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Wednesday 13 October 2004

A Brief History of Robert Silverberg

by Claude Lalumière

At the 1956 Hugos, with only a handful of published stories and one juvenile novel, 21-year-old Robert Silverberg was voted "Most Promising New Author"; nearly fifty years later, at the Nebula Award ceremony held in April 2004, he received the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. By then, he had published more than four hundred stories and approximately eighty novels — and that's just counting the science fiction. His full bibliography also includes hundreds of erotic stories and novels, dozens of works on anthropology and popular science, essays and edited anthologies on various subjects, and the occasional stray novel in other genres.

This article, celebrating Silverberg's official ascension to the ranks of the "Grand Masters" of science fiction, will focus primarily on the SF portion of the prolific author's career, punctuated by a number of "retirements" from the genre. His most recent book is the career-spanning retrospective collection Phases of the Moon: Stories from Six Decades (2004).

Silverberg's early career — roughly 1954-60 — is characterized by the author's first superhumanly prolific burst of output and the creation of several (later abandoned) pseudonyms. The pseudonyms allowed him to appear several times on the same contents page, a practice much in vogue in the golden age of fiction magazines. According to the Quasi-Official Robert Silverberg Home Page: "Between 1957 and 1959, he published (using various names) more than 220 short works and eleven novels, most of which have never been reprinted."

Although the novels from that period (most of them juveniles, a genre he would return to periodically throughout his career) may not have aged well, Silverberg was already emerging as one of SF's most vigorous, skillful, and imaginative writers of short fiction. While not focusing exclusively on that era, both Needle in a Timestack (in its various incarnations, with different contents) and World of a Thousand Colors (1983) collect several excellent 1950s Silverberg stories. The best of these stories revisit the usual tropes of classic SF with a fresh perspective that give them an iconic sheen and an emotional urgency as yet rarely seen in genre SF (outside of, most notably but not exclusively, Theodore Sturgeon). The story that, in hindsight, announces most vividly the writer Silverberg would become in the next decade is 1957's "Warm Man", with its painful and empathic evocation of psychological isolation. The story has often been reprinted, including in Phases of the Moon.

As the 1960s rolled in, Silverberg announced his first retirement from SF — most of his writing would focus on popular science, anthropology, history, and pseudonymous erotica — although occasional SF stories would still appear. Most notably, two important stories saw print in 1963: one of his most famous stories, "To See the Invisible Man", and the aptly titled "The Pain Peddlers". The epithet of "pain peddler" could easily apply to Silverberg himself: in the decade to come, he would forge a vast and intense body of work that explores the darkest emotional scars of the human psyche, combining literary innovation with some of the most deft and resonant use of classic SF tropes and themes the field has ever seen.

It was in 1965 that Silverberg embarked on this second — and most significant — phase of his SF career. That year's most noteworthy publications are the first two stories — "Blue Fire" and "The Warriors of Light" — of the cycle that would form the mosaic SF novel To Open the Sky, which explored the societal effects of religion and was published in 1967, a benchmark year for Silverberg. But of the numerous stories and novels that appeared under his byline that year, all are eclipsed by Thorns, the prototype for the string of challenging and daring novels Silverberg would soon unleash.

Thorns elaborates on themes from "The Pain Peddlers", as a media mogul feeds off and profits from the emotional pain that results from situations he cynically engineers. In the next few years, novel and stories, most of them dazzlingly inventive and emotionally intense, would pour out of Silverberg at an almost alarming rate. The string of masterful novels — released at the rate of several a year — came to an abrupt stop in 1972, with two of his most searingly intense books, The Book of Skulls, a horrific quest for immortality, and what is perhaps his signature work, Dying Inside, a deeply affecting and harrowing portrait of an isolated telepath. Each of these two novels was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula awards; neither won either award, possibly because of split voting.

The short fiction output, however, continued apace, with more than twenty stories and novellas appearing in 1973-74. In the mid-1970s, Silverberg once again announced his retirement from SF. Two novels marked the end of that era: The Stochastic Man (1975) and Shadrach in the Furnace (1976). His "retirement" notwithstanding, most years from the mid to late 1970s, several new volumes collecting his body of short fiction continued to be published.

This most important decade — 1965-74 — of Silverberg's short fiction production is best represented by Beyond the Safe Zone (1986), a massive omnibus of 27 virtuoso stories; Born with the Dead (1974), a collection of three deeply moving novellas on the theme of death; and The Best of Robert Silverberg (1976), which features two 1950s stories ("Warm Man" and "Road to Nightfall") and the chronologically transitional "To See the Invisible Man" in addition to seven excellent selections from this era, including "Passengers" (1968) from Damon Knight's Orbit anthology series, and the vertigo-inducing tour-de-force "Sundance" (1969). Also especially noteworthy is the mosaic novel The World Inside (1971), which incorporates a number of stories and which paints a deadpan dark satire of a stifling dystopia that brands itself as a utopia.

During this prolific period and continuing through his "retirement" as a writer, Silverberg also edited a steady stream of excellent anthologies. Most noteworthy was the series New Dimensions, which featured the era's best writers and premiered a number of genre-defining stories, such as James Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In".

In 1980, perhaps to no-one's surprise, Robert Silverberg the SF writer returned yet again — although it was as if there were now two Robert Silverbergs.

On the one hand, the formally inventive, psychologically astute, and idea-rich short fiction resumed, continuing and often even deepening the themes of isolation and alienation he had explored in the 1960s and 70s, with evocative titles (and contents to match) such as "Our Lady of the Sauropods", "Sailing to Byzantium", "Against Babylon", and many others. Although he had occasionally ventured into humor before, it's during this period, in 1983, that he produced his funniest story ever, the savage valley-girl-meets-an-extraterrestrial satire "Amanda and the Alien". Two weighty collections showcase this third phase of Silverberg's short fiction: The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party (1984) and Secret Sharers (1992; released as two volumes in the UK: Pluto in the Morning Light and Secret Sharers).

But it was another Robert Silverberg altogether who returned to novel writing. 1980 saw the debut of what would prove to be Silverberg's most commercial authorial venture ever: Majipoor, the planet introduced in the novel Lord Valentine's Castle.

With the Majipoor series, Silverberg the novelist transformed himself from a crafter of tightly constructed psychological novels to an epic storyteller. Throughout the 1980s Silverberg penned a relentless flow of gargantuan sagas, most often showing an heretofore unsuspected fascination with the hereditary rights of kings. Lord Valentine's Castle is slickly written and somewhat reminiscent of Jack Vance in the intricacy of its world-building, but its final scene — an awkward setup for a sequel — disappoints. The conclusion to this initial Majipoor cycle, Valentine Pontifex (1983), rehashes many plot points and structural elements from the first book. Most of the lengthy novels from this period are characterized by a similar lack of total creative involvement — but not all.

1983 saw the publication of a fascinating African historical saga, Lord of Darkness (one example among several of Joseph Conrad's influence on Silverberg; see also the 1970 novel Downward to the Earth and the 1987 novella "Secret Sharer"); and in 1984 one of Silverberg's most accomplished (and strangely intimate) works was published, the historical fantasy, Gilgamesh the King, a first-person retelling of the ancient legend The Epic of Gilgamesh, imbued with the psychological intensity of Silverberg's classic-era novels and with a grand and awesome mythic splendor. Gilgamesh the King stands not only as one of Silverberg's finest novels but also as a masterwork of fantasy literature.

In the early 1990s, Silverberg the novelist took two different paths: on the one hand, he began a series of novel-length expansions of classic Isaac Asimov stories; on the other, he turned once again towards somewhat tauter and more introspective SF dramas, beginning with The Face of the Waters (1991), a richly imagined planetary adventure that cries out for the perfect and penetrating concision of his classic-era novels without quite achieving it. The best novel of this period is Kingdoms of the Wall (1992), a deeply affecting and evocative extraterrestrial novel whose subtle and complex structure invites layered readings.

By the mid-1990s, Silverberg returned to the popular Majipoor franchise but continued to release a diverse array of books; his output of short fiction, however, began to gradually diminish. In this later era, two novels, both at least partially collaged from previous shorter works, emerge as major works: The Alien Years (1997), a tribute to both H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein, and the alternate-history saga Roma Eterna (2003).

Silverberg is probably best-known to current audiences as an anthologist of commercial series fiction. The first such anthology was the phenomenally successful bestseller Legends (1998), which gathered brand-new novellas by the bestselling authors of genre fantasy.

His greatest legacy to science fiction, however, is his vast body of profoundly affecting, incisively intelligent, and precisely crafted short fiction and novellas. A series of six volumes released in the UK from 1992 to 2000, falling under the umbrella The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, best documents that legacy: Pluto in the Morning Light, Secret Sharers, Beyond the Safe Zone (a reprint of the 1986 collection of the same name), The Road to Nightfall, Ringing the Changes, and Lion Time in Timbuctoo.

Since the late 1990s, Silverberg has again several times made noises about retiring from SF, but he never really seems to manage to go away. Which, of course, is for the best. He probably has more surprises and startling fictions brewing than even he suspects.

Claude Lalumière edited three 2003 anthologies: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic, Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk. Based in Montreal, he writes opinionated criticism and weird fiction. He runs the webzine Lost Pages.

© 2004 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.