. — because people are seen as meat (but funny how that only applies to one gender). Even so, his depiction of sex usually comes across as crude and vulgar, and not just in this novel. Rather surprising, actually. Among his non-SF work, Silverberg once wrote soft porn novels, so you’d think he’d have more skill in that area. Anyway, others may disagree, but to me this was one flaw in an otherwise fine novel.