Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg has had a long and productive career, and one that still continues, so before talking about some of his most famous works, it might first be worth trying to make sense of the chronology. The Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction records his first published story as ‘‘Gorgon Planet’’ in 1954 and his first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, in 1955. Between 1954 and 1966 Silverberg mostly published competent but undistinguished work, but from around 1967 he entered a period of intense creativity lasting till 1972. He published 25 novels in this six-year period, the last being Dying Inside. Many of these books won awards; almost all of them won acclaim – but then Silverberg took himself away from the field for a while. SF novels appeared less frequently, including The Stochastic Man (1975), and he next made a major impact with the fantasy Lord Valentine’s Castle. Further novels set in the same world, Majipoor, followed, as did other books such as The Face of the Waters (1991) and sequences such as the New Springtime books (1988-89). And this is to leave aside his career in short fiction, which has won Hugo and Nebula Awards. (The best of Silverberg’s short fiction is collected in Phases of the Moon [not reviewed here].)


To see what’s most distinctive about Silverberg’s work, I’m going to start with his 1971 Nebula Award-winning novel A Time of Changes. Its first line is: ‘‘I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself,’’ and its premise is that those words are a heresy. It is set on the planet Borthan, where the inhabitants have entered into a ‘‘Covenant’’ to forbid self-expression. As Darival explains it to a traveller from Earth:

‘‘You know that our forefathers were stern folk from a northern climate, accustomed to hardship, mistrustful of luxury and ease, who came to Borthan to avoid what they saw as the contaminating decadence of their native world?’’

‘‘Was it so? One thought only that they were refugees from religious persecution.’’

‘‘Refugees from sloth and self-indulgence,’’ I said.

‘‘And, coming here, they established a code to protect their children’s children against corruption.’’

‘‘The Covenant.’’

‘‘The Covenant, yes. The pledge they made each to each, the pledge, the pledge that each of us makes to all his fellow men on his naming day. When we swear never to force our turmoils on another, when we vow to be strong-willed and hardy of spirit, so that the gods will continue to smile on us. And so on and so on. We are trained to abominate the demon that is self.’’

So, on Borthan, the mere use of the first person is taboo, and Darivall’s decision to write and think of himself in this way has the potential to change society utterly. In many respects, A Time of Changes has much in common with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969): on a planet inhabited by creatures who seem human but for one crucial difference, an exiled noble goes on the run and in doing so discovers a new way of seeing things. Unlike Le Guin’s story though, Silverberg’s is not concerned with gender (indeed, the axiom that Borthan is a society controlled by men is barely questioned) but with the self, and, as hinted above, like Le Guin’s Estraven, this exploration comes about as a result of contact with a traveller from Earth.

Given that A Time of Changes is a story of travel – in many respects a picaresque – Darivall’s story is striking for its inwardness, its sense that the real voyage is inside ‘‘the prison of the skull,’’ as he says. The catalyst for this inward journey is Darivall’s meetings with the Earthman Schweiz, and not just Schweiz’s questioning but their use of a consciousness-expanding drug that gives a profound experience of mutuality. The turning point of the book occurs in Chapter 35 where the two use the drug together and see that understanding and celebrating the self is the first step to love of others.

Throughout, the book is written with a fineness of response to the emotional world that’s rare in SF, and it especially applies to Darivall. The novel’s ending is ambivalent: Darivall has become the founder of a kind of movement espousing the drug and the self, but it’s not clear whether this will survive. Given that he describes it more than once as a ‘‘new Covenant,’’ there are obvious religious overtones present.

Inevitably, a book published at this time and carrying a message of drug use as the portal to a new horizon of consciousness will seem dated. Silverberg was not always so benign in his description of such experiences. The abiding impression of the book, though, is of its thoughtful inwardness. Borthan may have alien landscapes and creatures, but Darivall’s consciousness (his self-overhearing, to borrow a term from Harold Bloom) is always most present.


The Book of Skulls is a similarly intimate book, albeit with four narrators, each of whom takes turns telling the story. The narrators are four students driving from New York to Arizona in pursuit of a hint discovered in the eponymous book. This volume, found by one of them in an old library, seems to promise eternal life to those who present themselves at a certain monastery in the desert, but also makes clear that travellers seeking this gift must arrive in a group of four, and that two of the four will die. All are aged between 20 and 22, and their age makes the whole venture – poised between a jape and a literalisation of the hideous ambition of youth – plausible. Each of the four has distinct, but not too stereotypical characteristics. There’s Eli, the book’s discoverer, an underappreciated Jewish bookworm; Ned, a gay aspiring poet; Oliver, the object of his affections, originally a Kansas farmboy; and Timothy, a member-in-waiting of the WASP establishment.

Most of the first half of the book is taken up with the description of their journey to the monastery; it does indeed exist as promised. The inhabitants are seemingly simple farmers whose guiding principle is obedience to the dogmas laid down in the Book. The remainder of the story sees the dynamic established during the journey play itself out. The fantastic paraphernalia surrounding – the monastery, the mystical mumbo-jumbo – turns out to be secondary to a study of character. In the end, each of the four has to understand the story of their lives and see its consequences acted out.

If that sounds abstract or dry, it’s not. Of all the Silverberg books I’ve encountered, The Book of Skulls is the one that reads most smoothly – and he is never an author lacking in polish or narrative competence. It’s worth saying, though, that the all-male atmosphere of the book does become a little claustrophobic, a little too much like a late-night college dorm-room philosophy session carried on to the point where the stakes become real. I can’t claim to have read everything in Silverberg’s vast oeuvre, but in everything I have read, there are similarities: one or more male protagonists, equipped with more intelligence and knowledge than is normal, butting his head against the intractable facts of the world and, more often than not, resolving the tension in a resigned, Mahlerian dying fall. But that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of reading a book as exquisitely managed as The Book of Skulls.


Dying Inside takes these concerns to a new pitch of intensity. Again, the protagonist scouring the inside of his head is a single, lonely man – here explicitly Jewish. His name is David Selig, and for as long as he can remember he has been a telepath. He has scrabbled together a living in New York for years by writing term papers for students, composed out of his extensive knowledge of the subjects and his preternatural empathy with the students. It’s an undignified existence, and Selig is too smart not to know that it represents failure for him. (Even if he didn’t realise this, his sister Judith is perfectly clear on that point.) But his telepathic power is fading, and his old life is looking less and less sustainable.

His telepathic power usually only gives him the ability to sense another’s thoughts, and is the sole SF-nal device here. As often with Silverberg, it’s used to complicate the protagonist’s life rather than offer a way out. For instance, spying an attractive girl on the subway, he begins to speculate that she has noticed him and that she likes his sensitive looks and thoughtful demeanour. Only then does he look into her thoughts, to discover that she’s barely aware of him. Another memorable incident features an LSD trip that goes badly wrong, hideously amplified by the effects of the telepathy.

Dying Inside is often compared with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), transforming that book’s sexual obsessions into the fantastical device of telepathy. I found it, however, more reminiscent of another novel by a Jewish author, Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man (1944). Both books have a protagonist who seems stunned into passivity by circumstances – in Bellow’s case by the question of whether he’ll be called up to fight in World War II. As a result, both pace the urban cages they find themselves trapped in, half-grasping at philosophical insights and plans for action, but getting nowhere. Instead, they make their inwardness into a kind of performance. Here, for instance, is Selig:

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate the deep meaning and mystery of a few lines I intend to rip off saintly Tom Eliot, a thoughtful guide for troubled times. Beloved, I direct you to his Four Quartets, to his paradoxical line ‘In my beginning is my end,’ which he amplifies some pages later with the comment, ‘What we call the end is often the beginning/ And to make an end is to make a beginning.’ Some of us are ending right now, dear children; that is to say, aspects of their lives that were dear to them are drawing to a close. Is this an end or is it a beginning?

No one, of course, is listening but Selig. Yet still he adopts the trappings of the sermon, and the conscious irony that it’s a sermon with no audience. The chummy ‘‘Tom’’ and the offhand quotation from Four Quartets show the kind of intimacy he claims with literature as a tool to make sense of his life. But this ‘‘we’’ is only an ‘‘I.’’ A page or so later, Selig sees the moon looking down on him like ‘‘a wretched old skull,’’ something that seems to be a motif running through a lot of Silverberg’s work: the repository of the intellect, the face of mortality in the Arizona monastery, Selig’s prison. And a writer as knowledgeable as Silverberg can’t have missed all the allusions spiralling out from that image, whether they are Eliot and Webster’s ‘‘skull beneath the skin’’, or Hamlet’s bartering with death in the graveyard. I can think of no book in SF that more richly invokes these registers than Dying Inside, or that uses them more intensely to depict a single consciousness.


The change between Dying Inside and an extrovert book like Lord Valentine’s Castle is extraordinary. In the latter, we’re on the planet Majipoor, where we’re shown an old story retold. Valentine is an itinerant juggler who seems to have lost his memory. The reason for this is that he’s the rightful ruler of a chunk of the planet, and needs to set out to reclaim his throne. So begins a long trek round the world to achieve that restoration.

Silverberg here is the writer-as-worldbuilder. Lord Valentine’s Castle comes equipped with maps, a thoroughly thought-out human/alien ecosystem, and a plot that puts all that work on display. The book has a fantasy rather than an SF affect to it, augmented by the prominent role dreams play in moving the plot along. Silverberg is never less than inventive in describing his world, and making clear (without preaching) the parallels between, say, Majipoor’s sea-dragons and whales in our own world. The loss, when compared with Silverberg’s earlier works, is one of intensity and inwardness. Valentine’s consciousness appears far less complex than those of either Selig or Darivall, although he is permitted moments of ambivalence about his destiny. Early on, for instance, he says ‘‘Let him be Coronal who wants to be Coronal. I think power is a sickness and governing a folly for madmen. If I once dwelled on Castle Mount, so be it, but I am not there now, and nothing in my being impels me to go back there.’’ But, as readers, we’re not surprised when the quest-for-the-throne story shape reasserts itself. Much of the book’s tone is derived from Jack Vance, especially the Vance of Big Planet (1956), but Silverberg here presents a much less sardonic version of Vance. It’s no surprise that the book was a huge commercial success, and bred a series.


Picking from Silverberg’s many later works is a bit of a lottery, as they’re so various, but the singleton The Face of the Waters is as good a place as any to start. Like Lord Valentine’s Castle, it allows Silverberg to dabble in world building, but the initial premise is far simpler. Hydros is a world whose surface is almost all water. There are sparse human settlements on the scattering of islands, plus a number of indigenous species. There’s also a mysterious alien artefact somewhere out at sea, the eponymous Face of the Waters.

Silverberg’s protagonist, Valben Lawler, has something of the intensity of narrators from his peak-period works – but, suggestively, Lawler isn’t the narrator here and so the book lacks the intimacy of the earlier works. What the Face does seem to offer, though, is the kind of transcendence that was not on offer to Darivall or Selig. Silverberg is here dealing far more explicitly than before with the prospect of death, with the question of whether there’s any way out of the body’s cage. (The Book of Skulls, though ostensibly taking this as its subject too, was a very different work – above all, a young book with immortality as a surrogate for all the things youth wants to do.) In this, Silverberg is helped by the simplicity of the setting he’s chosen: the sea and the sky, and nothing else, are the constant presences here. It feels like a glimpse of the absolute that Lawler and his companions pursue.

But Silverberg is of course too intelligent a writer to believe in the kinds of free rides that the fantastic offers. Solitary mortality is the ending for so many of his protagonists, albeit solitary mortality with a little more self-knowledge. If this temperament often ends up arguing with the fantastic devices he chooses to employ, that’s not a criticism: merely an observation that his best work arises from this tension.


This column was first published in the June 2010 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

4 thoughts on “Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Robert Silverberg

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *