Home > Books > Multiples (1983-87): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six by Robert Silverberg

Multiples (1983-87): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six by Robert Silverberg

Nostalgia is a great place to visit in your head but, so often, when you actually revisit the treasured memory by rereading, the results are disappointing. Somehow, the mind gilds the lilly. Should you return to physical locations, you can find tired old buildings or, worse, that developers have knocked down the places you remember with affection and produced something culturally appalling. Either way, travelling back in time is a tricky business and should only be attempted by sanguine and seasoned veterans who are emotionally prepared to be disappointed.

I’ve always been a fan of Robert Silverberg. Even when he got more serious in the late sixties and early seventies, there was an appealing style linked into an increasingly intelligent exploration of “issues”. Today he may be better known for the Majipoor series, but I still have fond memories of The Man in the Maze, Up the Line, Dying Inside, and so on. Subterranean Press are running a project to collect all his short stories and Multiples (1983-87): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six is, not surprisingly, the sixth in the series. It contains fourteen stories, covering 1983-87, a time when I was reading fewer short stories, so this has been an interesting collection to read. It fills in a gap. It’s also good to see more real introductory notes explaining some of the background to the stories. Too often we get a few sentences explaining how an author had a flash of inspiration while drinking root beer and eating a yakburger in a McDonald’s in Outer Mongolia or something equally brainless. These introductions delve more actively into the writing process and offer some fascinating if, at times, tantalising details.

“Tourist Trade” is an elegant story about a man of sensibility but with a tendency to obsessiveness, who finds himself tempted off the true path of his commercial interests. Instead of remaining the exploiter, you can watch him taking the first steps into what’s likely to become an addictive pursuit of more tangible pleasures. “Multiples” asks what we find interesting in ourselves and others. For some, stability and predictability are everything. For others, there’s something exciting about different moods, even different personalities — who says these have to be symptoms of a mental disorder, anyway? “Against Babylon” gets us back into the first contact groove. Strange how it’s always the folk from LA who are the most sympatico when it comes to greeting beings from outer space. That said, it turns out people from the Californian valleys are just as closed-minded and scared as everyone else. “Symbiont” shows how an enemy can make life a living Hell for infected human soldiers, keeping them alive for years and punishing them. It’s a clever take on the idea, but less than immediately practical because the effect is on the morale of our troops. Should the victims be quarantined out of sight, the remaining guys would just keep on fighting. Except what would you do with these infected ones after the war was over?

Robert Silverberg still looking chipper at Worldcon in 2005

It’s always good to meet old friends again and “Sailing to Byzantium” reads as well to day as the first time — in fact, it’s the only story I can remember reading before. Like the characters who walk the future streets of the five cities, this is an unchanging story. Once you’ve grown into an adult and fall in love, bodies lose their significance. Love transcends the mere physicality of ageing. All you have to do is accept the loss of outer beauty and move forward with the person you love. “Sunrise on Pluto” is a rather slight piece on the nature of life. If human are little more than intelligent carbon-based machines, what other sentient machines might there be on other planets? Pursuing the same idea, “Hardware” suggests long-lasting computers might represent a threat — it’s the domino theory applied to computer technology. “Hannibal’s Elephants demonstrates that optimism in the face of an alien invasion is often the best defence. If you just get on with your life, most of the troubling things around you can be packed up and taken away. “Blindsight” is a very ingenious inversion of expectation. Rather as some of the worst experiments conducted by Hitler’s Germany have informed modern surgical techniques, there’s always a potential need for skills, no matter what their original motivation. “Gilgamesh in the Outback” is a variation on the amor vincit omnia trope and great fun, albeit much at the expense of Robert Howard which, of course, is not wholly undeserved. “The Pardoner’s Tale” poses an interesting question. What if you had the ultimate ability to hack any computer. What would you use it for? You could make yourself the King of the World, or you could use the same power to become completely anonymous. Your choice!

“The Iron Star” offers me a challenge because I literally don’t know enough to judge it. My reaction is that the inability of the alien ship to detect the intense gravitational forces surrounding the black hole is unrealistic — a somewhat ironic criticism as applied to science fiction. So, turning a blind eye to this issue, it makes a good biter-bit story. “The Secret Sharer” takes us back to the question of identity and socialisation. Why do some people take jobs which involve them in constant interaction with others, while a small group prefer to join the ranks of the lighthouse keepers or other posts involving minimal contact with humanity? I suppose it’s all to do with loneliness. Surrounded by the hubbub of human existence, there’s little time to worry about a lack of friends. But when you prefer your own company. . . that means loneliness itself becomes your friend or you befriend someone equally lonely. Finally, “House of Bones” shows us how loneliness might be permanent unless you can be accepted by a new tribe.

On balance, this is a great collection. Inevitably there are a couple of duds. No writer has ever managed to make every story a complete success. Since Multiples (1983-87): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six is not pretending to be a “best of” but rather a reprinting of all the stories from a given time frame, you get good, indifferent and bad. This lets me make a few final points. My sensibilities are not necessarily the same as yours. You may find all these stories out of time to be all good or all bad. There’s no guarantee our tastes will overlap. That said, even when I think he’s bad, he’s still one of the most professional writers around. More importantly, he’s usually focussed on people rather than the science fiction or fantasy elements. This honesty and credibility in the male characterisation (the females usually got short shrift) makes his stories more timeless. Although there are still symptoms betraying the age of these stories, they are more forgivable in Robert Silverberg than in other writers. If nothing else, he usually tells a good story. So I think this collection is good enough to recommend to everyone and not merely to those interested in the history of the genres. More power to Subterranean Press for yet another good book.

For a review of another collection, see The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. April 16, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I’ll have to procure these editions eventually… Although, I rather have the original paperbacks that they appeared in.

    • April 16, 2012 at 12:43 pm

      Finding the originals will be slightly challenging. Four appeared in Playboy (a sign of the patriarchal times), four in Omni, three in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and the remaining three in The Planets, Terry’s Universe and The Universe.

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