Review: The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

This originally appeared on my old site on 2013-12-19. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. (Note: this isn’t especially spoilery in novel terms, though I come closer to it than usual and it does contain spoilers for some of the individual stories contained within as chapters. Also, it isn’t quite time for this in the sequence of my Silverberg reviews (Nightwings and a few other stories were supposed to be next) but I’m not ready to do those yet.)

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Date: 1972-09 (originally 1971-07)
Format: Paperback
Cat#: Q5176
Pages: 174
Price: $0.95
Publisher: Signet (originally Doubleday)

The World Inside is one of Robert Silverberg’s relatively few fixups [1], being composed of six stories published from 1970-71 [2]. It was published in book form by Doubleday in July 1971, though the book I read was the September 1972 Signet paperback.

The stories feature distinct plots (though they aren’t very strongly plotted) but recurring characters in which a peripheral character in one story will be a main character in another and vice versa. They all share the same basic setting (Urban Monad 116) and, together, paint a picture of a future society in 2381 where overpopulation has been embraced and many billions of people actually take up less land area than they do now, as almost everyone has been packed into immense skyscrapers called “Urban Monads”, several of which form physically proximate but socially isolated “constellations”. Within these vast and heavily populated buildings, a velvet-gloved dystopia lurks behind lots of late 60s/early 70s sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Almost all of Silverberg’s 70s works are a barrel of laughs but this one is even more Leonard Cohenesquely suicidally depressed than most. And I have a hard time taking the physical and social structures seriously. But it is a very thought-provoking book that focuses on a kind of social science fiction that seems to have undeservedly become less popular than it was. The books that most spring to mind in connection with this are Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (for the overpopulation), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (for the hedonistic dystopia), and both The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (for the claustrophobia/philia and the packed/isolated social structures).

The first chapter/story (1/”A Happy Day in 2381″) uses the “strange visitor gets a guided tour by the native” method of showing us this timid new world. The native is the sociocomputator, Charles Mattern, and the stranger (whom we never see again) is Nicanor Gortman who is visiting from a terraformed Venus which has a horizontal social structure more like what we’re used to. (Siegmund Kluver, who stars in the final story, is a side character here.) Via the proud tour guide, we learn that procreation is a religion, that men prowl the building at night, randomly sleeping with other husbands’ wives which is considered “blessworthy” by all – indeed, to refuse is a capital offense, which results in getting sent “down the chute” to have one’s combusted matter provide energy for the urbmon. At the start of our story, Urban Monad 116 has an ominously young population of 881,115 and the “Chipitts” constellation (what used to be the region of Chicago to Pittsburgh) has a population of 40,000,000 [3], while the earth has a population of 75 billion. Aside from natural births and deaths, it’s one less by the end of the story as we meet a “flippo”, or someone who just can’t handle so much utopia and starts attacking people but is apprehended and disposed of. “It has been a happy day in 2381, and now it is over.”

Chapter 2/”In the Beginning” introduces us to Aurea Holston and the idea of people just short of flippos and what happens when an urbmon becomes overpopulated by even its own standards. A misinformation campaign is launched magnifying the number of volunteers who will be shipped off to a newly built urbmon and however many necessary people fail to volunteer are randomly drafted. Since the urbmon is the whole world any of them know and womblike in many ways (while being symbolically phallic as well) this is too traumatic for some, such as Aurea, who is sent off to be reprogrammed when she too vocally expresses her inability to accept her fate. If “blessmen” (priest-like) or “consolers” (psychologist-like) can’t pacify her, the “moral engineers” will. I guess the title must refer to “the beginning” of a new monad or perhaps to the “new” Aurea but it’s not very clear to me.

Chapter 3/”All the Way Up, All the Way Down” is Dillon Chrimes’ story. He plays the vibrastar in a cosmos group. His is the sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll-iest story of them all, perhaps, being a musician who takes a drug and has sex while high so that he becomes one with the building. But it’s a Silverberg story, so he comes down.

Chapter 4/”The Throwbacks” may be my favorite of the tales. In a way, it’s silly but I still like it. Jason Quevedo is a historian whose thesis is that the humanity of the urbmons has become genetically distinct from, e.g., 20th century humanity due to rigorous self-selection for surviving in a very distinct environment. Modern humanity is free of jealousy and sexual hangups and so on. His wife, Micaela, disagrees with his thesis. This story is not all that much more strongly plotted than the rest but due to the psychological paranoia and the sense that a crisis is approaching and some nice misdirection as to its nature (I thought Jason might well be going batty and imagining everything, for instance, but wasn’t convinced either way) this story was more compelling than some others. I also enjoyed its historical perspective and some of Jason’s reflections on profanity and so on. And, of course, the real point of subversion and being alone together was more optimistic and less punitive than most of these tales.

We were introduced to Michael and Stacion Statler in “The Throwbacks” but they (primarily Michael) star in the novella that splits “We Are Well Organized”: “The World Outside”. Michael is on a work detail which enables him to forge an exit/entry pass to… leave the building! There follows an exciting and interesting, if largely conventional, tale of meeting strange aliens in a strange world, though the aliens are just farmers and the strange world is the farmland and a village outside the urbmon. It’s interesting that the urbmons are much like spaceships that never take off (which is thematically significant, in my opinion) but that Silverberg doesn’t have the city fed by internal hydroponics or some magic but has a secondary culture outside growing good old-fashioned crops (albeit with robot help).

Finally, Siegmund Kluver, who’s a social climbing administrator/ruler-to-be and has been popping up throughout the book finally gets his own story. At a climactic part of his testing for rulership, the story stops, goes to “The World Outside”, and then picks up in Chapter 7 where it left off in Chapter 6. Mattern and Chrimes reappear and the concepts of the blessmen, consolers, and moral engineers and many other themes reappear. And it’s another happy day.

One of the things I think is particularly interesting about this book is that, despite sledgehammer negativity, the urbmon’s dystopia has its subtleties. While there is some monitoring of exits and entries and there are cops of a sort and at least one character has a sort of personal paranoia, there’s little of the “police state” feeling of, e.g., a Nineteen Eighty-Four. While there is a small administrative elite, there is not much of a feeling of the oppressed masses being controlled by the few, so much as the masses controlling themselves. And it’s also reflective of our own current (1970 or 2013) society, as much good SF is. There is an ultimate death sentence for extreme non-conformity but, to a greater or lesser degree, that applies to all societies. And the groupthink has most people self-brainwashing themselves into thinking the urbmon is great and even being unable to survive outside of it. Which applies to a greater or lesser degree to our own technological society (and by “technology”, I mean fire and skins and caves and I certainly mean plows and whatnot, as well as computers and drones). And, in its own terms, it’s interesting to think about a society where, despite a population of billions, procreation is “blessworthy” and the great evil is “sterility”, which trickles down to figures of speech like we might say something is a “bummer” – it’s a “sterilizer”. And, as I say, it does make one think about being “trapped” on “spaceship earth” whether inside or outside an urban monad and what that does and will do to us as a species – what must we become if we stay here – what must we become to leave?

On the other hand, I find it odd that, in a world full of flippos, people are supposed to leave their doors unlocked so “nightwalkers” (always male) can come in and sleep with whomever they happen to find in a given room – and how this doesn’t result in more collisions of ten people in one room and none in nine others (not to mention other logistical/timing problems). And I was never clear on whether, in this procreative society, the children of a given woman had a variety of unknown fathers or not. And I can’t believe societies as distinct as the inside and outside (far more different than even our own urban and rural societies and with no movement from one to the other) could exist in harmony rather than splitting apart entirely. And, while some nods were made to the physics of heat and waste management, I’m not sure about even the architectural feasibility of his monads. So this is more in the way of a very solid-seeming, literal-feeling fable (underscored by the somewhat disconcerting present-tense narration) than an actual blueprint of a future. But it’s a book that was interesting to read and bears more thinking about. I can understand its being nominated for the Hugo award [4]. At this point, I wouldn’t say that it was great, but it’s certainly good and worth checking out.


[1] Some, perhaps all, of his fixups were:

  • To Open the Sky (1967)
  • Nightwings (1969)
  • Majipoor Chronicles (1982 connected collection)
  • Roma Eterna (2003)

[2] The full contents (each story simply being a chapter except for “We Are Well Organized” being split into two discontinuous chapters) are:

Chapter Title Date Source Category
1 A Happy Day in 2381 1970-02 Nova 1 ss
2 In the Beginning 1970-12 Science Against Man ss
3 All the Way Up, All the Way Down 1971-07/08 Galaxy ne
4 The Throwbacks 1970-07 Galaxy ne
5/7 We Are Well Organized 1970-12 Galaxy ne
6 The World Outside 1970-10/11 Galaxy na

[3] The current population of the Chicago and Pittsburgh metro areas alone is about 12 million. “If this goes on,” I don’t see it taking 368 years to less than quadruple.

[4] Silverberg declined the nomination, though it’s probably more accurate to say he withdrew its nomination, presumably to give the Nebula-winning A Time of Changes, which was also nominated for the Hugo, a better chance to win (but it still lost to Phil Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go).

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Review: Doyle After Death by John Shirley

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-08-05. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. I said I wouldn’t exclude this century and this is an example (of fantasy, even). There’s a retrospective near-coincidence in that I was calling for a TV series based on this and the very different but also redemption/afterlife-oriented The Good Place premiered 2016-09-19. Further in the Near-Coincidence Dept., it’s opening its final season in a few days.

[Cover of Doyle After Death]
Date: 2013
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-06-30500-8
Pages: 341
Price: $6.99
Publisher: Witness Impulse

Nick Fogg is a private detective in more or less present-day Las Vegas when he dies from misadventure. He comes to find himself on a beach in an afterworld and, after being greeted by the lovely Fiona, makes his way into the town of Garden Rest where he meets a guy who soon becomes a friend, along with a couple of guys who don’t, a bartender who wants to make sure he’s good people, a boardinghouse owner, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Yes, that Doyle. And, while a variety of people have died and come to Garden Rest (one of the many places in this plane, which is one of many planes of existence) over the eons and many have departed once more to other planes, there is a 19th/turn-of-20th Century English tone to much of Garden Rest, though it is mixed with traces of other things.

Naturally, it turns out that one of the dead people, Morgan Harris, has been murdered (yes, people can be “deformulated” in the afterlife) and Doyle and Fogg team up as a post-mortem Holmes and Watson to solve the case.

John Shirley is primarily a science fiction and horror writer but here turns his hand to fantasy (and mystery) and the SF flavors it by making it a more concrete and rational afterworld than many might be and the horror flavors it by occasionally producing good frissons of creepiness but it is a remarkably sedate and gentlemanly book from the often vigorous and violent Shirley. Though mostly rational, it’s often a whimsical rationality. One of the most enjoyable aspects is exemplified in the early part of the book when Fogg is still getting his bearings, though already investigating the case. He’s asking the mayor, Chauncey, about Harris.

“Was he living with anyone here? Housemates, spouse, anyone like that?”

“No, he was a friendly chap but he had solitary habits. Obsessed with his work. Tramping around, trying to talk to the trees – claims to have had some manner of conversation with the trees. Might have been his imagination, however. Never heard of Garden Rest’s plants talking. The birds, of course – and the occasional dog. Heard a horse make a remark once. But trees? No. Just as well – wouldn’t care for it, I don’t think. Unsettling.” (70-71)

The sort of horror comes out in places such as the depiction of a “psychic storm” which straddles chapters “Seventh” and “Eighth” when Doyle announces:

“…Ah, here is the storm right on schedule.”

He nodded towards the window – which began rattling in its frame.

Something outside was rattling the window. Not the wind, though the wind was in fact rising. It was the thing’s grip on the frame that rattled it.

Something with a hollow-eyed face was shaking the window…

[Chapter break to enhance the antici… pation.]

The elongated visage, eyeless and suffering, disintegrated under pressure from another, quite distinct face, the way a form in flowing paint is pushed out of shape when another color is poured into the mix. The rounder face with owlish eyes, replacing the first, was quickly pressed aside by several others: human shapes with streaming hair, men and women and mixed gender, some faces well defined and some only sketches. Some looked directly at us; others didn’t seem to see us, and shattered themselves against the windowpane.

They sang, with some occasional harmony but mostly discord – they were the dissonant choir. Some of them looked fairly happy, or at least pleasantly distracted; a good many others seemed to be grieving, endlessly grieving… (178-179)

The weakness of this book is primarily three-fold, with possibly some secondary minor problems. Some or all of the following should strongly apply to the mystery: it should have someone we care about be the victim; we should be drenched in a paranoid air where it could be anyone; we either hate or love many of the suspects; we feel invested in whodunnit; the crime should be very cleverly done and/or solved. It’s not that any of this is utterly absent but it’s only present in trace amounts. (Also, I can’t get into it in detail but one of the keys would probably not escape many conversant with the Holmes canon.) That might not matter as much since the real focus is actually two-fold. On the one hand, it’s on Doyle’s relationship with his wives (sequential on earth but both present in the afterlife), the first being the one living with him but the second, elsewhere in that plane, perhaps holding a greater claim on his heart. On the other, it’s on Fogg’s relationship with his life Before and his self-opinion, especially as it is colored by a particular act in that life. The problems with each of these is that there’s nothing as surprising or revelatory or transcendent as one might hope for. Again, not that it’s not good and reasonable but it’s only in trace amounts. Secondary to these three are the possibility that Shirley (being very American) doesn’t “do” the English thing right or that his treatment of the historical Doyle might not be entirely “spot on” but, being very American, myself, and not conversant with the historical Doyle, I noticed nothing wrong.

There’s another element that is not a weakness but is an irony related to the book’s strength: I loved the tone or mood, and enjoyed the setting and so many of the characters so much that I actually wanted much more of them. I think this would make a great TV series. Not a movie, because that would be relatively short and not a book series because there are too many of those and much of this book is particularly visual anyway. I’d like to see it drawn out and gotten into in more depth and detail. I can see a Joss Whedonesque “found family” and “dramedy” to this that would be great fun. And, of course, it’s not all “fun” in the sense that it brings to mind that we may not get the same chance these fictional fantasy characters do – and few would believe we would in the same way – so it might be wise to try to get it right the first time.

In sum, I don’t know that this is a great and deathless book (so to speak), but it’s a good and very enjoyable one and I recommend it.

Review: Space Lash by Hal Clement

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-05-06. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged.

Cover of Space Lash

Date: December 1969 (originally January 1969 as Small Changes)
Format: Paperback
Cat#: 8039
Pages: 206
Price: $0.60
Publisher: Dell (originally Doubleday)
Contents (modified from IFSDB):

Page Title Year Cat Var.Title
7 Dust Rag 1956 short story
27 Sun Spot 1960 short story Sunspot
49 Uncommon Sense 1946 short story
66 “Trojan Fall” 1944 short story Trojan Fall
80 Fireproof 1949 short story
96 Halo 1952 novelette
113 The Foundling Stars 1966 short story
128 Raindrop 1965 novelette
175 The Mechanic 1966 novelette

Dust Rag” is a tale of electrostatic dust difficulty on the moon and is a classic-style problem story, as are most of the tales. “Sun Spot” involves a scientific observation mission based on (in) a comet as it approaches the sun. “Uncommon Sense” is an especially clever tale of a man whose two villainous assistants are trying to maroon him on an alien world. Acute observation and scientific understanding of the fascinating indigenous life forms come into play. ““Trojan Fall”” (don’t ask me why the title is pre-quoted) is an unusual tale in that the focal character is a bad guy. It deals with orbital mechanics. “Fireproof” takes the more usual perspective of the good guys trying to deal with a bad guy who doesn’t understand the interactions of fire, atmosphere, and gravity. “Halo” involves some very unusual alien farmers and indicates we might not appreciate our asteroid belt enough. “The Foundling Stars” features broadly similar aliens but in the context of two human scientists trying to prove that stellar formation is or is not a purely random result or requires a particular process to account for varying densities. This perhaps does the best job of directly portraying the scientific endeavor. “Raindrop” is perhaps the most elaborate tale in the collection, being about a bunch of comets being gathered up, melted down, and turned into a giant water balloon in space, in which our two workers and their new genetically modified bosses get into conflict – underwater in space! John Varley’s “Blue Champagne” (1981) has some similarities to this one. And the collection concludes with “Mechanic” in which Clement does cyberpunk ’66! An ocean-going vessel has an accident made all the more horrific by the calm, clinical, precise tone in which it is described in great detail. The cyberpunk of this story comes from the fact that humans are developing artificial life that blurs the division between machine and organism (a la Moya in Farscape) and medical science has gotten to the point where it blurs the division between organism and machine. The three major movements are getting to know folks and their activities before the accident, the accident itself, and then the last third deals with the humans in the repair shop after the accident.

One of the recurring features of these stories is that Clement just dives right in – the stories are not deliberately obfuscated – rather they end up being quite clear – but it sometimes takes a few pages for the reader to get his bearings, producing excellent sfnal cognitive dissonance followed by the sensation of learning and finally knowing. Also, Clement is not generally given much credit for characterization (as is the case with almost all critics and hard SF writers) but he’s actually quite good at producing individuals by concisely detailing their different experiences, areas of expertise, expectations of causes and effects, and reactions to them. It’s not a “tell me about your childhood” characterization on one hand or a “this guy talks with a funny accent” characterization on the other, but serves to populate each tale with distinct individuals who nevertheless serve a social/archetypal purpose. Unfortunately, the greatest weakness in these tales is that, while well and logically plotted in most senses, the overall arc usually ends in some anticlimactic twist, or so it seemed to me. Some might react to this as a classic “ah, you got me – nice fresh perspective or humorous element” but I reacted more along the lines of “huh, well, the main story was great up to that point, but at least the ending doesn’t ruin anything even if it doesn’t finish it off with an ascending bang.”

Be all that as it may, I very much enjoyed the collection and it indicates that, while Ballantine’s The Best of Hal Clement (1979) did a fine job in collecting the best (taking “Dust Rag” and “Uncommon Sense” from this collection), it still didn’t have room for everything (at least “Raindrop”, “The Mechanic”, the fairly short “Sun Spot”, and possibly even “Halo”/”The Foundling Stars”) and this is a worthwhile supplement. It appears to be very purposefully arranged, too – I liked all the stories (perhaps “Trojan Fall” was my least favorite) but the first three and last two are the strongest, so that the middle is okay but it starts and ends very well.

Review: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

berserker.jpg

Date: September 1978 (originally January 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-441-05404-8
Pages: 243
Price: $1.75
Publisher: Ace (originally Ballantine)

I was intending to re-read Nightwings and discuss it but caught a bug early this month and didn’t want to do that in that state, so picked up a different volume to correct a glaring omission in my reading which, coincidentally, also consists of stories published by Fred Pohl in the 1960s. (Some of them are online as part of The Berserker Wars, one of the needless, probably harmful, repackagings of parts of the series and are linked to in the individual story comments.)

Berserker collects the first eleven tales in the series of the same name, plus a twelfth “story” interleaved throughout, in which a pacifist alien presents all the others to us. All the stories have individual beginnings, middles, and ends but about half (and much the longer and better half) also tell a fairly unified main story with recurring characters (“Goodlife,” “Stone Place,” “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” “In the Temple of Mars,” “The Face of the Deep”) while several generally shorter, lesser stories tend to alternate with those (“Without a Thought,” “Patron of the Arts,” “The Peacemaker,” “Mr. Jester,” and “Sign of the Wolf”). Even though there is a unified story, it contains mild inconsistencies as exemplified by a belated effort in “Temple” to paper over the disappearance of the mind beams after “Thought.”) I’d recommend “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” and “The Face of the Deep” from the core group (but don’t read “Face” out of order) and “Patron of the Arts” from the others. “Masque” was rightly nominated for a major award and, inexplicably, so was “Mr. Jester.”

Given their reputation, I was astonished at how relatively inefficient and ineffective the Berserkers were. The New Wave of British Space Opera, with its Inhibitors and whatnot, were able to build on the Berserkers to great effect. That said, I still wouldn’t want Berserkers to be real and the stories are still often effective. Other influential elements that immediately spring to mind include an element in the later main stories which may have inspired a key element in Pohl’s masterpiece, Gateway; that the original Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons and Baltar (a character introduced in “Stone Place” and featured in “What T and I Did”) comes almost lock, stock, and barrel from here; and that the conclusion of Han Solo’s Bespin adventure could have come from here. (Though it’s also likely all these things have earlier precedents from Wells’ Martians to Benedict Arnold to the girl in Simak’s Cosmic Engineers or even King Arthur.)

Without a Thought” (originally titled “Fortress Ship”) is almost like Asimovian military SF as there’s a combat puzzle to be solved. A pair of human ships have a Berserker vessel checked but are waiting on a third human ship to arrive and make it checkmate. In the meantime, the Berserker is using its mind control weapon on the nearest human ship which is crewed only by Del Murray and his aiyan, or dog-ape pet-ally. The Berserker sets up a contest by which it hopes to know if the human has succumbed to its weapon and the human has to use his own very limited resources and his alien buddy of limited intelligence to try to trick the machine into believing he’s still in possession of his faculties. The machine’s mind control weapon is a bit of magic but the parameters are laid out fairly and the story’s pretty clever.

Goodlife” is a much more substantial tale and not just because it’s a novelette. One of three humans is dying when they are captured by a Berserker who has raised a captive human, known as (an example of) Goodlife. That human brutally finishes off the dying man and the other two are brought aboard the Berserker vessel. The man, Hemphill, has a bomb but is holding off until he can use it for maximum effect. The “nature vs. nurture” elements aren’t bad and the depiction of the Berserker vessel is excellent but Maria, the female prisoner, is a bit too sentimental without sufficient motivation. The stark and dark conflict in which suicide bombing seems like a decent plan made me think of some Baxter stories, such as the Silver Ghost tales.

While positioned third in the book, “Patron of the Arts” was actually the sixth published. It’s a very effective look at Piers Herron, an artist who is jaded past the point of most mere mortals, which produces interesting results when he’s captured by machines making war on life. The only problem here is that the theme may a bit too explicit at the end.

The Peacemaker” (originally flipped around with the title “The Life Hater”) involves the murderous machines, as usual, but also with a seemingly insanely naive man who wants to negotiate a peace with them. This is less aesthetically significant than the previous two, settling for a decently presented ironic result.

More than even “Without a Thought” or “Goodlife” (which are stories with combat elements) “Stone Place” is the first clearly “military SF” tale. With nearly twice the length of any other story in the book and multiple aspects (including bringing Hemphill back from “Goodlife” for a minor role), it’s also one of the more ambitious tales. It mainly tackles the “Great Man” concept and the power of belief as well as detailing some internal conflicts in the Solar System which manifest even under Berserker threat. It also throws in a difficulty with a woman who’s been reprogrammed by the Berserkers to reject the leader she’d been betrothed to and who, instead, jumps into the arms of his lieutenant. This later part could have been mined for some powerful effects but wasn’t especially convincing. I also wasn’t convinced by certain gung-ho aspects which aim for the adrenalized thrill of approaching combat but which plummet into bathos. (After one man is skinned by the machines, humans yell “Death to the flayers!” and the narrative voice observes: “The shout ran like a flame through the corridor.”) Finally, there is one moment where the narrative voice also observes: “Now for a time the fight would be computer against computer, faithful slave of life against outlaw, neither caring, neither knowing,” which begs the question why humans present themselves to the Berserkers for combat at all. Still, the story does generally move along and provides some food for thought.

What T and I Did” returns to a much smaller tale, but brings back “Baltar” (here called both “T” and “Thad” and ensconced as human leader of several prisoners in a Berserker ship after the battle of the last story) in an interesting little psychodrama involving the minds of a traitor. In its dark psychological focus, it’s akin to “Patron of the Arts” (which comes right after it in the original order of publication).

Mr. Jester” is a bizarre bit of inconsistency, dealing with a light-hearted man rebelling against the very serious government of an isolated planet with the help of an improperly repaired Berserker which he’s been able to turn into a comic assistant. Perhaps one could applaud the reach of a series which includes genocidal machines and humor and perhaps this coincidental riff on “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (published by Pohl a month earlier) would have worked in the abstract but it seems out of place in this book.

Poe! “The Masque of the Red Shift” slams things back into grim violence. Felipe Nogara has become emperor of humanity but perceives his half-brother, Johann Karlsen (featured in “Stone Place”), as a threat, so has frozen him (though not in carbonite) and told the galaxy he’s died of plague. The Berserkers also see Karlsen as a threat to them and want to confirm his death so, when a defeated and brainwashed rebel warrior and his sister are transferred to Nogara’s ship full of decadent revelers orbiting a “hypermassive sun,” they insert themselves in a most morbid and violent way. A very effective and exciting tale, albeit a bit conventionally puritanical.

Sign of the Wolf” is a sort of cute tale about a rustic shepherd on a planet that’s lost knowledge of its technological background stumbling into a situation in which a planetary defense computer wants authorization to defend against an attacking Berserker and he wants a god to help him destroy a wolf who’s slowly making off with his flock. The shepherd seems to not mind an inconsistency in the conclusion as much as I do, but it’s not a bad tale.

In the Temple of Mars” carries on the main story, with Hemphill (now an admiral) and a captain from “Stone Place” (now a journalist) taking a replacement vessel to Nogara but with the plan to divert and rescue an important person. Unfortunately, a group of secret police have turned to berserker-worshiping and a prisoner (now on the loose) has been brainwashed by them to kill Hemphill so that they can take the ship for their own purposes. The use of the female character is weak (as usual) and made worse by a rather ham-handed “Mars vs. Venus” motif (using Chaucer) but the story otherwise moves along at a good clip and holds attention (as usual).

I can’t get into “The Face of the Deep” at all without spoilers, really, so I’ll just say that it is in the main storyline and cleverly wraps up the volume with a nicely staged insight into human nature.

Silverberg’s Stories: 1966-1968

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Contents

  • “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.

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.

Review of The Best of Lester del Rey for Black Gate

My first article for Black Gate was just published.

Lester del Rey was born in Minnesota in 1915 and died in 1993. One of his boldest fictions was claiming that his full name was Ramón Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heathcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del Rey y de los Verdes, when it was actually Leonard Knapp. However, it was his other fictions, beginning in 1938 for Astounding, and his work as an editor, a reviewer, and in a literary agency, which resulted in his being made a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1991.

Full review at Black Gate: “Gods, Robots, and Man: The Best of Lester del Rey.”