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.


3 responses to “A “best of” worthy of the name

  1. Good review. I have only read two or three of the stories yo mentioned. Hawksbill Station is great, and Passengers is one of my ATF Silverberg stories. I think I have read that story three dozen times in my life so far. I did not like Flies too much, IIRC.

  2. I’ve not read as much Silverberg as I’d liked to, although I’m beginning to address that. He’s written some dull stuff, but I don’t think he’s ever written a *bad* novel or story. Incidentally, A Time of Changes is also my favourite Agberg novel. I’ll have to reread it one of these days…

  3. Glad to hear that, Ian. ATOC doesn’t get the love it deserves. In fact I’ve rarely ever heard anyone mention it at all. A “lost classic,” I guess.

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