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The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades

The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a wonderful trip down memory lane for me and, with the newer stories, a reminder of just how good a writer Robert Silverberg has been and remains today. I put it in this way because fashions and writing styles change over the years and, with many authors, what passed muster fifty years ago, is not readable today. Yet the stories reprinted here from the 1950s are still good by modern standards. Indeed, even when he’s sermonising, Robert Silverberg remains highly readable and anyone interested in the craft of narrative should read him. For those wholly dedicated to the cause, there’s a run of seven volumes of collected stories. Subterranean Press is sometimes a treasure trove of nostalgia. This particular collection is Robert Silverberg’s own choices with fairly extensive notes about each decade and the stories selected.

We start off with “Road to Nightfall” (1954) which is still interesting today as a frank assessment of the likely cannibalism if world order was to collapse. It’s somewhat darker than Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison, but less successful than either the anti-war The Men in the Jungle by Norman Spinrad or the political/religious parable in Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, but very good as an example of work thought controversial in the mid-1950s. “The Macauley Circuity” (1955) is also ahead of its time in predicting the capacity of machines to replace human workers. With some prescience, it foresees we’ll all be relegated to lives of enforced leisure, i.e. we’ll be redundant — a theme repeated for one rather important job in “Good News From the Vatican” (1971).

“Sunrise on Mercury” (1956) is a mechanical first contact story in which psychological despair comes down to a majority vote. “Warm Man” (1957) is an unexpected biter-bit vampiresque story which strikes a real note of pathos as our “hero” first finds balance and then overdoses, followed by “Flies” (1965) in which conscience and the resulting guilt are given an on-off switch. “Nightwings” (1968) finds a world at the end of times when a long-feared invader finally comes from the stars. This upsets the current order of things which is not inherently a bad outcome because it had grown hidebound and unsympathetic to need. In such a reversal of fortune, some would become collaborators and others would passively help those of high status who were deposed. Such has always been the way of the world when change is forced upon it. Some years later in “Beauty in the Night” (1997), we get another invasion and, by one of these great ironies on which short stories are based, it takes an abused child to kill one of the invaders. The result, of course, is massive retaliation, unlike “Passengers” (1967) which pursues the idea that the external agency might deliberately seek to cause the maximum distress and humiliation individual by individual. This contrasts sharply with the mirror image in “Sundance” (1968) which rehashes the guilt we should all feel if, to terraform a planet for our occupation, we had to wipe out an intelligent species. It’s like the guilt we feel for eradicating the Red Indians and other indigenous people on our own planet. Moving to social engineering, “Schwartz Between the Galaxies” (1973) is a thoughtful piece about homogenisation, the process of rendering all Earth’s cultures the same. Although the majority may not mourn the loss of the Eskimo from the ice or the headhunter from some jungle lair, society is actually enriched by diversity and impoverished by the desire to dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator. This theme of the role of creativity born out of threats and challenges is pursued in “The Millennium Express” (2000) where the argument against the complacency and lethargy of Paradise is made. Finally in this section, “To See the Invisible Man” (1962) nicely shows the irony of how the emotional pendulum swings from a generalised lack of interest in one’s fellow man to an empathetic desire to reach out and comfort the distressed. It’s a classically hypocritical use of legal power in the fruitless pursuit of a society where people naturally reach out and care for each other.

Robert Silverberg at Worldcon in 2005

“The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve” (1980) is a nice biter-bit time travel story where jealousy proves our traveller’s undoing. And punning on undoing, we have time-editorialising in “Needle in a Timestack” (1982) with our hero determined to recover the woman he loved and lost. This embraces paradox and allows positive manipulation to succeed. “Hunters in the Forest” (1990) also depends on time travel, but as a means of exploring our fears and frustrations. If you had the chance to give up modern civilisation, go back to some quiet valley and build a cabin, you would jump at it, wouldn’t you? “Against the Current” (2006) is a fantasy rather than an SF time travel story in which an attempt to drive home leads in a rather unexpected direction.

“Capricorn Games” (1972) offers an indication of the consequences of telepathic contact. Seeing behind the mask, to the essential person inside the body, is not always what you expect — particularly if you later discover the exchange is two-way. “Born With the Dead” (1973) reminds us that, sometimes to beat someone, you have to force him or her to join you. Only then can he or she see the world from your point of view and decide to leave you alone. “The Pope of the Chimps” (1981) is a rather clever story about what anthropologists should do when the chimpanzees they are working with not only slowly develop intelligence but also grasp the nature of religion. In particular, what should the “animals” be told about death and what happens after it. And talking of death and how we should approach it, or not as the case may be, “Death Do Us Part” (1994) shows us the selfish if not predatory side of what we call love. People’s motives can make us feel very uncomfortable which is the sign of a very successful story.

“Sailing to Byzantium” (1984) remains one of the all-time classic stories about love and the meaning it can bring to two rather different lives. Indeed, while all around them is constantly being rebuilt, their emotions are the one true unchanging thing. “Enter a Soldier: Later, Enter Another” (1987) reminded me in spirit of John Brunner’s Timescoop (1969) except, instead of having a time machine to bring people forward for a meeting, this has computers create simulacra of historical figures. Although it lacks Brunner’s sense of humour, it does have a reasonable intellectual heft which makes it fun to read.

“With Caesar in the Underworld” (2001) is a slightly dour alternate history novella, forming part of a series describing the perseverance of Rome. It says interesting things about the nature of power and why some people covet it. There’s also some subtlety in the lazy failure of apparent friends to see beyond the surface to the reality beneath. “Defenders of the Frontier” (2007) recognises that empires may come and go but the soldiers may stoically persist, often in outposts long forgotten by central command. For such remnants, the issue is always how to react to the abandoment (this first appeared in Warriors edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois). Finally, in rather the same way cinemas used to run continuous cycles of films during the time they were open, “The Prisoner” (2009) starts in media res, encourages us to watch through the ending and start until we can leave where we came in. It’s a variation on a very old idea but it works quite well here, if only because it’s short.

For a review of another Subterranean Press collection, see Multiples (1983-87): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six by Robert Silverberg.

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

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