Review: Born with the Dead by Robert Silverberg

In my coverage of the stories Robert Silverberg published from 1963-1975 it’s no more time for me to post a review of Born with the Dead than it was to reprint the review of The World Inside but I’m going to anyway. This is revised from a post I made on an SF discussion board on December 19, 2012 to remove irrelevant antipathy to Silverberg’s introduction to the collection (Isaac Asimov’s “cheerful self-appreciation” entertains me but Silverberg’s bitter self-appreciation didn’t) and in an attempt to at least slightly improve it generally, but the substance is unchanged.

Born with the Dead is subtitled/blurbed “Three Novellas About Here and Hereafter.” The stories all hail from 1970-74 but, other than things like the topicality of population pressures and futures set in what is now the past, they don’t feel especially dated. While not hard SF, one of the stories even contains something close to e-books and print-on-demand while another has a HUD/GPS of sorts.

The title story is well-regarded by many, including the author, whose introduction describes how he packed into it his “deepest thoughts about love, marriage, boredom, obsession” and complains about how it lost an award. However, I prefer the winner, George R. R. Martin’s “A Song for Lya,” which deals with many of the same topics in a much more dramatic and convincing fashion. That’s not to say “Born with the Dead” is a bad story–far from it. It’s about a husband who can’t let go of his “rekindled” wife after her death while she wanders about with her new undead friends without care for her previous connections. This central idea is good and passages in the story are splendid but I think it could have worked better as an evocative “prose-poem” sort of short story because it didn’t consistently grip me over its span as a novella. While it’s obviously about love, marriage, obsession, and boredom, and boredom is effectively conveyed, the rest is not as effective over the course of the story and I don’t think or feel all that differently or profoundly about those topics after reading it. Further, the “deads” aren’t detailed in any plausible way—making them purely literary—and the way the society of “warms” interacts with this phenomenon is also implausible, to say the least. This is fantasy in science fiction’s clothing.

Despite being less renowned, the other two stories in the collection worked much better for me. “Thomas the Proclaimer” is similarly a fantasy story told in science fictional terms in that a ruffian/rogue-turned-prophet instigates a moment of world prayer in 1999 (story written in 1971) which causes the world to stop moving for about 24 hours. From that fantastic starting point, a realistic story (except in the magnitude of its satire) of millennial and historical delirium takes off. The “march to the sea” (when the calculating Plato/Saul/Judas character allied to Thomas tries for a second miracle) is an unforgettable depiction of sheer mass madness. But there are also many subtler satirical touches of, for instance, the multiplying sects and interpretations.

Going” is one of four story ideas given by Isaac Asimov to Silverberg and three other writers for an anthology. It starts out almost feeling like an Asimov story with much dialogue but becomes more Silverbergian as it deals with a society in 2095 where medical advances have made possible prolonged, vigorous lives which almost always reach the 13th to 19th decades. Given this, a social structure has come about where people are voluntarily euthanized whenever they feel like to make way for new lives. The focus is on the spontaneous decision of a famous composer to Go. He heads off to a House of Leavetaking where he tries to tie up his life’s loose ends and prepare himself to die. This raises all kinds of thought-provoking ideas. One is on the nature of societal “use” where the government encourages the less useful members of society to Go sooner and the more, later. There’s a somewhat appalling elitism (present in Asimov’s original idea), where “useful” seems to mean “creative” and “not useful” seems to mean anything else, including physical labor, raising children well, and being nice. Then there’s the subjective idea of how it would be to live/die in such a way (would you give up a semi-immortal life? when? why?), along with the objective idea of what sort of government and citizenry would have things this way and how they would afford it.

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).

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.

Review: To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg

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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).

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.

Top Ten Most-Read Authors

The “Top 10 Monday” at Thrice Read was on “Authors I’ve Read the Most Books From.” I don’t guess this is a “tag” and I don’t usually (ever?) play on them anyway but I got curious and ended up making the list and jotting some comments (that got increasingly out of hand the more I got excited). I don’t do the Goodreads thing so I just had to cobble the list together as best I could. The result isn’t a list of “favorite” authors but it certainly includes a lot who would be on such a list. It is also composed almost entirely of older authors with all that entails mainly because some newer authors haven’t had as much time to accumulate.

The list has eleven authors because I originally thought Spinrad and Dick were tied at #10 with eighteen but then I remembered I’d read Radio Free Albemuth but didn’t feel like deleting Spinrad because of that. Though I have another Spinrad novel and a non-fiction work in the Pile, I still have three PKD novels and a collection (it’s a big Pile), so he’d still be behind. Speaking of non-fiction, the numbers for Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov would go up if counting non-fiction.

11. Norman Spinrad (18)

Spinrad’s peak for me was from Bug Jack Barron (1969) to Child of Fortune (1985), with Bug Jack Barron, The Iron Dream (1972), and The Void Captain’s Tale (1983) (along with the novella Riding the Torch (1974)) being the essential long Spinrad works. The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (1970) is an essential collection and No Direction Home (1975) isn’t bad, either. Spinrad’s a New Wave guy and The Iron Dream savagely parodies SF&F archetypes by presenting the novel as written by Hitler and The Void Captain’s Tale is a kind of “art space opera” which is thickly stylistically experimental. So absolutely not my kinds of things but Spinrad is just amazing anyway.

10. Philip K. Dick (19)

PKD is overrated and overread (if only because he’s so highly rated and widely read) but I do love Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and Ubik (1969) and like some others. His “Collected Stories” (five volumes, of which I’ve read four) also contain a lot of great stuff. He’s a brain-bending beatnick who grapples with the nature of reality, the dehumanization of automation, and god and insanity.

09. Roger Zelazny (20)

Roger Zelazny is now probably most famous for fantasy novels and the things he ought to be famous for are pyrotechnic SF(-ish) stories. Another sort of new-wavy guy with a lush style and vivid imagination. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of his stuff but love a lot of it, too. The early novels (excluding the expanded versions of excellent novellas) are pretty good, but his collections are where it’s at. Four for Tomorrow (1967) only contains two stories not repeated in The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories (1971) and both are still essential, as are My Name Is Legion (1976) and even The Last Defender of Camelot (1980) and Unicorn Variations (1983).

08. Arthur C. Clarke (23)

Clarke is another guy I’ve gotten rid of a lot of. His very earliest novels are too much like travelogues and such of his later novels as I’ve read seem a little tired but the run of SF novels from Childhood’s End (1953) to 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) (excepting Imperial Earth (1975)) is excellent. I’ve also read and enjoyed most of his collections before replacing them with The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2000) which would have to be essential even if a story or two slipped through the cracks. One of the few hard SF writers who seem to also make literary folks at least somewhat happy.

07. Robert Silverberg (24)

Robert Silverberg was a story factory in the 50s. I’ve read very little from that period but have vague but fond recollections (those are not from the 50s) of Master of Life and Death (1957). His critically esteemed period began when Frederik Pohl, who’d recently become sole editor of Galaxy and If, made him a deal in about 1963. This manifested in book form by 1967. So Silverberg also became a sort of new New Waver. Probably the most successful novel of that period was Dying Inside (1972). But again, for me, the stories were the peak and probably the essential single book would be Beyond the Safe Zone (1986), which is an omnibus of Unfamiliar Territory (1973), The Feast of St. Dionysus (1975), and Capricorn Games (1976) which, along with Born with the Dead (1974) and the stories fixed up into The World Inside (1971), collect the vast bulk of his stories from 1970 to his brief retirement period of about 1976-79. Later in 1979, he began serializing the superficially sunnier fantasy-tinged Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980) which is nevertheless SF filled with dark undercurrents. Regardless, it’s an excellent book and became the start of a series for which he may now be best known.

06. Fritz Leiber (24)

Fritz Leiber is the protean master of everything. He’s a very good SF writer in addition to being one of the very best in both fantasy and horror. I’ve never read his Burroughs pastiche, Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966), and think A Specter is Haunting Texas (1968) is only okay while The Silver Eggheads (1962) is very nearly bad (and maybe a couple of his collections aren’t perfect) but you can’t go wrong with anything else. His Changewar series is one of the major time travel series in SF and his Fafhrd & Grey Mouser/Lankhmar series is a cornerstone of fantasy, while a huge number of stories and novels like Conjure Wife (1943) and Our Lady of Darkness (1977) are important to horror. I have a special fondness for a couple of relatively neglected works. One is a solipsistic mildly nightmarish tale that appears in various forms under various titles such as You’re All Alone and The Sinful Ones (c.1953, either version is good) and the other is a bit of exhilarating slapstick weirdness called The Green Millennium (1953).

05. A. E. van Vogt (25)

A. E. van Vogt. What can you say? People tend to view Campbell’s Astounding as monolithic but there was a great deal of variety throughout, manifested most obviously by the colorful overreaching towards transcendence of van Vogt amidst the cool reason of Asimov and the folksy groundedness of Heinlein. It would be easy for a critic (such as Damon Knight) to trash van Vogt but a more admirable critical task would be to analyze exactly how he managed to create such worlds that mesmerized generations of readers with such unconventional materials and methods. As Dick said,

Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor. It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality really is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared.

Van Vogt’s career went in at least two phases. From 1939 to about 1951, he poured forth a mighty torrent of stories and novels. Then (perhaps due to his penchant for odd systems of promised empowerment) he became involved in Dianetics (not Scientology) and basically quit writing except to “fix up” a bunch of stories into sorts of novels. In book form, this covers stuff from basically 1946 to 1968. The dynamic Frederik Pohl struck once again, getting van Vogt to write new stuff from about 1963 which manifested in books from 1969 on. I’m not very familiar with the later phase but almost anything from the earlier phase is fantastic. Again, while the Weapon Shops and Null books and things like The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) are famous (and rightly so) I also feel like mentioning my appreciation for a somewhat less famous early fixup, The Mixed Men (1952, aka Mission to the Stars).

04. Poul Anderson (27)

Poul Anderson is an odd writer for me. Works such as Brain Wave (1954) and Tau Zero (1970, an all-time favorite) as well as The Enemy Stars (1958) and The High Crusade (1960) are classics and quite various in content. (He’s also very highly regarded as a fantasist and I have a couple in the Pile but haven’t read any.) He’s written innumerable stories of equally wide variety and high caliber. His Polesotechnic League/Terran Empire future history series, featuring Nicholas van Rijn, David Falkayn, and Dominic Flandry, is very good. So I’ve read a lot of Anderson books and enjoyed a lot. But I’ve also gotten rid of several and he’s definitely a guy who wrote too much with a lot of stuff rarely less than serviceable but often not much more than that. And (kind of like the often excellent Jack Williamson) he seems to lack, for me, some sort of pizzazz or spark or whatever many of my very favorite writers have. Nevertheless, at his best he’s very good.

03. C. J. Cherryh (35, maybe 37)

C. J. Cherryh’s well known for fantasy works and has written excellent singletons of a more or less science-fictional nature such as Wave Without a Shore (1981) and has written stories (even winning her first Hugo for one) but (at least until the Foreigner series) she was best known for the series of novels set in her Union/Alliance universe and particularly those at the core of it, running from the Hugo-winning Downbelow Station (1981) to Finity’s End (1997). She can be a difficult author, writing complex, claustrophobic, tough tales and, indeed, I read a book eons ago, then another couple fewer eons ago, before she finally clicked for me while giving her yet another try (which included a re-read of Downbelow Station). Then again, some folks dive right in with no problem. Either way, she’s a superb science-fictional anthropologist with a great knack for creating aliens and putting hapless humans in their midst. Also, for such a space-oriented author who doesn’t usually focus on specific hard sciences, she nevertheless plays closer to the rules of the universe than most authors. In addition to Downbelow Station and the other core Merchanter works, some of my favorites of hers are The Faded Sun trilogy (1978-79, really one big novel published in three parts) and the Heavy Time/Hellburner duo (1991-92) except that those two really need a third book. I also especially like both the original trilogy and the belated sequel that make up her “science fantasy” Morgaine Saga. In fact, aside from shared-world stuff and post-1988 fantasies, I’ve read all her stuff until around 1992 when it gets more sporadic and the only one of those I really didn’t care for was Hestia (1979), though Brothers of Earth (1976) might be my next least favorite. Basically, it’s all good. I’m sure the Foreigner stuff is too but I read either the first volume or first trilogy in the series (which is why I’m not sure of the count for Cherryh) and I just didn’t feel like getting involved with that.

02. Robert A. Heinlein (40)

Heinlein and Asimov. Basically, if you don’t know who they are, go find out. If you don’t love one or both of them, I’m afraid we can’t be friends. (I kid. Sort of.) When I was younger, I actually liked all Heinlein but he definitely breaks into two clear phases with a fuzzy phase between. His late phase (which I mark from 1970-1988) didn’t survive either my getting older or my re-reading them or both. Friday (1982) comes closest to the early magic. The middle phase, basically from 1961-1970 is very choppy but does include a couple of Hugo winners, a late and brief addition to the Future History stories and the much-belated publication of both of the two related stories that make up Orphans of the Sky (1963). But it’s the early phase of 1939-1959 that is nearly solid gold. This period includes virtually all the Future History stories and juvenile novels as well as many other independent stories and novels. All the virtues of Heinlein and almost none of the vices are present in those masterpieces of science fiction.

01. Isaac Asimov (44)

While I’m not going to argue with anyone who prefers Heinlein, my personal favorite is Asimov. Partly, this is nostalgic and honorary in the sense that I recall reading The Foundation Trilogy (1951-53 from 40s stories) and having my brain irrevocably altered. But leaving that aside, he’s still my favorite for his clear prose, imaginative scope, embrace of logic and reason, and sense of humor.

He preferred his Robot stories and I prefer his Foundation stories but I love both and they’re both essential. His work divides into early (1939-59) and late (1982-1992) with a couple of books and several stories between and many people disregard the late period, including the Robot and Foundation sequels. Even I will admit that they aren’t as essential but at least the first of the new works, Foundation’s Edge (1982) and The Robots of Dawn (1983), while different from the earlier titles, are still very good and none are bad.

I’d also make a pitch for the often slighted trio of Empire novels (1950-52) which, after all, are important precursors (and, ultimately, connective elements) between the Robots and the Foundation. Even considered as stand-alones, they really captured my young imagination. Paradoxically, I put off reading his six Lucky Starr juveniles (1952-58) until my imagination was no longer especially young. Asimov lacks Heinlein’s easy rapport with youth so they don’t stand up to his juveniles, but they’re still pretty good. (On the other hand, I read one “Norby” book when I was young but I believe they were basically written by Janet Asimov and targeted at people much younger than I, and I have never had any interest in reading more. Also, while both Silverberg and Asimov are on this list, I didn’t care for the one book I read of the several in which Silverberg expanded Asimov stories into novels.)

More important than those (if not as essential as Robots and Foundation) are The Gods Themselves (1972) and The End of Eternity (1955), as well as the story collections which include great works like “Nightfall” and “The Last Question” (usually along with chatty, amusing, informative introductions to the volumes and stories).