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...


  • I will add this one to my list of books to read.

    The first Silverberg story that really stuck out for me was Hawksbill Station. It was reprinted in one of Don Wollheim's best of the year collections. I think I will have to go and reread it now.

    I have been picking up more Silverberg this year. My collection did not contain many of his works.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 12:16 PM  

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