Visions of Paradise

Monday, July 04, 2005

Robert Silverberg

A quick glance at the fifty year output of Robert Silverberg’s portrays him as the quintessential genre writer, producing a seemingly endless series of stories based on the traditional topics and themes in science fiction. But a closer reading reveals an amazing depth and seriousness. What Robert Silverberg has done with incredible regularity is take the hoariest old cliches of SF and reshape them into serious, modern fiction. His influence can be seen in such writers as George R.R. Martin and C.J. Cherryh who have also embraced the long traditions of science fiction and updated them with great success.

Perhaps Robert Silverberg’s greatest importance lies in the overall high quality of his fiction, perhaps the highest overall quality of any science fiction writer ever. He was first published in 1955 with the juvenile novel Revolt on Alpha C, and for the next half-decade was one of the stalwarts of the science fiction prozines. He churned out an incredible number of stories, under both his own name and numerous pseudonyms, filling the pages of nearly every minor science fiction magazine and several major ones as well. His overall quality was quite high considering his amazing proclivity. And yet, except for a Hugo Award as Most Promising New Author in 1956, he was not considered one of the major stars of the SF firmament.

In the mid-Sixties, after a brief retirement from science fiction, Silverberg upped his level of quality considerably with no decrease in his quantity of stories published. During the period from 1967-1976, Robert Silverberg produced a body of work possibly unequaled by any science fiction writer in any ten year period ever.

Silverberg's decade of excellence began modestly in 1967 with the mosaic novel To Open the Sky, gathered from a series of novelettes originally published in Galaxy. While higher in quality than typical Silverberg to date, it gave little indication of what was to follow. Shortly thereafter came the novel Thorns and the novella "Hawksbill Station". Both were widely acclaimed as two of the most thoughtful and best-written stories of the year. A year later came the Hugo-winning novella "Nightwings" and the equally-acclaimed novel The Masks of Time.

The steady progression of major stories continued: the psychological adventure novel The Man in the Maze; the time-travel slapstick comedy Up the Line; the philosophical Downward to the Earth; the multiple character study The Tower of Glass; the Nebula-winning novel A Time of Changes; a novel examining the lure of immortality, The Book of Skulls; a classic study of telepathy and loneliness, Dying Inside; a serious look at reborn humans, "Born With the Dead,"; a story of politics and mental powers, The Stochastic Man; and, finally, his last novel before retirement, Shadrach in the Furnace.

It was a ten year period during which Robert Silverberg earned more major award nominations than any other writer ever. Overall, he received five Hugo and Nebula Awards during this period, before burning out and retiring in 1976.

But writing stayed in Silverberg's blood, and three years later he returned to science fiction with the adventure novel Lord Valentine's Castle. Slightly less serious than his stories prior to his retirement, it was still superbly written and served as a popular return of perhaps the genre's best overall writer.

In the twenty-five years since, Silverberg has alternated between science fiction and historical fantasies, earning three more Hugo and Nebula Awards in the process. His best stories of this latter period include the Nebula Award winner "Sailing to Byzantium," a look at bored future immortals. To the Land of the Living was a mosaic novel about the adventures of the historical king Gilgamesh in the afterlife. His short series At Winter's End and The New Springtime was a far-future saga about the resurgence of intelligent life on Earth long after a cataclysmic destruction of human civilization. The Face of the Waters and Kingdom of the Wall returned to the type of philosophical speculations of Downward to the Earth and A Time of Changes.

While Silverberg's production during this latter phase of his career has not equaled that of the first two phases of his impressive career, the quality has remained consistently high. Overall, it has been an impressive thirty years. Perhaps the highest tribute

that can be paid Robert Silverberg is that more so than any other science fiction writer, readers and critics expect each of his stories to be as good as every other. Lesser writers, perhaps all other writers, are allowed to stub their toes occasionally. Robert Silverberg is not permitted such a luxury.


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