BOOK REVIEW: "The collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Two: To The Dark Star" by Robert Silverberg (2007)

Robert Bee
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I've written about this series in the New York Review of Science Fiction, but this is the first chance I’ve had to read volume 2, which contains much of Silverberg’s award winning and influential SF from the 60s. To the Dark Star went out of print rapidly and is now selling for prices such as $75 or $100 dollars online. Silverberg recently rereleased the first four volumes of the series for $5 apiece in Kindle, iPad, and Nook format, which is a tremendous deal. To the Dark Star has over a dozen stories, is over 500 pages long, and contains a lengthy introduction for each selection. Most of the stories were written for particular editors, at least one was based on a cover painting, and if you are interested in the history of the field you can learn a great deal from Silverberg’s introductory comments. The stories in volume II show Silverberg’s true genius as a writer: his pyrotechnic command of language, his superb characterization, his unique voice, and his development of sophisticated theme and idea.

Although this series is superb, it can’t realistically be termed Silverberg’s complete stories because Silverberg has been superhumanly prolific throughout much of his career and published thousands of stories. I’m not sure if it’s financially feasible to publish Silverberg’s complete stories, which might take a good 30 volumes. From 1953-58, the period covered by volume one of the series, Silverberg was one of the greatest hacks of pulp SF. Silverberg’s principal concern in the 50s was making money as he cranked out competent adventure stories that any good writer of the time could have written; the stories did not have the personal or unique characteristics of his later writing. He wrote 4 short stories a week, one every day, and then toured the pulp SF magazines selling them. Even though the pulp magazines only paid around a cent a word, Silverberg was so prolific that he became wealthy, eventually buying a mansion in NYC.

In 1958 the principal distributer of magazines, American News, went belly up and took most of the SF magazines with it because they depended on advance payments from the distributer. Since Silverberg lost most of his reliable markets, he stopped writing SF and from 58-62 churned out erotica, men’s fiction, and nonfiction.
Volume II covers the period from 62-69 when Silverberg returned to SF, writing at a much higher level than before. One reason Silverberg returned to the field was because of the efforts of Frederick Pohl, who was editing Galaxy and Worlds of If, and who believed that there was a great writer within Silverberg if only he would just stop churning out hackwork. Pohl guaranteed that he would buy any story Silverberg sent him, provided that Silverberg revised the story before submitting it. If Pohl asked for an additional rewrite, Silverberg would provide one, and Pohl would be obligated to buy it. If Silverberg turned in something Pohl didn’t like, Pohl would buy it, but that would be the end of the agreement.

All Silverberg had to do was produce quality SF stories, and Pohl would pay him a higher rate than most of the magazines Silverberg wrote for in the 50s, which was an arrangement that brought out his best as a writer. The first of the stories he wrote for Pohl was “To See the Invisible Man,” a brilliant tale about a man punished for a crime through invisibility; not literal invisibility as in the H.G. Wells tale, everyone in the community just refuses to see him. The narrative focus is not adventure, but the psychology of the protagonist, and this story begins a period in Silverberg’s work in which he develops impressively complex and three-dimensional characters.

The second tale Silverberg wrote for Pohl, “The Pain Peddler,” is a futuristic social satire, a genre that the Galaxy group of magazines specialized in. In the future, the networks film operations and surgeries if the patient will agree to suffer through the procedure without anesthesia. The 1962 story actually has even more currency today because the brutal and competitive TV producers are reminiscent of reality TV.

In the introduction to “Neighbor,” the third tale Silverberg wrote for Pohl, he points out that at this time he wrote SF part time, when the mood struck him, and made his living writing popular science books. He claims that SF is best written by part time writers, that writing it full time tends to reduce it to cliché. I’m not sure if Silverberg’s theory is generally true, but it certainly is true in his case, because in the 60s and 70s he did not have to churn out subpar stories to make a living; instead he focused on the stronger ideas and concepts. “Neighbor” is an interesting tale of revenge and hatred on a colonized future planet. “The Sixth Palace,” the fourth submission to Pohl, is an excellent SF adventure story that details the attempt of two treasure hunters to trick a killer robot. Both these tales are absorbing and entertaining, and a step above most of his work from the 50s, but the next few stories are the ground breaking work Silverberg is known for.

Silverberg wrote “Flies” not for Pohl but for Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. The dark, powerful tale depicts a group of enigmatic aliens returning a dead human spaceman to life. In the process they destroy his capacity for empathy, and when he returns to Earth he has a horrific effect on others. Empathy stands out as one of Silverberg’s great themes, which he explores in “The Pain Peddler” and “To See the Invisible Man,” and relies on in many of the great novels he wrote in the late 60s and early 70s, such as Man in the Maze and Dying Inside. In the story’s introduction, Silverberg states when he wrote “Flies” he did not “suspect that . . . [it] would open a new and darker phase of my own career – in which, ultimately, almost everything I wrote would become a dangerous vision.”

“Halfway House” continues the darker phase of Silverberg’s writing as aliens offer an inspiring and brilliant business executive the opportunity to have his cancer cured, but the price for the cure is that he must spend several years as an administrator in a galactic waystation with the responsibility of deciding who is worthy of miraculous life-saving cures and who is not, a difficult, horrendous, but important burden.

“To the Dark Star” is one of the first SF treatments of black holes, and is an excellent and disturbing exploration of the interactions between a human, a modified human, and an alien in the close confines of a small space ship.

“Hawksbill Station,” one of my favorite SF tales, is one of the best time travel stories of the 60s, which brilliantly portrays the early Paleozoic period, the Cambrian time of the trilobites, when life was largely confined to water. In the future, political prisoners are exiled to the Cambrian era by a one-way time machine, where they live in a gulag. Silverberg’s depiction of the various left wing and right wing radicals, and their disputes over economic and political theories impresses as a realistic and compelling portrayal.

“Passengers,” a dark tale with powerful characterization, is both a love story and a shocking depiction of the effect predatory aliens have on humans. What makes the tale different from a story like Heinlein’s Puppet Masters is that the focus is wholly on character, not on overcoming the aliens through action.

A few of the stories in the collection are funny and clever like “Bride 91” or “Going Down Smooth.” Some of the tales are intensely personal and driven like “The Fangs of the Tree,” which depicts the personal loss Silverberg suffered after his house burned down. Even the minor stories like “Ishmael in Love” have well-rounded characterization and are high quality.

The collection also charts Silverberg’s growing relationship with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. “Sundance” is a tale that Silverberg is especially proud of because of the experimentation with point of view. He writes the story partially in second person, partially in third, and partially in 1st to reflect the narrator’s descent into madness. The point of view works well enough that I was not distracted by the shifts; they seem like a natural way to tell the tale. Although sometimes narrative experimentation seems like a clever trick, that’s not the case in this story.

“How It Was When the Past Went Away” is a novella depicting a memory destroying drug placed in the San Francisco water supply. Like a lot of disaster stories, it contains a variety of point of views as it portrays how the disaster affects various characters. Silverberg’s skill at creating well-rounded characters makes this story more successful than most examples of its genre.

“A Happy Day in 2381” is one of a series of stories Silverberg set in arcologies, massive apartment buildings that contain millions of inhabitants. This series was collected in The World Inside, and all of the stories are worth reading. Silverberg portrays the arcologies as a dystopia. The large population living in close proximity requires high levels of conformity. The inhabitants go “night walking,” which means they walk to different apartments and sleep with one another’s spouses. It is considered blessworthy to have many children and live with them in small apartments. Since everyone lives in the high rises, the surrounding landscape can be utilized to grow food for the rapidly growing population. People who do not conform to social expectations, who are jealous of their partner, or who cannot stand the pressure of the large population, are thrown down the chute and recycled for the greater good.

“After the Myths Went Home” is a far future tale about the myths being recreated in a decadent bored society. “The Pleasure of Their Company” is an intriguing character study of a political leader forced to face his own cowardice when he interacts with artificial personalities he stored on cubes.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

If they like well-imagined, brilliant SF, yes. To the Dark Star is one of the best places to start reading Silverberg because it shows the range of his writing talents. Some stories display the experimental, dark style of writing he became known for in the late 60s and early 70s, whereas others are well-realized, traditional adventure stories. I believe Silverberg was one of SF’s greatest writers from 65-75, and most of the tales in this volume derive from that period of his career.

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Robert Bee is a staff writer and columnist for Republibot, he is also a freelance writer and a professional librarian operating out of New Jersey. He can be contacted at rightrob@republibot.com

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