Visions of Paradise

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder (aka Science Fiction 101)

I am probably not the primary audience for this book, which, although published originally in 1987, and reprinted under its new title in 2001, is aimed at three groups, in roughly descending order of importance:

• fans of science fiction interested in reading some of the finest stories the field has produced;
• new writers of science fiction hoping to master their craft and cross the bridge into professional writing;
• fans of Robert Silverberg wishing to learn a bit about his own path from amateur writer to professional.

Let’s see how I fit into each target audience:

• I am certainly not a new reader of science fiction, having first discovered the genre in the early 1960s and having previously read every story in this book except one;
• having written science fiction for roughly 40 years, either I already know all the “secrets” in this book (regardless of my apparently inability to put them into practice), or I do not yet know them (which would make me far too slow a learner to ever achieve writing success);
• Robert Silverberg is my favorite writer of science fiction, so I have read many prior essays by him, in which he discussed much of the same territory discussed in this book.

That being said, Worlds of Wonder is a fascinating book. Silverberg is such a smooth, interesting writer that his autobiographical essays, the longest opening the book and others infused into critiques of the individual stories, are all very enjoyable reading. The essays might not appeal to every reader as much as it did to me though, since I experienced many of the same childhood traits that Silverberg himself did, including a lifelong passion for writing science fiction.

As for the stories themselves, Silverberg has selected what he considers ideal examples of successful science fiction stories, and he has succeeded in nearly every case. The book opens with Damon Knight’s “Four in One,” a straight-forward examination of how four people having different personalities and agendas can survive when they are ingested into an alien body and forced to live as a composite being. This taut story successfully combines a struggle to survive along with a close look at a very alien type of being.

The next two stories were my favorites. Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” was ostensibly a tale of an evil robot, complete with Bester’s masterful writing flourishes and misdirections that lead to an unexpected but very satisfying conclusion that redirected everything I thought I understood previously in the story.

C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” was written in the 1940s but was at least two decades ahead of its time in its character-study of a woman whose brain is saved from a devastating fire by being placed into a robot body. But not just any body, and therein lies much of the story’s power. Silverberg marvels at how this story must have affected readers of 1940s Astounding and I totally agree with him. Had this story been published 25 years later, it would have been hailed as one of the highlights of the late 1960s New Wave.

“The Monsters” is a role-reversal story by Robert Sheckley, told from the viewpoint of a race of aliens experiencing the arrival of a human spaceship on their world. Sheckley was a master of making a philosophical point in a brief, satirical story, and in this story he was at the top of his form.

“Scanners Live in Vain” was the first published sf story by the brilliant Cordwainer Smith, who for two decades wrote a series of pseudonymous stories deservedly admired by both sf readers and writers. Smith understood the structure and intent of a science fiction story as well as any author, combining straightforward storytelling with wondrous ideas that always left you with a lot of food for thought. He was at the top of his form when he died abruptly in 1966, with stories such as “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” and his only novel Norstrilia. Had he continued writing for another two decades, I suspect his body of work might now be considered the very peak of 20th century sf. Outstanding though “Scanners Live in Vain,” is, it barely scratches the surface of the talent of Paul Linebarger (the man behind the pseudonym), and I strongly encourage you to read either Norstrilia or the NESFA Press edition of The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith.

And there’s still much more, including:

• Brian W. Aldiss’ “Hothouse,” one of the wondrous far-future stories which made his early reputation, part of a series of stories sharing that setting;
• Jack Vance’s “The New Prime,” about the ruler of the entire galaxy who nears the conclusion of his reign of office;
• Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag,” which, like Sheckley’s story, reveals some universal truths beneath its humorous surface story;
• Bob Shaw’s “Light of Other Days,” one of the greatest sf concepts ever devised, and a personal favorite story as well.

Anybody who cares about becoming a writer can do a lot worse than using this anthology as their first textbook. But anybody who has not read the majority of stories in it should buy it immediately (assuming they can find it on sale somewhere) for the stories themselves. Robert Silverberg has always had exquisite taste as an anthologist. I have more than 20 reprint anthologies edited by him, and I have enjoyed every one of them. This collection ranks among the finest of them for its excellence. I recommend it highly for all readers of science fiction.


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