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Robert Silverberg: One Word at a Time March 2004

Robert Silverberg published his first story in 1954 and first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, in 1955, quickly establishing what has become one of the most successful and sustained careers in science fiction. After writing prolifically for SF and other pulp markets during the '50s, he "retired" to nonfiction and other genres in the early-'60s, then returned to SF with greater ambition, publishing stories and novels that pushed genre boundaries and were often dark in tone as they explored themes of human isolation and the quest for transcendence. Works from the years 1967-1976, still considered Silverberg's most influential period, include Hugo winner "Nightwings" (1968), The Masks of Time (1968), Tower of Glass (1970), Nebula winner A Time of Changes (1971), Dying Inside (1972), The Book of Skulls (1972), and Nebula winners "Good News from the Vatican" (1971) and "Born with the Dead" (1974), among many others. Silverberg retired again the late '70s before returning with popular SF/fantasy Lord Valentine's Castle (1980), first in the ongoing "Majipoor" series, and more novels and stories    
Photo by Beth Gwinn

Quasi-Official Robert Silverberg Web Site
throughout the '80s and '90s, including Nebula winner "Sailing to Byzantium" (1985), Hugo winners "Gilgamesh in the Outback" (1986) and "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another" (1989), and many others. His latest novel is Roma Eterna (2003). A long-time anthologist, Silverberg is best known for the New Dimensions series in the '70s, the first Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume in 1970, and critical anthology Science Fiction: 101 (originally as Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder, 1987). He lives in Oakland, California with wife and collaborator Karen Haber. His retrospective collection Phases of the Moon is due later this year.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I've devoted 50 years to defining science fiction by what I write and what I edit. You'll find the answer in Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder that is now called Science Fiction: 101, and my new collection, Phases of the Moon. These two books, between them, are my definition of science fiction; what I privately think of as the good stuff that moves me. In the first, I bring out the stories I learned most from and most admire, and say, 'Look, this is what Alfred Bester was doing here, this is what Philip K. Dick was doing.' And Robert Sheckley, C.L. Moore, etc. Then in Phases, I say, 'Here's what I did. This is what I learned from those writers, from 69 years of life, from all that I've read.' ”


“My home office is piled high with everything I've written. I can't organize it any more. And I do wonder, even though I understand what 50 years is, 'How the hell did you write all that?' Well, you do it one word at a time. I started as a reader and a fan -- literally a fanzine-publishing fan. I'm still in touch with that kid. I know what it was like to go to a convention and ask Murray Leinster and John Campbell for autographs. I've still got the 1950 copy of Astounding they signed. So I never get so high and mighty that I can't feel a little awe at Robert Silverberg -- not Bob Silverberg but Robert Silverberg. I can see from the outside, 'He really accomplished something in the very field that he dreamed of accomplishing it in. He has lived his own adolescent fantasies.' It's a very peculiar and schizoid-making thing to think about and I don't do it often, but it does happen.”


“The short story is a record of conflict and change: something happens, somebody goes through conflict, and there is a resolution, a catharsis of some kind, at the end. A science fiction idea starts with a 'What if?' -- if this, then that; if that, then this. And finally, look where we are! The science-fiction short story has to integrate those two concepts so the science fiction payoff arrives at the same moment as the resolution of the conflict involving the character. This is why it's such a damn hard thing to do well. It's a challenge, sure, but I've spent 50 years meeting that challenge. If you're building an automobile, is it a challenge to put four wheels on it? It has to have the four wheels. So I know what I have to do and, with greater or lesser success, I do it. It's an automatic process.”


“I have said the novella is the perfect form for science fiction in the introduction to practically every collection of my novellas, and I do believe it. The novella allows the detailed working out of a complex science-fictional idea, the portrayal of a culture, the complexities of the character who is enmeshed within that culture. The exploration that I think is at the heart of a good science-fiction story can be done in great detail. At the same time, you don't have the exhausting and sometimes stultifying process of spinning the thing out to book length. In modern science-fiction publishing, very big novels are expected -- for that matter, whole trilogies are expected. In the novella, you can move around within the 80 or 90 manuscript pages and achieve quite a lot. I believe Edgar Allan Poe's old dictum: one thing happens in a short story. Everything that happens in a short story should depend on that one thing. In a novella, two or three things can happen (or five or six sometimes).”


“It's hard to be an artist and also earn a fat living at it. This has been the complicated trick that I spent decades trying to do. It's a crazy thing to attempt, within what is after all light commercial entertainment. Bradbury managed it before I even began writing. The Martian Chronicles: is that not art, and is that not science fiction? And along the way there have been plenty of others. There are some writers now doing splendid science fiction. When I was a boy, they were saying 'The novel is dead.' Well, the mainstream novel isn't dead. People haven't written anything lately that matches Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, or The Sun Also Rises, but people are still writing very profound, moving novels. People will go on writing good science fiction as long as there are ideas they want to play with. I don't think it's dead, but the struggle to fight the good fight gets harder and harder all the time.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the March 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

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