Visions of Paradise

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Phases of the Moon

In my collection I have 48 sf books written by Robert Silverberg, and another 36 sf books edited (or co-edited) by him. That seems like a lot, but in some ways it barely scratches the surface of his career output. His website lists well over 100 sf books written by Silverberg and more than 80 sf books edited or co-edited by him. And I suspect those totals are somewhat short of the true total as well.

Recently I bought two books by Silverberg not in my collection. One of them entitled Cronos contains 3 novels, two of which I did not have (Letters From Atlantis and Project Pendulum) and one which I already did (The Time Hoppers). I had planned to start reading it but then I obtained his retrospective collection Phases of the Moon, which immediately drew my interest.

This collection contains 23 stories (in 622 pages) selected by Silverberg himself as representative of his entire career, as well as long story introductions which, collectively, serve as an in-depth overview of Robert Silverberg’s writing autobiography. The book is divided into decades, so I started reading with The Fifties.

From everything I have read about Robert Silverberg, his writing in the 1950s were pure pulp writing, having no loftier goal than selling sufficient stories to the prozines to make a living from writing. He apparently had no artistic ideals, but was the quintessential hack writer. Reading the four stories from that decade, and Silverberg’s introductions, that assessment was fairly valid. He knew his best chance of making a living was to aim for the secondary markets, rather than spend unnecessary time and effort aiming for the Big Three prozines of Galaxy, F&SF and Astounding. And yet, none of the stories he selected from that era were bad at all, well-written pulp adventures which were probably in the upper half of the stories published at that time.

The fourth story, “Warm Man,” was Silverberg’s first appearance in the prestigious Fantasy & Science Fiction, and showed a touch that had not yet appeared in the previous stories in the book.

Onto The Sixties, which begins with Silverberg’s discussion of how much of the prozine market vanished at the end of the 1950s, along with his guaranteed paychecks, so he virtually dropped out of the science fiction field in favor of writing nonfiction and erotic fiction. True there was the occasional sf story, but it seemed as if Silverberg would join the ranks of promising pulp writers who found better ways to spend their writing time.

Until Frederik Pohl took over the editorial reins of Galaxy and made Silverberg a now-famous offer: Pohl would promise to buy every story which Silverberg submitted to him, so long as each story represented the best writing Silverberg could do, no writing down to a pulp market for the sake of guaranteeing a sale. As soon as Silverberg submitted a less-than-stellar story, Pohl would still accept it, but the deal was then terminated. This freed Silverberg from the necessity of “dumbing-down” his stories to guarantee publication, while at worst requiring Pohl to publish one pulp-level story. But Pohl was confident it would guarantee Galaxy a slow-but-steady stream of top-notch stories.

The first story Silverberg wrote under his new-found security was “To See the Invisible Man,” which, ironically, was the first Silverberg story I ever read. It appeared in the debut issue of Worlds of Tomorrow just after I discovered the prozines. It created a future society which Silverberg explored through one introspective character who not only reflected that society, but grew emotionally through the story. It was the type of sf story which immediately resonated with me, and had two effects on me: first, as Silverberg perfected that type of story he immediately became my favorite science fiction writer, whose career I followed closely from them on, giving me many, many hours of pleasure; and second, it probably ruined me as a prospective author. Unlike Silverberg, who honed his skills writing pulp-level stories for a half-dozen years, I immediately began writing the type of stories which I enjoyed most, introspective studies of future societies, which are probably among the most difficult type of stories to write. Nearly forty years of failure have made it obvious that my writing talent likes far below that Silverbergian level, and while there is no guarantee I would have had more success had I aimed for pulp-level adventures (probably the most popular type of sf on the market), at least I might have had a better chance of succeeding.

Next were two stories which were basically horror stories, “Flies” (which appeared in the anthology Dangerous Visions) and “Passengers” (which appeared in Orbit and won Silverberg his first Nebula Award). While they were interesting stories, as horror stories they were mostly dependent on their punchlines, and were not “major” stories per se.

Next came “Nightwings.” For over forty years this has been one of my very favorite stories, and remains just as powerful on its most recent reading. In one of his introductions in Phases of the Moon, Silverberg described a “masterpiece” as “a piece of work which is intended to demonstrate to a craftsman’s peers that he has ended his apprenticeship and has fully mastered the intricacies of his trade.” That is my opinion of “Nightwings”. It truly deserved its Hugo Award as Best Novella, and probably the Nebula Award as well (which it lost to Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonflight”.)

The story creates a vivid far future age long after Earth civilization has passed its peak, an age in which people belong to specific guilds based on their roles in life. The main character is a Watcher, who four times each day uses his ancient machine to search the skies for a long-awaited invasion by distant aliens who have “claimed” Earth, an invasion which many people, including some Watchers, now disbelieve. He is accompanied by a Flier, a teenaged girl so slim and weightless that her butterfly wings enable her to fly under cover of darkness when the solar winds do not force her down. Their third companion is Gormon, a guildless “changeling” whose barely-human appearance and lack of guild make him a virtual outcast in society.

The story begins as the trio reach the ancient city or Roum (following the story’s classic first line “Roum is a city built on seven hills.”) Silverberg uses the visit as an excuse to examine the far-future city itself, the civilization of the people who inhabit it, and also the history of the city, both in our own future and its classical past. We are given a glimpse of the numerous Guilds and how they were originally formed during a time of crisis on Earth. This is the first Silverberg story I read which was preoccupied with history, both our past and our future, and it spoke to one of my loves in reading fiction (both science fiction and historical). The story was definitely bittersweet, as it examined the Watcher’s relationship with the Flier, as well as her own relationship with Gormon and, after entering the city, the young but powerful Prince of Roum.

And, of course, the invasion finally comes, which changes all the relationships, as well as the very civilization itself. The ending of “Nightwings” was as much conclusion as beginning of the Watcher’s further adventures, and it urged me to put aside Phases of the Moon briefly and spend a weekend reading the three novellas which formed the fix-up book Nightwings. This is the second time I have read the entire book in this decade, and it stood up as well each time I reread it. I will not review the entire book here, except to make an observation: there is very little plotting per se in “Golden Age” Silverberg fiction. His primary concerns are exploring future worlds and the emotional and philosophical growth of its characters. Consider Thorns, The Masks of Time, Nightwings, A Time of Changes, The Book of Skulls, Dying Inside. It is not surprising how much I have enjoyed reading such deliberate world and character studies over the years, and why my favorite authors other than Silverberg include Michael Bishop and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Rounding out The Sixties came “Sundance,” which Silverberg admits in his introduction was an attempt to push himself to his limit (this was the story which he considered his masterpiece in the sense discussed above). He succeeded very well in a story of Earthlings who are exterminating millions of animals which live on an alien planet, for the purpose of providing space for incoming human settlers. Then one of the exterminators mentions to the main character what if the animals are actually intelligent? This sets off thoughts of genocide in his head, and the story seems to be headed towards a confrontation between the main character and his companions until Silverberg veers the story very effectively in an entirely different direction.

“Sundance” has grown in stature in the years since it was published, and is now considered a classic of science fiction, rightfully so. Silverberg mentions that it made the Nebula ballot that year, but he withdrew it “somewhat cynically” because he “calculated that the more accessible ‘Passengers’ had a better chance of winning thee award,” which it did. Then he comments that he won “a Nebula with my second-best story of 1969.” I agree with him, although any Nebula Award is worthy, so he probably made the wise decision.

Less than halfway through the book and it is already one of my favorite single-author collections ever.

To be continued...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Science Fictional ABCdery

The following ABCdery originally appeared in Tom Sadler’s fanzine The Reluctant Famulus #71:

A is for Isaac ASIMOV, one of the stalwarts of sf’s “Golden Years”

B is for Michael BISHOP, who wrote my single favorite novel Brittle Innings in the 1990s. So where the heck has he been the past 15 years?

C is for John W. CAMPBELL, one of the great writers of the 1930s who became the most influential editor in the history of the genre

D is for Gordon R. DICKSON, one of those reliable story-tellers who always wrote on a high level that continuously raised sf above its pulp origins (such as Poul Anderson, Clifford D. Simak, Frederik Pohl, Marion Zimmer Bradley and many others)

E is for George Allan ENGLAND, one of the overlooked giants of the pre-Amazing Stories years, best known for his Darkness and Dawn trilogy

F is for Philip José FARMER, creator of two of the most exciting universes in science fiction, the World of Tiers and the Riverworld

G is for GALAXY Magazine, my favorite prozine in the 1960s until Frederik Pohl retired in 1969 and left it in the incompetent hands of Ejler Jacobsson

H is for Joe HALDEMAN, one of sf’s finest writers for nearly 40 years, but who is so consistent that he is often overlooked in favor of other, flashier writers

I is for IF, a three-time Hugo winner for Best Prozine in the 1960s, breaking the lockhold on that category held by F&SF and Astounding / Analog

J is for The JEWELS of Aptor, which launched the career of 19-year old Samuel R. Delany who was probably more responsible for making “space opera” respectable than any other writer

K Is for Damon KNIGHT, sf’s renaissance man: outstanding author (The Best of Damon Knight, The Other Foot), influential critic, editor (Orbit) and founder of the Science Fiction Writers of America

L is for Ursula K LE GUIN, whose The Left Hand of Darkness was one of those rare sf novels which burst onto the scene like a supernova, immediately influencing everything which followed it

M is for Jack MCDEVITT, one of my favorite current writers who combines classic sf storytelling with an historical worldview and damned good mysteries

N is for Larry NIVEN, who earned a reputation as a top hard science fiction writer during the peak of the New Wave when such writing was considered passé by many fans and critics

O is for OMNI, a popular science magazine which recognized the quality and importance of science fiction, but will be best remembered for hiring Ellen Datlow as its fiction editor near the end of its existence

P is for Edgar Allan POE, a rare genius who helped define science fiction, mystery fiction and horror fiction, thus deserving all the reminiscences on his 200th birthday

Q is for Don QUIXOTE, one of the seminal quest novels which has influenced more fantasy than most people realize

R is for Kim Stanley Robinson who walks the border between genre sf and literary sf so well in such novels as the Mars trilogy and The Years of Rice and Salt

S is for Robert Silverberg, one of the “big three” for children of the New Wave era, along with Roger Zelazny and Ursula K Le Guin, and author of Nightwings and Dying Inside, among others

T is for William TENN, whose sharp satires ( along with those of fellow writers such as Robert Sheckley, Pohl & Kornbluth and Damon Knight) set the tone for much sf of the 1950s

U is for UNKNOWN Worlds, one of the earliest genre prozines which treated fantasy with as much rigor as science fiction already contained

V is for Jack VANCE, a master of sense of wonder in stories such as “The Dragon Masters,” “The Last Castle,” the Demon Prince series and the Galactic Cluster novels

W is for H.G. WELLS, the father of science fiction, who created both the format of science fiction as well as many of its seminal topics in works such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Island of Doctor Moreau

X is for XICCARPH, by Clark Ashton Smith, one of the many early influencers of sf who, along with Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, William Hope Hodgson, and others, has been sadly neglected

Y is for The YIDDISH Policemen’s Union, last year’s Hugo and Nebula winning novel which combined noir mystery with alternate history

Z is for Roger ZELAZNY, who burst onto the sf scene with stories such as “A Rose For Ecclesiastes,” “He Who Shapes” and “...And Call Me Conrad”

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Very Best of F&SF

While Galaxy was my favorite magazine as a teenager, it lost my loyalty after Frederik Pohl passed the editorial baton to the much-inferior Ejler Jakobsson. Soon thereafter I started reading Edward Ferman’s Fantasy & Science Fiction, and while it did not offer the same variety of future fiction, tending to lean more towards fantasy and contemporary sf, it was still a damned good magazine which never failed to entertain me.

I stopped buying F&SF during Kathryn Kristine Rusch’s editorialship, partly because reading prozines was proving too time-consuming so I gave up all my subscriptions in the mid-1990s, but also because I felt the magazine had declined during her tenure. When Gordon Van Gelder took over the reins, I began buying it occasionally, liking it as much as I did during Ferman’s years, and ultimately renewing my subscription to it.

Recently F&SF celebrated its 60th anniversary, so Van Gelder compiled The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Obviously, as he states in the editorial, it would be impossible to print all the best fiction from 60 years of a very-highly regarded magazine, so Van Gelder does not even try to do so. In effect, this 473-page anthology is more of a sampler of what F&SF has been about for six decades than an attempt to include its very best stories. For me, who has probably read all of the most famous stories in the magazine, there probably would have been no reason to buy the book if it really lived up to its title. As it is, only 7 of the 23 stories were published between 1970 and 1995, my subscription years, while several others are famous stories which I have read elsewhere.

Van Gelder avoided many of the overly-familiar classics in favor of lesser-known stories by the same authors. Thus Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man” and “Fondly Fahrenheit” are passed up for “Of Time and Third Avenue.” He skipped Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose For Ecclesiastes”–perhaps my favorite sf short story ever published–and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” in favor of another story which many readers might have missed, “This Moment of the Storm.” Nor does he include any of the three novellas which became A Canticle For Leibowitz, even though the first novella might well have been the very best story ever included in F&SF.

So the book was worth reading for the stories which I had not read previously–such as several of the pre-1970 lesser-known stories, or Ted Chiang’s recent award-winner “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” which shows him at the very top of his form–as well as a chance to reread a few classics which I have not read in several decades.

In the latter category is Daniel Keyes’ renowned “Flowers for Algernon.” Van Gelder called this story his “all-time favorite f&sf story”, and it is hard to disagree with such an assessment. Even having read it 40 years ago, and the novelization as well, I had forgotten how moving it is, both in how Charlie recalls his past when he becomes super-intelligent, and, of course, for its very moving ending (which I will not reveal in case one of you readers has not read the story before). If you have not read “Flowers for Algernon” in as many decades as me, then this anthology is worthwhile just for the pleasure of rereading it.

Other highlights include William Tenn’s musings on racism “Eastwood Ho!”, Kurt Vonnegut’s sharp satire “Harrison Bergeron,” James Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger” (first story in his 7-book cycle), Ursula K Le Guin’s “Solitude” and Peter Beagle’s “Two Hearts.” I cannot picture any fan of either fantasy or science fiction not liking this book. Perhaps the only reason to stay away is if you have all the stories in it already. But if, like me, several of them are missing from your collection, what are you waiting for? Buy it.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

A Fall of Moondust

Last summer when I inventoried my collection, one of the first things I noticed was how few books I had by Arthur C. Clarke. I immediately researched his output and added 9 of his books to my wish list. Last month I was browsing through a used book store while on vacation, and I saw a copy of A Fall of Moondust, one of Clarke’s most acclaimed novels. I am pleased that I bought it, since it was a very good book.

Normally I am not a fan of problem-solving stories, especially one whose premise is basically a novelette expanded to novel-length, but this novel hooked me totally. The plot was simple: a tourist bus taking 20 people across the surface of the Moon happens to be crossing a dust-filled crater when a minor moonquake takes place and traps the bus beneath the surface. Although the loss of transmission between the bus and its station reveals that the bus is in trouble, nobody knows precisely where it was lost.

This is not a very long novel, 215 pages in paperback, so it does not drag on unnecessarily. There are three main foci to it: the interaction between the stranded tourists as their emotions run the gamut from despair to hopefulness and back again several times; the attempts to first locate them and then to rescue them; the emotional states of the various people involved in the rescue or on the periphery of it. Clarke’s writing is very lowkey, reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson in a later generation, so while the novel is basically a thriller, it did not raise my emotions to a manipulated feverish pitch as most thrillers attempt to do, but rather kept me interested in reading on, anxious to see how the tourists would eventually be rescued.

While A Fall of Moondust was not a classic, it was very enjoyable reading and encouraged me to read more vintage Arthur C. Clarke science fiction.