Beyond the Safe Zone

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Fans of the talented and prolific Silverberg may be disappointed to learn that this collection consists entirely of previously published work.

Nevertheless, the book is worthwhile, not only as a sample of Silverberg’s finest but also as an index of the strengths and weaknesses of science fiction as a genre.

Silverberg’s work has ranged from popular treatments of scientific subjects (MAN BEFORE ADAM) to massive novels set on new worlds (the MAJIPOOR trilogy), but his short pieces have primarily followed what Robert Heinlein called the “if this goes on--” theory. A current trend is projected to its logical conclusion, decades or more in the future, with the attendant changes in society. Observers of life in the 1960’s, for example, postulated a future where women dressed in nearly nothing and copulated upon first meeting.

Unwittingly, this current collection not only shows the flaws inherent in this technique, but also illustrates the value of this fantasizing to our immediate lives. The “future” described in these stories, written in the chaotic years 1968-1974, “when there was no longer any safe zone in the world,” is the late 1980’s, but Silverberg’s vision bears only passing resemblance to present reality.

In the 1980’s of these stories, trips to Mars have been made, heavy drug use is common and legal, and sex is promiscuous and meaningless. Young people are “drafted” to provide healthy organs for undying elders, and a robot has been elected Pope.

Obviously Silverberg did not foresee the spread of AIDS, the rise of political conservatism, or the growth in terrorism. So far, in fact, the world has not developed along the lines here projected. Silverberg’s interest, however, is not in the scientific possibilities (his science is, in fact, a bit vague), but with the emotional effects of such developments on the actors in each drama-emotions already at play in our world, where robots, free sex, and drugs are still tangential elements.

If, after reading of the raw terror of a youth asked to give up an organ for transplant, or of the empty nihilism of a future jetsetter, the reader examines today more scrupulously, the real future may be slightly better than current nightmares would predict. In addition, he will have enjoyed the tales of a master of human feeling, written at the height of his powers, stories to be savored, read and reread.