Among the strangersRobert Silverberg (Subterranean Press 978-1645240693, hardcover, 760pp, $50.00) June 2022.
This bountiful new compilation containing a choice selection from Robert Silverberg’s vast output from his mid- to late-career heyday allows us to do several things simultaneously. First, and foremost, we enjoy great fiction that might otherwise be hard to come by. (I note on ISFDB that recent editions of the three novels here all date back many years.) Second, we get somewhat representative snapshots of what the genre was like at three different times from the years 1967 to 1992. (Taking account Silverberg’s uniqueness, he was always in tune with the times.) And thirdly, we can trace Silverberg’s development as a writer, since the tales are arranged in chronological order. If that’s not value for your book purchase dollar, I don’t know what more can be offered!
Oh wait, there’s a fourth bonus attraction. Silverberg provides lengthy introductions that are informative and illuminating passages of autobiography and larger reflections. His current rigorous, tense and colorful prose makes him want to write more fiction.
The first novel, those who watch, from 1967, reveals a Silverberg in transition from the fluid pulpster of the 1950s and early 1960s to the mature artist just waiting at the literary turn. It features the simple concepts and layout of 1950s SF magazine with somewhat more subtle characterization (including sexual issues) and an ambivalent tone.
The setting is New Mexico. We meet our three (human) protagonists: Charley, a Native American boy; Kathryn, a widowed single mother; and Tom, a career military man. The story is set in 1982 – that is, the 1967 writer’s future – and there are enough satisfying speculative details to make the setting feel different from 1967. What will unite these three characters is the explosive disappearance of an alien spacecraft. It turns out that Earth has been, and still is, being observed in secret by at least two alien races. When a ship breaks down, its three crew members – wearing organic human disguises – crash to Earth. (Shades of The man who fell to earth 1963 and Zenna Henderson People tales.) Wounded, each of the extraterrestrials is adopted on the sly by one of our heroes. What happens next is a low-key but touching depiction of how the particular lacks, sorrows and ambitions of the three humans resonate with the nature of the aliens, who themselves embody different aspects of emotion and existence. . The main plot tension stems from the presence of a fourth alien from a rival culture who is also looking for the three castaways. But the pursuer is presented as something of a jester, and the focus remains on a Sturgeonesque exfoliation of loneliness, desire, and compassion between two separate species. The book foreshadows similar ventures like HEY and Dating of the Third Kind.
The next step is my favorite of the trio, The Man in the Mazefrom 1969. I haven’t read this book since it first appeared, when I liked it for the most superficial reasons of adolescence: all the gimmicks, weirdness and suspense inherent in the titular alien maze , which is kind of a killing machine like the artifact. at Budrys rogue moon (1960). This aspect of the book still appeals, of course, as Silverberg brings up alien technology and how humans fight it. But what I have recently found paramount are the subtle and profound portrayals of Richard Muller, the sullied, exiled misfit forced to live apart from humanity, and the young man tricked into deceiving him, Ned Rawlins . The emotional interplay between these two is as deft as anything from Edward Albee, and we don’t get easy answers regarding the ethical questions involved. Silverberg’s story remains versatile and ambiguous, and the book’s ending is in suspense until the final pages. Iain Banks or Alistair Reynolds may have written this one yesterday. This book is at those who watch as the Lord of the Rings is of The Hobbit.
Tom O’Bedlam (1985) is one of the few Silverberg novels I hadn’t read before, and I was delighted to find it rather Phildickian and Lovecraftian. The United States in the year 2103 experienced a conflict known as “The Dust War” which left the nation in partial collapse. Our place of history, the West Coast, is actually cut off from everything about the rest of the country beyond Denver, and society there is struggling to cobble together day-to-day stability and functionality. Again, as with those who watch, we get the narrative through a multiplicity of viewpoints. There is of course Tom himself, a strange silly scientist; Elszabet, a doctor who runs the Nepenthe Clinic, where criminals undergo memory suppression in an attempt at reform; and Barry, a failed anthropology professor adrift without much purpose. What unites these three is another extraterrestrial intrusion – that is after all the theme of this volume – but mental, not tangible. People everywhere – Tom being the most powerful receiver – have visions of alien worlds (with a distinct fondness for Cthulhuish). A whole sectarian movement has sprung up to accommodate and rationalize these dreams. Do these visions represent a reality? Or is it mass psychosis? And is the origin in the cosmic expanse, or here on Earth? If we hear echoes of SUITCASE (1978), I’m sure it’s deliberate. This novel represents a darkening of Silverberg’s vision, in which no one emerges as noble and it’s pretty much a disreputable ending for everyone. Technically speaking, the juggling and interplay between multiple viewpoints is several quantum leaps above those who watch.
Finally, as a lagniappe, we get the short story “The Way to Spook City,” about one man’s odyssey through the alien-altered terrain that forms part of the United States. It’s a clever mix of Roadside picnic filtered through a kind of Lucius Shepard sensibility, but quintessential Silverberg nonetheless.
If these four tales represented an author’s only life work, we’d say the writer had earned a spot in the SF hall of fame. As they stand, they represent just the tip of a massive body of work that vindicates Silverberg’s status as Grand Master and demonstrates the undiminished power of his narrative prowess.
Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years and has published nearly that many books. He lives in Providence RI, with his partner of even more years, Deborah Newton.
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