Robert Silverberg Essay - Critical Essays

Silverberg, Robert (Vol. 140)


Robert Silverberg 1935-

(Has also written under the pseudonyms Walker Chapman, Don Elliott, Dan Eliot, Walter Drummond, Ivar Jorgenson, and over twenty others) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Silverberg's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 7.

Silverberg is one of the most notable and prolific twentieth-century science fiction writers. Silverberg is widely acclaimed by science fiction scholars and aficionados, but has generally received a lukewarm reception with the literary establishment. Nevertheless, several of his works have merited critical examination in a range of forums and contexts, science fiction and otherwise. He has helped transform the literary status of a traditionally marginalized genre. In dozens of novels and scores of short stories he has combined conventional elements of science fiction with the sophisticated techniques of postmodern literature. Silverberg has demonstrated both technical virtuosity with the genre's forms and dexterous mastery of science fiction themes and motifs, ranging from alienation, anxiety, and transcendence to time travel, alternative worlds, and disembodied consciousness. The novels Downward to the Earth (1970), The World Inside (1971), and Dying Inside (1972) are among Silverberg's most successful books.

Biographical Information

Born in 1935 in Brooklyn, New York, Silverberg was an only child. The shy and exceptionally bright boy first encountered science fiction through the words of masters Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, and A. E. van Vogt. By the age of thirteen he had penned his own stories. Silverberg attended Columbia University, where he began contributing stories to numerous science fiction magazines that flourished during the mid-1950s. His first short story, “Gorgon Planet,” appeared in 1954, and his first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, followed the next year. After graduation Silverberg launched his career as a full-time science fiction writer, earning his first Hugo award as the “most promising new author” of 1956. By the late-1950s he was more than one hundred stories and two novels into his career when an oversaturated market for science fiction magazines forced him to look elsewhere for paid work. At this time Silverberg focused on writing historical and scientific nonfiction for children. With the 1963 publication of “To See the Invisible Man” he returned to professional science fiction writing, and at the same time began to write nonfiction for adult readers. By the time the novel Thorns (1967) and the novella Hawksbill Station (1968) appeared, Silverberg was recognized as a significant writer of well-crafted stories about high-minded themes. Following a 1968 fire which partially destroyed his New York City mansion and slowed down his literary output, Silverberg published a number of works, among them “Nightwings” (1968), “Sundance” (1969), and Downward to the Earth and culminating with The World Inside, Dying Inside, and The Book of Skulls (1972). Between 1972 and 1976 Silverberg wrote almost exclusively short stories, many award-winning, in which he experimented with various narrative techniques; notable collections of this period include The Feast of St. Dionysus (1975) and The Best of Robert Silverberg (1976). In 1976, disillusioned with the genre's traditions, Silverberg publicly announced his “retirement” from writing science fiction. Except for an opinion column on science-fiction themes that he still writes, he published nothing else until 1980, when he began writing science fiction again. Since then he has added many books and stories to his list of publications, and has edited the influential New Dimensions short story anthology a number of times.

Major Works

As one of the most prolific writers of the second half of the twentieth century, Silverberg has produced an extensive catalog of books published under both his own name and various pseudonyms. For the most part, Silverberg's early works are considered unremarkable, except for a few melodramatic novels: Master of Life and Death (1957), which treats overpopulation; Invaders from Earth (1958), which recounts interplanetary colonization by humans; and Recalled to Life (1962), which deals with a scientific process to resurrect the dead. His professional breakthrough came with Thorns and Hawksbill Station. The former enlists a couple of surgically mutilated humans in the service of a rich man who panders upon raw feeling; the latter involves time travel to a distant past by American renegades of the near-future, destined to stay forever. During the late 1960s and early 1970s Silverberg began experimenting with contemporary literary techniques and themes. Significant short pieces of this period include the stories “Sundance,” which transports a latter-day Native American to a future world that destroys his ancestral home, and “Schwartz between the Galaxies” (1974), in which a future anthropologist living in a conformist culture imagines a diversified alternate world. Both “Flies” (1967) and The Man in the Maze (1969) feature surgically altered and emotionally isolated protagonists. With their shifting tenses and multiple viewpoints, these works foreshadow Silverberg's later development. Novels counted among his finest achievements include Downward to the Earth, which fully describes the spiritually advanced alien culture of Belzagor in a narrative reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; The World Inside, which recounts several stories about life in a heavily overpopulated future, when reckless procreation is embraced and all privacy lost; and Dying Inside, a novel about a telepathic human whose powers diminish along with his discernment of human nature. Many of the stories Silverberg wrote during the 1970s are considered among his best short fiction, notably “Good News from the Vatican” (1971) and “Born with the Dead” (1974), which experiment with narrative strategies and ironically examine traditional science fiction themes. The fantasy novel Lord Valentine's Castle (1980) and The Desert of Stolen Dreams (1981), a novella set in the alternative world of novels, reflect Silverberg's maturing artistic techniques and themes, notably additional mystical and humanist influences. The society described in Kingdoms of the Wall (1993) ritually selects forty members of each generation to climb to a mountaintop where they believe they will encounter a godlike entity. Set in twenty-fourth-century North America, Hot Sky at Midnight (1994) presents the debate over whether humans can biologically adapt in a polluted, oxygen-starved environment or simply abandon Earth and colonize another planet. The essay collection Reflections and Refractions: Thoughts on Science-Fiction, Science, and Other Matters (1997) contains Silverberg's most notable opinion columns, introductions, and miscellaneous essays on topics ranging from science and literature to contemporary events.

Critical Reception

Silverberg's work has been well-received by people associated with the science fiction genre. Members of the science fiction community are generally impressed by the technical skill of his storytelling and his provocative treatment of traditional science fiction themes and motifs. Critics within the general literary establishment have been less attentive to and less enthusiastic about Silverberg's work; nevertheless, a steady flow of criticism has emerged since the late 1970s and early 1980s. A number of critics are drawn to the blend of modernist narrative strategies and conventional science fiction themes which are displayed in several of Silverberg's works. Other scholars have examined his treatment of modernist themes within the context of the science fiction tradition, highlighting his contributions to the rehabilitation and development of the genre. In analysis of Silverberg's better fiction, commentators have attended to his characterization of inanimate objects; the plausibility of scientific aspects of his art; and various allusions within his fiction, drawing parallels with a cross-section of such traditions as classical, utopian, and quest literature. According to many critics, Silverberg's technical style compromises the emotional effect of his stories. However, most critics have recognized that his mastery of science fiction themes and flair for modernist techniques more than compensate for moments of superficiality.

Principal Works

Revolt on Alpha C (novel) 1955

Master of Life and Death (novel) 1957

Invaders from Earth (novel) 1958

Road to Nightfall (novella) 1958; published in journal Fantastic Universe Science Fiction; revised and expanded, with Isaac Asimov, and published as Nightfall, 1990

Recalled to Life (novel) 1962

The Great Wall of China (nonfiction) 1965

To Worlds Beyond (short stories) 1965

The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado [as Walker Chapman] (nonfiction) 1967

Thorns (novel) 1967

To Open the...

(The entire section is 304 words.)


Russell Letson (essay date Summer 1979)

SOURCE: “‘Falling through Many Trapdoors’: Robert Silverberg,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 109-17.

[In the following essay, Letson details the development of modernist themes of anxiety and alienation in Silverberg's fiction since the early sixties, focusing in particular on their treatment in the short stories “Schwartz between the Galaxies,” “Breckenridge and the Continuum,” and “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.”]

If the superficialities of the New Wave-Old Wave debate concealed any substantial issues, I suspect that they had less to do with stylistic experimentation, scientific content (“hard” versus “soft”), or...

(The entire section is 4446 words.)

Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich (essay date Winter 1980)

SOURCE: “The Mechanical Hive: Urbmon 116 as the Villain-Hero of Silverberg's The World Inside,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 338-47.

[In the following essay, Dunn and Erlich examine Silverberg's characterization of the urbmon community itself in The World Inside, demonstrating its triumph over the human tendencies of the novel's other characters.]

At first glance, Robert Silverberg's The World Inside1 (1970) seems to be a work with the standard flaws of satiric dystopian literature. We get long sections of exposition about the world of the story, primarily about Urban Monad (“Urbmon”) 116, the...

(The entire section is 4831 words.)

Alexander Nedelkovich (essay date Winter 1980)

SOURCE: “The Stellar Parallels: Robert Silverberg, Larry Niven, and Arthur C. Clarke,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 348-60.

[In the following essay, Nedelkovich compares and contrasts the literary and scientific aspects of “To the Dark Star” with those of Clarke's “The Star” and Niven's “Neutron Star.”]

Three excellent science-fiction stories, closely similar, are discussed here in order to show their striking resemblances and parallels and also the characteristic and meaningful differences between them. They are: Arthur C. Clarke's justly famous “The Star,”1 probably written in 1955, and winner of the 1956 Hugo...

(The entire section is 6250 words.)

Thomas D. Clareson (essay date August 1980)

SOURCE: “Whose Castle?: Speculations as to the Parameters of Science Fiction,” in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. IX, No. 2, August, 1980, pp. 139-43.

[In the following essay, Clareson speculates on various generic distinctions of Lord Valentine's Castle.]

Those who have seen the June, 1980, issue of Extrapolation already know how much I welcomed the appearance of Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle (Harper, 1980) serialized first, in somewhat briefer form, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I should like to return to a consideration of that narrative, because it raises serious questions for anyone interested in the field...

(The entire section is 1717 words.)

John Dean (essay date September 1980)

SOURCE: “The Sick Hero Reborn: Two Versions of the Philoctetes Myth,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3, September, 1980, pp. 334-40.

[In the following essay, Dean compares the tragic vision that both degrades and ennobles humanity in The Man in the Maze with that of Sophocle's Philoctetes.]

A striking Graeco-Roman sard intaglio of the Greek hero Philoctetes which is now in the Francis Bartlett Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows the wounded warrior naked, recumbent and in agony within his cave on the island of Lemnos. This remarkable engraving in precious stone portrays Philoctetes clutching the bow of Herakles with such...

(The entire section is 3297 words.)

Andrew Gordon (essay date Winter 1982)

SOURCE: “Silverberg's Time Machine,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 345-61.

[In the following essay, Gordon discusses “In Entropy's Jaws” within the context of twentieth-century time-travel literature. He explicates Silverberg's use of that tradition's conventions in his story, as well as Silverberg's extrapolations from contemporary scientific understanding of time.]

According to the science fiction writer Barry Malzberg, when Robert Silverberg began to write science fiction as serious literature during the 1960s, what he did “was to take the clichéd, familiar themes of this field and do them right, handle them with the full range of...

(The entire section is 8315 words.)

Peter S. Alterman (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Four Voices in Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside,” in Critical Encounters II: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction, edited by Tom Staicar, Frederick Ungar, 1982, pp. 90-103.

[In the following essay, Alterman analyzes the philosophical implications of and narrative strategies informing the multiple points of view used in Dying Inside.]

The power of language is astonishing. By judiciously selecting the right mix of words and stringing them together just so, a writer can create the whole universe within the mind of a reader. If, among the improbabilities the writer chooses, there are huge orbital space stations spinning against the blackness of...

(The entire section is 4944 words.)

Malcolm Edwards (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Robert Silverberg,” in Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, edited by E. F. Bleiler, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982, pp. 505-11.

[In the following essay, Edwards provides an overview of Silverberg's life and career.]

Robert Silverberg was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 15 January 1935, an only child. He was an introverted and precocious boy, who discovered science fiction at an early age and was already submitting stories (without success) to science fiction magazines by the age of thirteen. (This part of his life is discussed in greater detail in his autobiographical essay...

(The entire section is 3757 words.)

Merritt Abrash (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Robert Silverberg's The World Inside,” in No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, edited by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 225-43.

[In the following essay, Abrash analyzes Silverberg's achievement in The World Inside within the context of utopian literature and thought, but ultimately characterizes the novel as dystopian fiction.]


The World Inside (1971) is an engrossing novel. The extraordinary setting is compelling throughout. Characters are vividly drawn and sharply individualized, facing problems familiar...

(The entire section is 7823 words.)

Ian Stewart (review date 7 July 1990)

SOURCE: “Back to the Future, Part 2,” in New Scientist, Vol. 127, No. 1724, July 7, 1990, pp. 55-6.

[In the following review, Stewart compares Asimov and Silverberg's rewrite of Nightfall with Asimov's original short story of the same name, focusing on the former's flaws and cultural influences.]

The essence of science fiction is suspension of disbelief. Readers are not supposed to notice that the Ringworld is unstable, that the sandworms of Dune are a biological impossibility, or that there is no evolutionary advantage for Thread in laying waste to every living thing on Pern; certainly not until long after the story has been read and enjoyed.


(The entire section is 891 words.)

Tom Easton (review date August 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Kingdoms of the Wall, in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Vol. 113, August, 1993, pp. 161-69.

[In the following excerpt, Easton explicates the plot of Kingdoms of the Wall in terms of literary analogies.]

Picture, if you will, the village of Jespodar, set at the foot of a massive mountain, Kosa Saag, the Wall. The village is one among many. The people who live there are flexible of form—shape-changers reminiscent of those we met on Majipoor—and their minds are dominated much less by their distant king than by the over-looming Wall atop which, their legends say, live the gods. Indeed, thousands of years before, the First Climber...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Joseph M. Dudley (essay date Winter 1994)

SOURCE: “Transformational SF Religions: Philip Jose Farmer's Night of Light and Robert Silverberg's Downward to the Earth,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 343-50.

[In the following essay, Dudley analyzes the protagonists' quests for the divine in the respective universes of Night of Light and Downward to the Earth, highlighting the contemporary cultural significance of their search.]

In a 1967 review article, Judith Merril noted that much of the era's science fiction dealt with what she termed “the religious functions of man” (44). These functions quite often found expression in the symbolism of the rocket, which...

(The entire section is 4158 words.)

AB Bookman's Weekly (review date 2 June 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Realm of Prester John, in AB Bookman's Weekly, Vol. 99, June 2, 1997, pp. 1780-82.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic details the historical intricacies of the medieval title figure of The Realm of Prester John, praising the scope and accessibility of Silverberg's scholarship.]

The first written appearance of Prester John dates to 1145, when Bishop Hugh of Jabala, in the Levant, told Bishop Otto of Freising, in Germany, about a Christian ruler in Asia unable to assist the Crusaders, at a time when Hugh was seeking European support against the Saracens.

Later in the 12th century, copies of a letter from...

(The entire section is 1513 words.)

AB Bookman's Weekly (review date 20 October 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Reflections and Refractions: Thoughts on Science-Fiction, Science, and Other Matters, in AB Bookman's Weekly, Vol. 100, October 20, 1997, pp. 963-64.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic provides an overview of the thematic highlights of Reflections and Refractions.]

Robert Silverberg, prolific author of dozens of novels and an enormous number of short stories, and editor of the influential New Dimensions anthologies, has also written a column of opinion in science-fiction magazines since 1978. First appearing in Galileo, then in Amazing Stories until 1994, and now in Asimov's Science Fiction,...

(The entire section is 1192 words.)

Further Reading


Additional coverage of Silverberg's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1–4R, and 186; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 20, 36, and 85; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 59; DISCovering Authors: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors Module; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Vol. 5; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; Something about the Author, Vols....

(The entire section is 81 words.)