Robert Silverberg’s “To See the Invisible Man” and “Hawksbill Station”

(This was going to be a “Classic” installment of the “Weekly Review” but Tor.com put out a story at the last minute, so this is a sort of “Birthday Review” now.)

The story goes that, when Frederik Pohl was editing Galaxy and its siblings, he made Robert Silverberg a deal: you can have indefinitely guaranteed sales–send me anything and, if I consider it quality work rather than hack work, I’ll buy it and the next story you send me. If I think it’s hack work, I’ll still buy it but then the deal’s off. So, from April 1963 to February 1969 (Pohl’s last issue of Galaxy was May, 1969), Silverberg sold Pohl nineteen pieces of short fiction and a serialized novel. The first of these stories, “To See the Invisible Man,” appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow, while the rest appeared in Galaxy and If. During this period, Silverberg sold to few other short fiction markets: one story each to the original anthologies, Dangerous Visions and Orbit 4, and one to F&SF, plus less noted stories to The Magazine of Horror, New Worlds, and Worlds of Fantasy.

While Silverberg had been a prolific, successful, and relatively well-regarded author of pulpy adventures, it was this spate of stories, along with the novels which began with the 1967 publication of Thorns, that is generally taken to mark the start of Silverberg’s more literary and even more acclaimed era. He went on to continue writing at an extraordinarily high volume while simultaneously aiming at and frequently achieving an extraordinarily high quality which resulted in more memorable works than most authors will ever have forgotten. While observing the field from at least 1948 to the present, he acquired accolades too numerous to mention, including serving as President of the SFWA, and having a career as editor that alone could have resulted in Grand Master status.

“To See the Invisible Man” is clearly not action-oriented pulp, but is a dark tale of alienation and of a form of reconciliation or enlightenment. The protagonist has been “cold” to society, not sympathizing with his fellow man. This isn’t an offense that receives jail time, but the “lesser” sentence of being made Invisible for a year. A temporary brand is placed on the perpetrator’s forehead and anyone who acknowledges his existence will be made Invisible, themselves. The story follows the man’s testing of the limits, experiencing quickly palling cheap thrills, and moving through more painful, fearful, and depressing experiences as he adjusts to his condition. Finally, he is released from his sentence as a changed man, but his change is not without irony.

The problem with this story is that it is contrived and implausible, with a social structure created for thematic ends rather than seeming to arise naturally, but that has never and still does not stop others from writing similar stories. The virtues include the assured storytelling, the largely plausible emotional journey of the protagonist, and the partly ironic ending that distinguishes not just between lone wolves and society, but between “society” and humanity. It’s also interesting to contemplate the differences between this future society of Invisible social punishment and our current one with its arguably even less humane, extremely Visible aspects.

While “To See the Invisible Man” is not his greatest story, it is good, historically interesting, and indicates the greater things to come. It’s not online, as far as I know, but it was collected in the 1966 edition of Needle in a Timestack, as well as in Earth’s Other Shadow, The Best of Robert Silverberg, later varieties of “Collected Stories” series, and numerous anthologies, most recently in Chasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World (2018), edited by David Brin and Stephen W. Potts.

Other than the lesser biter-bit, “The Pain Peddlers,” the only story from this Pohl/Silverberg connection that I know is online is “Hawksbill Station” (Galaxy, August 1967), which was later expanded into a novel of the same name. Like “Invisible Man,” this deals with the bizarre crimes and punishments of a (then) future society. In 2005, Edmond Hawksbill’s time machine was established as a way to send political dissidents on a one-way trip to the Cambrian by the reigning syndicalist capitalist government. In this land of the lost, a one-legged man is king. Barrett has, originally by dint of physical power and now through vestiges of mental strength and custom, become the leader of the outcasts. Occasionally, new prisoners arrive and they always cause a commotion but when the perplexing Hahn arrives, things become more unsettled than usual and revelations are in store.

As this and “Invisible Man” share some themes, so they share some weaknesses in that the idea of a society expending such technology and energy on people who’ve regularly been simply killed throughout history is contrived and implausible but this is more of a background issue, without the omnipresence of the problem in the earlier story. A problem not shared with “Invisible” is that it seems strange to me that this would have been expanded into a novel. It must have had entire plotlines added rather than simply being lengthened because even a novella really needs some combination of a very complicated plot, a very complicated setting, or a large cast of characters. The plot to this is intriguing but fairly simple, the setting’s technical background is effective, but cursory, and the 1967 conception of the Cambrian foreground is beautifully evoked but very simple rather than complex and, while Barrett has many lieutenants and Hahn to deal with, he’s almost the sole character. The strength of each of these elements and of the general writing is what maintains interest throughout but I don’t feel the need for any further expansion.

The core, however, is extremely effective. One really feels, with Barrett, that “home was a billion years away” and sympathizes with the psychic trauma and creeping madness of the populace which comes from this. The social background, while unnecessarily dated by being set relative to 2029 and featuring Marxists, rather than being set in 2129 and featuring Made-upists, bitingly addresses groupthink and the repression of individuals by the political leadership of “good” people and perceptively observes how these ideologies, which gripped people in their usual social context, fade into insignificance when they are faced with issues of bare survival. Finally, the ultimate fate of the protagonist is poignant.

I recommend seeking it out. Aside from being available online (p.81 of the PDF, which wrongly lists it as a Hugo winner when it was a nominee), it was collected in The Reality Trip and The Best of Robert Silverberg, as well as various “Collected” volumes and anthologies, including Wollheim and Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction: 1968.

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