The collecting of the stories of Robert Silverberg continues with this latest volume, ‘We Are For The Dark’. It’s a mixed bag of short stories and novellas with the latter providing the best bits. Silverberg has often said that the novelette or novella is the ideal vehicle for a Science Fiction idea and he has often proved it, too.
‘Enter A Soldier: Later: Enter Another’ is more proof. It was written for an anthology in which computer generated simulacra of historical figures would engage in intellectual conflict. Silverberg’s contribution was to pit Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, against Socrates. He nicely captures both and makes the encounter hugely entertaining. He also demonstrates that Socrates would have been really annoying in person, like an irritating three year-old who keeps asking, ‘But why, mummy? Why?’ No wonder they poisoned him. The method by which the simulacra are created, holograms programmed with all the knowledge we have about the persons, seemed pretty far-fetched in 1987 but I believe it is not utterly inconceivable that gamer science might one day achieve it for real.
‘In Another Country’ is a novella based around ‘Vintage Season’, a classic story by the late C.L. Moore, one of the writers Silverberg most admired when he was starting out in the business. She was married to Henry Kuttner and who she collaborated on many works. The tale features a bunch of time travelling tourist from the far future. They are doing the highlights of history and having been to Augustan Rome and Chaucer’s England are now in America. Obviously, they are strictly forbidden to interact in any significant way with the locals as this could change history. One of them falls in love. The story was largely focused on ‘relationships’, the most important theme of the modern age and the one I find most boring. The story was well done and the context of the relationship, the underlying problem, was distinctly science-fictional but it’s not one that grips me.
‘The Asenion Solution’ was written for an anthology to celebrate Isaac Asimov’s fiftieth anniversary as a published writer. It borrows from ‘The Gods Themselves’ and is significant for the author because it laid to rest an old, minor disagreement between himself and the good doctor. The context, given in the introduction, made it interesting and the story itself was a neat, Asimovian tale of good old hard Science Fiction. It’s the best short story in the book.
‘We Are For The Dark’ is a brilliant novella that, confusingly for the author, has not really been praised, awarded or anthologised much while other, perhaps lesser, Silverberg works have been thus lauded. So he states, with a shrug, in his introduction. I echo his surprise that it has not been more noticed. In the future, as Earth is poisoned, the human race discovers how to transmit matter over any distance. To do so, however, you need a receiver at the destination point. A fleet of ships is sent out to the stars. On arrival at an Earth-type planet, robots leave the ship and build a receiving station to accept colonists and supplies. The ship then continues outward to do more of the same. The colonisation movement has become a sort of religion under the charismatic ‘Master’ back home and he has decreed that the outer limit of human expansion should be one hundred light years. This decree is being ignored. Our hero is the Lord Magistrate of Senders, in charge of the department that screens Earth’s population, picking out the best to colonise the stars. He has to find out what’s going on out there. It’s a great idea which Silverberg turns into a gripping story.
‘Lion Time In Timbuctoo’ is an alternative history novella set in a world where the Black Death of 1348 wiped out most of the population of western Europe, not just a quarter, and left the remainder unable to resist the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. I’m not a huge fan of alternative history but this was redeemed by an excellent plot and very human characters. The love theme featured again but it was more comedic, in the form of frustrated Victorian English lust for an exotic foreign lady, which struck me as realistic.
Silverberg is not short of good ideas but the way in which they are turned into stories is not, nowadays, necessarily exciting. It’s not the stuff of ripping yarns that makes the pulse race and the blood boil. That is to say, it’s not the stuff of his earlier works. This is a change in style to a more mature, subtle, low-key outlook on life. Some examples follow.
‘The Dead Man’s Eyes’ has the interesting premise that the last image a murder victim sees can be saved and recorded after his death, which is handy for finding the killer. Frazier is married to a beautiful actress and one day murders his wife’s lover, a gawky nobody he figures has no business sleeping with her. His motive is almost pure outrage at her poor taste. He goes on the run but the story ends without any big climax.
So does ‘Chip Runner’, about a teen-age computer geek who by starving and concentrating can shrink his consciousness almost to atomic level and run around microchips. This seems to be more fantasy than Science Fiction but the tale is memorable for the dream-like prose with which master craftsman Silverberg portrays the chip running.
‘To the Promised Land‘ is an alternate history story considering what would have happened had Moses failed to lead his people out of Egypt. Christianity never developed and Rome never fell. The Jews were quietly assimilated into a pagan society where all gods are accepted so none matters much. Cue a new Moses to lead them. The premise was good and led to Silverberg‘s ‘Roma Eterna’ series of stories, but this particular tale wasn‘t very exciting.
‘A Tip On A Turtle’ has a man who knows the outcome of turtle races in a Caribbean resort. Told from a woman’s point of view, it was deemed unsuitable for ‘Playboy’, so Silverberg sold it to ‘Amazing Stories’ instead. Okay, but the theme of knowing the future was covered in richer detail in ‘The Stochastic Man’.
‘A Sleep And A Forgetting’ has another intriguing premise by which a historian can talk to Genghis Khan, but not the Genghis we know. Again, the story based on this good idea ends without much excitement.
All of these stories have solid ideas at their core and are beautifully written. The expertise of long practice and close attention to his craft makes Silverberg an excellent, nay, exquisite writer who can turn a good idea into several thousand words of prose which will hold your attention. Editors will pay for them, too. However, I can’t help but yearn for some of the raw vitality and stronger story elements he learned doing pulp fiction. The silky smooth markets that bought these – ‘Playboy’, ‘Omni’ and some anthologies – aren’t after that kind of tale though. The modern Science Fiction magazines, too, like a literary approach. Moreover, Silverberg was a mature man when these were produced. Not old – he was only fifty-two when he wrote the first of them – but he had been writing for a long time.
It would not be fair to say that Silverberg has lost the plot but I get the impression that the plot element of a story has decreased in importance for him. He is, perhaps, focused sometimes on character, theme and atmosphere. All the stories have plots and some of them are very good. Some have endings that seem weak to me but I have no doubt that such a superb craftsman as Silverberg knows exactly what he is doing. If the plot isn’t the strongest part of the story, it’s because he was more interested in achieving a specific mood or effect. If, like me, you’re a fan of Science Fiction from the forties and fifties this collection from the eighties might not be what you’re after, though it will still provide some enjoyment. For the mature, sophisticated, intelligent modern reader, it’s the bee’s knees.
(pub: Subterranean Press. 384 page deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-501-7)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com