Silverberg’s Stories: 1966-1968



  • “Halfway House” (If, November 1966)
  • “By the Seawall” (If, January 1967)
  • “Hawksbill Station” (Galaxy, August 1967)
  • “Bride Ninety-One” (If, September 1967)
  • “Flies” (Dangerous Visions, October 1967)
  • “The King of the Golden River” (Galaxy, December 1967)
  • “Passengers” (Orbit 4, 1968)
  • “Going Down Smooth” (Galaxy, August 1968)
  • “To the Dark Star” (The Farthest Reaches, August 1968)
  • “As Is” (Worlds of Fantasy, September 1968)

The first post in this series began with the first story Silverberg sold to Pohl under their special arrangement and jumped ahead to cover “Hawksbill Station” from this post’s period. The second briefly mentions the next five independent stories but focuses on the series of five stories which make up the book, To Open the Sky. This post will cover the stories between those and the series of three stories which make up Nightwings, except for the already-covered “Hawksbill Station” and “As Is,” which has never been collected. (This period also includes the one serial sold to Pohl from the many novels Silverberg was publishing: The Man in the Maze (Galaxy, April and May 1968). That is a good science fictionalization of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, using a human protagonist made intolerable to other humans by an alien-imposed psychic taint.)

Halfway House” and “Flies” are two very different takes on a “cruel martyr” theme. In the former, a terminally ill man goes through a “singularity” to try to make a deal with the aliens on the other side which will save his life. What he ends up having to do is take the place of the guy interviewing him and deciding the fates of other petitioners. The existential reality of this is not what he expected. In the latter, a spaceship accident kills everyone on board but aliens rebuild one man from fragments and “improve” him. What follows is a brutal reunion with his three wives while the main character meditates, with flat affect, on the Shakespeare line which gives the story its title. This was published in Dangerous Visions and there’s overreach for effect. Given that the terminally ill man sought his destiny while it was thrust upon the dead man, one might think the conclusions would be different but they’re not, much.

As the preceding deal with martyrs of sorts, so “To the Dark Star” deals with scapegoats. A human man, a modified human woman, and an alien go to witness the birth of a black hole. None of the crew can stand each other and one of them must experience a mind-shattering mental union with the black hole (or something like that). Each human vigorously tries to force the other to do it until something gives. The narrative voice doesn’t contradict the internal rationale given, which reflects poorly on humanity. However, as the story actually plays out, I think it’s rather a “psychic physics” problem, so to speak. Either way, it’s not a bad story but the science feels like fantasy and, even so, that background is more interesting than the foreground of unpleasant characters.

Bride Ninety-One,” which Pohl bought, has a vibe like “Day Million,” which Pohl sold a year and a half earlier so I assume that’s no accident. In this strange and somewhat humorous tale, contract marriages are the norm and a human and a Suvornese contract a six-month marriage with both going through some odd changes given that they are so different, especially since the Suvornese is intent on having a human-style marriage. It doesn’t stop there, though.

While all four of the preceding have their points and are more interesting than most of what I read today, I’d put them in the back half. Moving to the better tales, “Going Down Smooth” is a sort of black comedy (with binary/ASCII profanity) which is presented as the stream of consciousness of an AI that’s gone mad, perhaps due to having the job of dealing with insane humans. (The title comes from its commentary on humans losing their adverbs (which also bugs me) and has to do with “garbage in, garbage out.” Everything going down smooth… they mean smoothly.) There comes a point in the story where it gets some counseling of its own and it’s feeling much better now.

Passengers” isn’t much interested in declaring its genre but powerfully presents what may be an alien invasion in terms of demonic possession. Humans are taken for rides which are somewhat like blackouts in which they are essentially absent and generally amnesiac but from which vague traces may remain. Society has come to ignore people when they are being ridden and continues to muddle along. One of the conventions is that what happens while being ridden stays there but, when a man realizes he’s in love with a woman after both were possessed and had sex together, he seeks to break that taboo. The ending might be read differently today than then but I think the general blackly ironic intent persists. The description of the social and individual madness, topped off with the paranoia involved with not even being sure whether you’re possessed or not, is very effective.

In “By the Seawall,” Micah-IV is an artificial person guarding a vast structure which, along with a poison zone and an electrified zone in the waters, fends off seamonsters. While a couple of sectors of the wall have become famous for having threatening assaults from monsters, his section hasn’t and he wishes something exciting would happen. That’s granted when a person circumvents safety protocols and commits suicide by leaping off the wall and using a “gravity chute” to propel himself beyond the barriers to be eaten by the monsters. This is the first in a wave of suicides which perplexes Micah-IV so much that he goes to extreme lengths to understand it. As with “Passengers,” it’s unfortunate that it’s so overtly New Wavy with its refusal to explain the seamonsters and its downer (literally) core of the story, but the description of the wall, monsters, and suicides are extremely effective and the existential plight of everyone down to the protagonist has its resonance. I was impressed by the milieu and the story produced an effective feeling of weirdness. (Incidentally, this may have inspired a couple of recent (2017, 2018) stories in Clarkesworld by Finbarr O’Reilly.)

The King of the Golden River” could be called “Wife of the King of the Volcano People” because the King isn’t the main character and the Golden River is less impressive and relevant to the story than the volcanoes. It actually did have a variant title in its original magazine publication but that was “King of the Golden World” which makes even less sense. Be that as it may, it involves Elena’s search for meaning. She ends up on an alien world where the native inhabitants are close enough to human for non-reproductive sex and becomes the wife of a king. His people live on a double-peaked volcanic island and she worries about getting everyone evacuated when the time of eruption nears. What ensues leads to the defining moment of her existence. I like that we can think whatever we like about Elena and even she isn’t sure what to think of herself. The setting is a bit contrived but is as vividly drawn as the one in “By the Seawall” and the atmosphere of tension and the eventual action of the relatively basic plot is effective.

Review: To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg

Date: December 1984 (originally May 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-24502-3
Pages: 222
Price: $2.75
Publisher: Bantam (originally Ballantine)

After “To See the Invisible Man,” (review) Robert Silverberg published five more short stories* before embarking on a series of five novelettes, all published in Galaxy, which were collected as To Open the Sky (1967). The blurb to my 1984 Bantam paperback says it is “filled with a scope and vision comparable to Asimov’s Foundation series.” This is hyperbole, as Asimov invented a science, set it in a galaxy-spanning epic, and covered a half-millennium of the fall and rise of interstellar empires, initially in three volumes. To Open the Sky invents a technophilic religion, is bound to this solar system (specifically, Earth, Venus, and Mars), and covers about a century of effort towards longevity and interstellar travel in one volume. Still, the comparison is interesting, for there is a master visionary (Vorst in the role of Seldon) who creates a social force which takes over a world and then creates a schism for even greater control. However, with the religion and the longevity, there’s as much of Heinlein’s Future History as Asimov’s Foundation Universe.

Blue Fire” (June 1965) is set in 2077 and introduces Reynolds Kirby, a U.N. diplomat, who has to play host to Nathaniel Weiner, a Martian settler. Kirby tries to hold the drunken and rambunctious visitor in check and that hard-bitten frontiersman comes into conflict with a religious cult, The Brotherhood of Immanent Radiance or Vorsters, whose members “worship” science, as symbolized by the glow of Cerenkov radiation. An initially skeptical Kirby, on the other hand, find that his internal emptiness (indicated by his dependence on a Nothing Chamber, or ultimate sensory deprivation chamber) might possibly be filled by something these cultists have.

The Warriors of Light” (December 1965) advances to 2095 and introduces Christopher Mondschein as a man desperate for the immortality the Vorsters promise to achieve. His overzealous efforts to gain entry to their scientific citadel lead to his being compromised by the schismatic sect of Harmonists. They turn him into a spy and send him to the very redoubt, governed by Brother Capodimonte, which started his troubles. The somewhat melodramatic plotting for this tale is more action-oriented than most of the stories.

Where the Changed Ones Go” (February 1966, set in 2135) sends the orthodox Brother Martell to Venus. There, he finds Mondschein settled in to a position of power among the heretics and a minority of susceptible Venusians, despite most of the society being violently opposed to them. Martell high-handedly tries to convert them to the orthodox faith with bad results which compels him to fall in with the schismatic group, himself. This tale expands on the notion of a poisonous Venus which is habitable only with radical changes to one’s body which also results in radical changes to one’s offspring, including the manifestation of psi powers.

Lazarus Come Forth” (April 1966, set in 2152) is a sort of origin story for the Harmonist schism. The sacred texts of the Harmonists tell how Vorst, or his acolytes, martyred David Lazarus. Thus Lazarus’ being found on Mars in a suspension chamber causes some consternation. This story shows the ruthlessness of Noel Vorst and his devious machinations, particularly as seen by Kirby, who has risen from empty diplomat to being Vorst’s right hand man. Vorst draws the powers and resources of the disparate societies of the three worlds together through this prophet ex machina and continues to drive towards his goal of interstellar immortality.

To Open the Sky” (June 1966, set in 2164) deals with the final stage. (I won’t spoil its doings but will note that, somewhat as Silverberg “invented the CD player” in a 1961 article (fascinatingly described in his Reflections column in the September/October 2018 Asimov’s) so he has a prescient description of the exoplanet hunt which began in earnest in 1992: “Astronomers had found hundreds of planets scattered through other systems. Some could dimly be picked up by telescopic sensors; other could only be inferred by computations of disturbed stellar orbits. But the planets were there.” This sounds like Doppler spectroscopy which was postulated in 1952 but not practicable until four decades later.)

With its relatively small set of recurring characters and its overarching goals and themes, it reads very much like a novel though, with its changing settings, time jumps, and shifts in focus, it also reads like a set of stories. I’m not sure how satisfying each story would be alone, as there is relatively little action and few cataclysmic conclusions to end each tale but, as a single book, it reads well. The characters are all strangely interesting, the conceptions of Mars and, especially Venus, are vivid, and the drive for the satisfaction of lofty goals pursued by flawed men keeps the pages turning. This wasn’t a masterpiece and its themes would be visited again in later works such as Tower of Glass (1970) and The Book of Skulls (1971), but I did enjoy it.

* Four of the five stories are “The Shadow of Wings” (If, July 1963) which may be a misfired alien contact joke, “The Pain Peddlers” (Galaxy, August 1963) which is a biter-bit involving reality television, “Neighbor” (Galaxy, August 1964) which is set on a malicious version of Solaria and involves a weirdly mortal conflict between neighbors, and “The Sixth Palace” (Galaxy, February 1965) which may be a metaphor for getting the most out of an irrational universe when an almost Fafhrd and Gray Mouser-like duo confront a riddling robotic guardian of treasure. The last two are more interesting than the first two. The other is the uncollected “The Unbeliever” (Magazine of Horror, August 1963) which may have been written before the Pohl phase. Similarly, early in the course of the To Open the Sky novelettes (and possibly written before them), he also published the uncollected “At the End of Days” in New Worlds (which was reprinted in the May 1969 Magazine of Horror).