Robert Silverberg

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Russell Letson (essay date Summer 1979)

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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 depiction of sex than with what may be loosely called world view. The themes and forms of American magazine science fiction have remained constant over the past fifty years; despite the tradition of dystopian, satirical, and disaster formulas, sf has been rationalist, materialist, voluntarist, and optimistic. It has tended to ignore the decay of Western belief systems documented by modernist literature and philosophy since the end of the nineteenth century. This is not the place for a detailed argument on this topic, but I suggest that resistence to the New Wave was strongly tied to a rejection of the pessimism and philosophical uncertainty of that fiction, and that those qualities are reflections of similar ideas to be found in modern literature from Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Conrad through Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, and Beckett. What I will argue in some detail is that the fiction of Robert Silverberg has, since the early sixties, pursued the modernist themes of anxiety and alienation, that he has shaped science fiction materials to deal with themes that were not previously part of the American sf mainstream.

All of the surface themes of Silverberg's major fiction—immortality, new religions, archetypal renewal experiences, time travel, bodily transformations—conceal variations on the more powerful theme of anxiety, and the shape of his fiction is governed more by the exposition and resolution of anxiety than by the working out of science fictional processes. This is not to say that the science has suffered, or that his narratives are no longer sf,1 but that the conventional focus on the process as represented by the science fictional idea and its implication is subordinated, in most cases, to the spiritual situation of the characters.2 Even in Tower of Glass and The World Inside, the two books that Silverberg thinks of as “closer to pure science fiction, the exhaustive investigation of an extrapolative idea,” than any of his other work,3 the characters exhibit signs of distress that seem to be less environmental than existential. Elsewhere the weight of the fiction is borne by the psychic state of the characters, and the sf content exists not for itself alone, but as an element of a kind of fiction that extends the range of the genre and brings to the modernist tradition a new source of metaphors and formulas. In this, Silverberg is clearly part of the movement (in the sense of motion, not Movement) represented by Aldiss, Ballard, Delany, Dick, Ellison, Malzberg, Moorcock—and, I believe, by less expected figures such as Heinlein and Farmer.

The catalogue of writers just cited indicates some of what I mean when I speak of an interpenetration of modernist and sf traditions. In the work of these writers there is a retreat from the easy optimism and philosophical certainty of conventional sf and an acceptance of the intellectual and emotional disorder which is the burden of our century. A summary of the modern situation that I have found useful is contained in the first section of William Barrett's Irrational Man,4 a...

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book which traces the decay of traditional ideas of order and meaning in our culture and the erosion of systems of belief that once supported us:

Alienation and estrangement; a sense of the basic fragility and contingency of human life; the impotence of reason confronted with the depths of existence; the threat of Nothingness, and the solitary and unsheltered condition of the individual before this threat. One can scarcely subordinate these problems one to another; each participates in all the others, and they all circulate around a common center. A single atmosphere pervades them all like a chilly wind: the radical feeling of human finitude.5

Silverberg's fiction, when laid out on the dissecting table, reveals various attempts to come to terms with such a “feeling of human finitude,” to ease anxiety and guilt, to make sense of life, to make the universe emotionally as well as intellectually intelligible. The response to anxiety has varied from the spiritual rebirths and messianic outpourings of Downward to the Earth,Nightwings, and A Time of Changes, through the uncomfortable or ironic accommodations of The Man in the Maze,To Open the Sky, or The Masks of Time, to those surrenders to fate which are alien to the spirit of American sf, if not of Western culture in general—“Born with the Dead,” “This Is the Road,” The Stochastic Man. It is less the response to anxiety, however, than the anxiety itself I wish to document here.

Anxiety appears in its primal form in three short works which also depart markedly from the conventions of magazine sf. “Schwartz between the Galaxies,” “Breckenridge and the Continuum,” and “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame”6 avoid linear plot and resolution, and even in the closest approach of the three to a conventional fulfillment of expectations—“Breckenridge”—there are elements designed to distance the reader from the narrative in a way that no traditional genre writer would employ.

In “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame,” a speaker questions his affection for and attraction to sf as he simultaneously reflects on his fears and uncertainties:

What's the purpose of life, anyway? Who if anybody put us here, and why? Is the whole cosmos merely a gigantic accident? Or was there a conscious and determined Prime Cause? What about free will? …

Big resonant questions. The kind an adolescent asks when he first begins to wrestle with the stuff of the universe. What am I doing brooding over such stuff at my age? Who am I fooling? (Capricorn Games, [hereafter cited in text as CG,] p. 26)

These reflections are intercut with scenes from imaginary sf stories featuring space opera, telepathy, future history, alien monsters, and fancy hardware, and with his recurring nightmare, in which he wanders an apparently endless maze of tunnels, passing but not communicating with alien beings.

The story has no resolution. The speaker finds his actual life unsatisfying: performing “one of those impossible impersonal mechanical screws” (CG, p. 26) while watching the live broadcast of the first moon landing, he feels nothing for either experience. LSD leaves him with a need to stay awake after coming down to “read Marcus's Starflame novels, both of them, before dawn” (CG, p. 33). His hypotheses concerning sf's hold on him go unproved (a desire for immortality? nostalgia for his youth?); only the dream recurs. The most likely answer is itself a puzzle: sf's “multiplicity of futures,” represented by the imaginary-story extracts, is also the tunnel maze of his nightmare.

Perhaps what I really fear is not so much a dizzying multiplicity of futures but rather an absence of futures. … Nothingness, emptiness, the void that awaits us all, the tunnel that leads not to everywhere but to nowhere—is that the only destination? If it is, is there any reason to feel fear? Why should I fear it? Nothingness is peace. (CG, pp. 34-5)

What he desires is a different sort of nothingness, “the center of the universe, where all vortices meet, where everything is tranquil, the zone of stormlessness. … This is the edge of the union with the All” (CG, p. 28). In the story's last paragraph, in what may not be a dream (but how are we to know in such a narrative)?, the green light carries him to the tunnel, and he is “launched on [his] journey” to an unknowable destination (CG, p. 37).

“Schwartz between the Galaxies” is less problematic in structure and in the form that anxiety takes. Schwartz is a anthropologist in a future where all cultures have blended to produce a single, homogenized planetary culture, and he is plagued by “too much of a sameness wherever I go” (Feast of St. Dionysus, [hereafter cited in text as FSD, p. 81). His professional response has been to call for a return to diversity, a “rebirth of tribalism,” an “ethnic revival” (FSD, p. 96); his personal response is to imagine himself, not in rocketliners and skyports, but aboard a starship filled with a diversity of lifeforms that reflect the variety and wonder of the universe. His dreamlike imaginings of the starship alternate with his experiences on a world lecture tour, and the dreams become stronger, until he gives himself to them entirely.

The triumph of dreamlife over reality is not a new theme, nor does the story offer any structural surprises or puzzles. It is the texture of the thing and the irony of Schwartz's situation that give it strength. This future, though apparently safe and prosperous, lacks the richness of detail that Schwartz needs; it is “a nugget of dead porcelain” (FSD, p. 79), smooth and featureless. Contrasted with this is the vision of plenitude contained by the starship—strange bodily forms, alien religions and philosophies, nearly-unintelligible categories (the Antarean whose gender is best defined as “not-male”). This is, literally, an anthropologist's dream, an opportunity to understand humanity by understanding the nonhuman; it also shows the connection between Schwartz's professional and personal anxieties: not only has he found his discipline without an object and himself “an evaluator of dry bones, not a gatherer of evidence” (FSD, p. 97), but the merging of all human cultures and races has robbed him of identity. In a world without distinct folkways and traditions, what can identity rest on other than the isolated individual? Schwartz holds to his Jewishness, but in trying to explain to his dream Antarean what that consists of, he eliminates theology, folkways, and character traits as applying to him. It is, then, that his parents were Jews, suggests the Antarean. No, Schwartz says, only his father, “and he was Jewish only on his father's side, but even my grandfather never observed the customs …” (FSD, p. 99). What this means is that Schwartz is not a Jew, at least according to matrilineal customs. Not only is his occupation gone, but his ethnic and cultural identity as well.

Schwartz is not just a disappointed academic, but a Wandering unJew, a man whose sense of self and place are threatened by a world which can offer him everything but a unique identity in a manageably small community which is itself a unit in a larger whole. The world-wide fame provided by the success of his book and his lecture tour (eighty million have heard him speak in one month) are not adequate substitutes, nor is the attempt to “find the primitive in himself” (FSD, p. 92) the same as being a primitive. The need represented by the dream of the starship is one for Stapledonian community, “Everyone joining hands and tentacles and tendrils and whatever, forming a great ring of light across space, creating union out of diversity while preserving diversity within union, everyone locked in a cosmic harmony, everyone dancing. Dancing. Dancing” (FSD, p. 104). His surrender to the dream is not so much a defeat (though as the world defines sanity, it must seem like catatonic withdrawal) as it is a sign of the depth of his need for identity in and with a community as a basis for living in and making sense of the universe.

“Breckenridge and the Continuum” is similar to “Schwartz” in structure (alternating scenes of mundane and visionary experience) and theme (the dissatisfied man finds himself in an exotic new environment that offers satisfactions unavailable in the mundane world), and seems to behave in a more conventionally science fictional manner. Breckenridge's complaint is more like that of the narrator of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” than that of Schwartz—“Life,” he says, “is empty, dumb, and mechanical”; he is “oppressed by a sophomoric sense of the meaninglessness of life” (CG, p. 61). At a dinner party, while a “famous anthropologist” speaks of the importance of myth as “an everlasting pattern which can be detected in the present,” and a woman at the table begins to recite Henry Vaughan's “The World,” Breckenridge feels ill and heads for the washroom. Instead, he finds himself facing first a prehistoric jungle, then a desert, and a voice tells him, “You have come to the place where all times are one, where all errors can be unmade, where past and future are fluid and subject to redefinition” (CG, pp. 69-70). It is not Vaughan's place outside Time, but a future desert through which Breckenridge and four companions journey to examine a long-dead city; this future milieu, and not the “real” present, contains the story's main line, the process by which Breckenridge becomes mythmaker and reviver of the sleeping inhabitants of the city. The myths begin as jumbled versions of our myths and fairy tales (“Oedipus, King of Thieves”), told to amuse his companions, but as the city comes to life, these fractured tales begin to form a coherent cycle, a “master myth” (CG, p. 80). In a dream Breckenridge learns how to bring the city fully to life; the sleepers awake; rain falls and the desert grows green. Breckenridge achieves his apotheosis; linking himself with Christ, Orpheus, and Homer, he can affirm that “‘There's meaning everywhere. … Dawn after dawn, simply being alive, being part of it all, part of the cosmic dance of life …’” (CG, p. 83). Finally, surrounded by his audience/congregation, “he experiences a delicious flash of white light. The world disappears” (CG, p. 83).

This affirmation-and-apotheosis climax is familiar from other Silverberg stories, but here it is distanced by a device that emphasizes the fictiveness of the narrative: two sections beginning, respectively, “Some possible structural hypotheses” and “Hypotheses of structural resolution” (CG, pp. 78, 80). The material in these sections offers the basics for a reading of the story that accounts for the main elements (Breckenridge, the four seekers, the city) and the themes they can be used to illustrate (LIFE AS A MEANINGLESS CONDITION, LIFE RENDERED MEANINGFUL THROUGH ART, THE IMPACT OF ENTROPY, ASPECTS OF CONSCIOUSNESS—CG, pp. 78–79). The “resolution” section suggests that renewal is the point of the story, and the next three sections go on to show Breckenridge's affirmation and apotheosis. The story's final section, however, seems to qualify what has gone before. First, it confuses the sense of neat alteration between the mundane and visionary parts of the story by showing Breckenridge on his way to JFK Airport (after his disappearance from the desert city?). He makes his way to the Sahara after sending a cable that says he is “VERY HAPPY STOP YES STOP VERY HAPPY STOP VERY VERY HAPPY STOP STOP STOP” (CG, p. 84) and is never heard from again. That night there are signs and portents, including an aurora over New York and rain in the Sahara—two phenomena associated with the desert city and its rebirth. What are we to make of this? Did any of the future part of the story really take place (i.e., is it sf?), or was it, like Schwartz's starship, a wish-fulfillment dream? I suspect that, as in the case of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame,” the ambiguity is intentional, and that both stories abandon the representational mode common to sf (recall that for Heinlein sf is a branch of realistic fiction) in order to emphasize the literariness, the fictiveness of the form. The fact that both stories are thematically involved with the relationship between literature and anxiety—whether fiction is a symptom of or cure for anxiety—reinforces this possiblity. In these stories Silverberg pushes not only theme but form as well away from the traditional center of sf toward the reflexiveness of modernist fiction.

The novels are formally, if not thematically, closer to traditional sf models: there is rarely any doubt about whether an experience is real or not, and never the degree of structural disruption found in the shorter pieces. What there is, as I said above, is a weakening of the focus on process that characterizes so much American sf, and a foregrounding of the spiritual or psychological situation of the main character. Every novel since To Open the Sky begins with or works the protagonist into a state of anxiety.7 Minner Burris (Thorns) and Muller (The Man in the Maze) have been physically re-engineered by inscrutable aliens, with attendant psychic distress; Gunderson (Downward to the Earth) is guilt-haunted and desirous of penance; Wuellig the Watcher (Nightwings) and Reynolds Kirby (To Open the Sky) face crises of religious faith; and so on. These various guilts, uncertainties, pains, anxieties, and emptinesses are not practical problems, to be solved or resolved by the application of appropriate scientific or technical knowledge; nor are they simple ethical, moral, or psychological problems awaiting the touch of the right philosophical, theological, or therapeutic system to make things right.8 They resist rational and, frequently, irrational solutions alike. And despite the frequency of messianic endings, in which pain is ended for the protagonist and salvation promised for all others who want it, the bulk of Silverberg's fiction, of all lengths, since 1962 has offered, at best, qualified solutions to the pains of existence.

The Stochastic Man offers an interesting and difficult version of the qualified solution. Where novels such as The Masks of Time,To Open the Sky, and The Man in the Maze contain internally qualified or ironic resolutions, The Stochastic Man seems to bring its protagonist to a peaceful equilibrium at its close: Nichols has weathered his doubts about seeing the future, has survived the loss of his wife and his ambitions for political influence, and has apparently found a way to accept the unfreedom of a deterministic universe without becoming a zombie as his guru Carvajal had. But this acceptance of determinism is troublesome for the audience this book is likely to have—we are taught to value even the illusion of freedom, sometimes more than life itself, and this book inverts that value structure by insisting that, if we accept its vision,

We will see, we will understand, we will accept the inevitability of the inevitable, we will accept every turn of the script gladly and without regret. There will be no surprises; therefore there will be no pain. We will live in beauty, knowing that we are aspects of the one great Plan.9

That Silverberg goes this far from Western solutions, I think, is a measure of the depth of the anxiety he seeks to portray. It is, in its way, more frightening than the nightmare of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.”

What drives Nichols to embrace the static certainties of Carvajal's vision is a dialectical progress from his worst fears that the universe is random (which he characterizes as “adolescent cynicism”—The Stochastic Man, hereafter cited as TSM, p. 6), through a faith in cause and effect and stochasticity, to the complete security of his faith in a determined universe. It is this movement from fear of the “gigantic dice game, without purpose or pattern” (TSM, p. 5), to the safety of a “fully structured, fully determined life” (TSM, p. 138) that provides the action of the book, rather than an examination of how seeing works or why the paradoxes inherent in such a process do not apply. (In fact, Nichols admits that there are paradoxes, but he “prefer[s] not to examine them too closely”—TSM, p. 157.) Metaphysical questions, epistemological problems—all the usual concerns of philosophical inquiry—are as irrelevant as the science fictional curiosity about process. What matters here is not How or even Why; the script is beyond intellectual understanding. Only human accommodation to the script matters. Nichols's story is one of the triumph of faith over stubborn intellect and will, of the realization that freedom (dangerous in a causal universe, meaningless in a random one) is illusory and only the fixed script is real.

There are other attitudes, other ways of seeing the world presented as foils. The Transit creed that captures the belief of Nichols's wife Sundara is a combination of Eastern ego-renunciation and existentialist radical freedom: in a chaotic, impermanent universe, the way to shed the self and the pains of existence is to yield to the flow of change,

because nothing is unbendingly foreordained, everything is within our individual control. We are the existential shapers of our destinies, and we are free to grasp the Truth and act on it. What is the Truth? That we must discard our rigidly conceived self-images. … (TSM, p. 76)

Nichols, of course, is “not comfortable with chaos” (TSM, p. 77), and resists the Transit invitation to get off the wheel their way.

The politician, Paul Quinn, on the other hand, is a traditional Western man, determined to impose his will on the world, to create himself by his own efforts. He is, predictably, frightened by Nichols's gift and by the fixed future it implies. Although he is not threatened by Transit, his ambition (an ego attachment) makes him quite unlike them. He has no desire at all to get off the wheel, although he would probably accept the Transit notion of the power of the will to make the self, to control personal destiny. If Sundara is will attempting to shed ego in a chaotically fluid universe, Quinn is ego imposing its will on whatever universe is pliant enough to allow that to happen.

Carvajal is nothing at all. He has given up will and ego and curiosity in his acceptance of the script. There is for him no place for the questions or assertions of any aspect of the self; the future is fixed, and he has seen it, and questions of why and whether, of meaning, simply do not apply. “The script,” he says, “admits of nothing other than acceptance” (TSM, p. 100). Nichols's reaction to this “deterministic existential passivity” is not simple. He is repelled by the passivity but attracted by the peace it promises: “How comforting it might be, I thought, to live in a world free of all uncertainty” (TSM, p. 101). In the end, his own response to the gift of seeing is quite different from Carvajal's.

What Nichols settles on is a messianic version of Carvajal's acceptance of the unchangeable script. Rather than allowing himself to be eaten up by the vision of his own death, he will attempt to share the gift with others, until we are all as gods, serene in our knowledge of things as they must be. I doubt that many readers are able to accept Nichols's solution to the problems of making sense of the world—I can't, for one, although I can understand the forces that drive him to seek it. This puts the whole book in a curious position—internally (and science fictionally) it works as a hypothetical solution to real problems. If the universe were deterministic, and if one could develop the ability to see the patterns, then Lew Nichols's story is no more unlikely than that of Edmund Gunderson in Downward to the Earth, and the healing of spiritual ills no less acceptable. But for an audience strongly conditioned to believe in a free, probabilist universe, the ending is no more satisfying than that of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.”10 Lew Nichols has found a resting place, a faith; Silverberg's readers may find themselves so distanced from the content of the solution that it seems no better than the fear of chaos that it is a response to.

Silverberg has presented us with other, less alien resolutions, but none that seems final; his fiction does not add up to an answer but to a set of questions and a willingness to explore. What remains constant is the pain. To read his fiction is to face that pain over and over, sometimes finding a momentary stay, more often not. The publication of Shadrach in the Furnace, followed by Silverberg's retirement from writing, does not put a period to the search, only an ellipsis. The experience of reading Silverberg is like that of Tom Two Ribbons in “Sundance”: “… you are searching for realities. It is not an easy search. It is like falling through many trapdoors, looking for the one room whose floor is not hinged.”


  1. I am not sure what Darko Suvin would say about this, though—see “On What Is and Is Not an SF Narration: With a List of 101 Victorian Books That Should Be Excluded From SF Bibliographies,” Science-Fiction Studies 5 (March 1978), 45-57. See also Stanislaw Lem's review of A Time of Changes, “Only a Fairy Tale,” SF Commentary 52, pp. 8-9.

  2. To Open the Sky is the novel that marks Silverberg's departure from process-oriented sf; see my “Introduction” to the Gregg Press reprint of that novel (Boston: Gregg Press, 1977).

  3. Robert Silverberg, “Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal,” in Hell's Cartographers, ed. Brain Aldiss and Harry Harrison (1975; rpt. London: Futura Publications, 1976), p. 40.

  4. “The Present Age,” in Irrational Man (1958): rpt. New York: Anchor Books, 1962), pp. 3-68.

  5. Barrett, p. 36.

  6. “Schwartz between the Galaxies” appears in The Feast of St. Dionysus (New York: Scribners, 1975), hereafter cited in the text as FSD; “Breckenridge and the Continuum” and “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” appear in Capricorn Games (New York: Random House, 1976), hereafter cited in the text as CG.

  7. I would argue that even the dystopian The World Inside deals with the failure of a planned and prosperous society to satisfy all human needs, though the slant taken is psychological; environmental rather than philosophical/existential. And the picaresque Up the Line contains a strain of sexual obsession that is a comic modulation of the sexual obsessions of “In the Group” or “Born with the Dead.”

  8. For this reason, readings of individual works that lean on established ideological/moral philosophical/therapeutic systems are in danger of missing the stubbornness of the anxieties Silverberg portrays. For example, George W. Tuma's “Biblical Myth and Legend in Tower of Glass: Man's Search for Authenticity” in Extrapolation 15 (May 1974), 174-91, does a fine job of outlining the book's issues, but in its reliance on a Christian existentialist point of view, it reads into the book an affirmation I find doubtful.

  9. The Stochastic Man (1975: rpt. Greenwich, CN: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1976), p. 240. Hereafter cited in the text as TSM.

  10. If there is any doubt as to the possibility of such externals interfering with acceptance of the book's resolution, see two reviews: Spider Robinson in “Galaxy Bookshelf,” Galaxy (May 1976), pp. 114-16; and Pauline Jones, “Son of Towering Inferno,” Foundation 10 (June 1976), 93-96. Both reviewers clearly have trouble accepting the book's determinist ideas despite admiration for other aspects of it.


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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.

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

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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 thousand-story, three-kilometer-high building in which the principal characters live. We meet a “stranger,” Nicanor Gortman of the planet Venus, whose only function is to be told about the strange land of Earth in A.D. 2381. And we read about major characters who meet and separate only in casual ways and who are dismissed after their stories are told. All together, it seems, we have the typical satiric “anatomy of abuses” in an episodic plot. But this first impression, we shall argue, is incorrect: The World Inside is a unified work that ironically celebrates the triumph of a villain-hero, the Urbmon itself. To the triumph of this mammoth hive-like organism, all the stories of human failure are carefully subordinated.2

Beginning on “a happy day in 2381,” The World Inside covers about a year and gives us a detailed account of life inside Urbmon 116, a typical building in the Chipitts constellation in what was once the United States. The 999 inhabited floors of the Urbmon contain approximately 881,000 people; the fifty buildings of the Chipitts constellation contain some forty million people; and the many constellations of urbmons contain a global population of seventy-five billion people (Ch. 1, p. 5). Gortman, whose home planet has about the same human populations as the Chipitts constellation, is surprised that the people back on Earth are doing so well. He comments to his host, Charles Mattern,

“It's all wonderful. I couldn't imagine how one little planet with 75,000,000,000 people could even survive, but you've turned it into—into—”

“Utopia?” Mattern suggests.

“I meant to say that, yes,” says Gortman. (Ch. 1, p. 11)

For the rest of the novel we are presented, in grand-hotel fashion, the stories of several urbmon inhabitants who are undergoing various problems of adaptation and adjustment to “utopia.”

This pattern in The World Inside is established shortly after Gortman's and Mattern's “utopia” conversation; significantly, we see the first problem of adjustment immediately after they discuss the urbmon philosophy that “life is sacred. Making new life is blessed.” While school children sing a hymn to human fertility, a pregnant young woman “rushes toward Mattern and Gortman in the corridor, … ‘Help!’ she shrieks. ‘My husband's gone flippo!’” (Ch. 1, p. 13). The “flippo” (flipped out) husband is swarmed over by the school children, subdued, and held for the police, whose leader pronounces a formula of condemnation and then has him thrown to his death down a waste-disposal chute.3 This is a very powerful and crucial scene, for the possibility of being declared flippo is present in the minds of all the characters who are having problems.

Of course, the chute is used only in cases of gross misconduct, for those who finally flip out or in other ways show “dangerous countersocial tendencies,” as the formula has it (Ch. 1, p. 15 and Ch. 6, p. 160). Still, it is always there, a constant threat; the banal disposal chutes function as an analog to Room 101 in 1984, Rockover Hospital in Woman on the Edge of Time, the Shock Shop in Cuckoo's Nest, the “farm” in the film version of A Boy and His Dog.

Mattern himself is probably in no danger of the chute. He is sincere in his conversations with Gortman, where he praises verticality and modern urbmon life. His game is Everything's Perfect: “the system works,” “we are happy here,” he says, convincing himself if not Gortman (pp. 10, 13). His desperate need to deceive himself becomes plain only at the end of the chapter when, “without warning” he is ambushed by the memory of an older brother, “Jeffrey, the whiner, the stealer, Jeffrey the selfish, Jeffrey the unadaptable, Jeffrey who had had to be given to a chute” (p. 16).

In an innocuous context, Mattern tells Gortman that urbmon civilization allows “certain conflicts to exist. Man wouldn't be man without conflicts, eh? Even here. Eh?” (Ch. 1, p. 4). But Mattern does not see what is plain to the reader; all conflicts of the world inside Urbmon 116 are being systematically weeded out. Anyone who does not conform is made to feel guilty, seek treatment (“moral engineering”), take drugs, repress his feelings—or face the chute. They are in total bondage.

Even the free sex in Urbmon 116 is part of a repressive system. As in Brave New World, sexual freedom in the urbmon is used to prevent frustration, to eliminate potential conflicts. Mattern extols the “nightwalking” of urbmon males (and occasionally females) without realizing that such compulsory (and all mores in Urbmon 116 are compulsory) promiscuity is a kind of regression to childishness or animality: a form of sexual predation that subliminates potential “countersocial tendencies” into the most casual sort of sexual activity, helping the people fit docilely into their prescribed social roles.4

The theme of maladjustment is more explicit with the other major characters, who are introduced to us in an order of increasing maladjustment. Aurea Holston, like Charles Mattern, is superficially well adjusted. Consciously she loves her building so well she cannot bear to leave it when the “thinning time” comes (Ch. 1, pp. 20, 26). Some four thousand residents of the overcrowded 116 will be sent to be pioneers in a new Urbmon. However, after learning that she and her husband are going to be “expelled” (her word and emphasis), she “dreams of being born” (Ch. 2, p. 26).

In her dream she starts at the very bottom of 116, where she is sealed “into a liftshaft capsule.” She rises through the living structure of the building, from the low-level “city” of Reykjavik “where the maintenance people live,” all the way through the Urbmon's physical and social strata to “Louisville where the administrators dwell in unimaginable luxury,” and finally to the landing stage at the top of the building. There, “a hatch opens … and Aurea is ejected. She soars into the sky, safe within her snug capsule …” (pp. 26-27). She sees the series of hexagons that make up Chipitts. High up she sees her world laid out before her and experiences a “transport of joy” while observing its “balanced economy” and social harmony. She is awestruck by the thought of so many people living together “A meaningful and enriching city life. Friends, lovers, mates, children” (p. 28). But the thought of children dismays her: she is childless in a world that holds fertility as its highest value. In her dream, she starts to spin and “she seems to vault to the edge of space, so that she sees the entire planet. … It is all quite wonderful, but it is terrifying as well, and she is uncertain for a moment whether the way man has reshaped his environment is the best of all possible ways5. … And doubt smites her and she begins to fall, and the capsule splits and releases her …” (p. 28). Her dream ends when she lands on the top of “a new tower” in the Chipitts constellation, impaled on Urbmon 158 (p. 29).6

Aurea Holston, we should note, does not look out at the stars and long for the freedom to explore them or even to observe them with the naked eye. In this way she is quite unlike Kuno in E. M. Forster's “The Machine Stops” or Alvin in Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars. She does not observe the hexagonal shapes underlying the geometry of Chipitts and see herself trapped in a beehive-world. Nor does she look at “the way man has reshaped his environment” and question (as one of Ursula Le Guin's heroes might) whether or not humankind should be so enthusiastic in reshaping worlds according to its will. No, her complaint is primarily a personal one: she knows that “we multiply. We multiply. We multiply”—and that the “we” in this case does not include her.

In time, her personal complaint might mature into a more general condemnation of the whole system. For now, though, she can think only of telling her husband to file an appeal. He warns her of the chute, tells her to “[p]op a pill, … Talk to the floor consoler. … Stay calm and let's adjust” (Ch. 2, p. 32). In the face of this rejection, she decides to try pulling strings; she has an uncle who is an administrator. “From the hormone chest she selects a capsule that will cause her to emanate the odor that inspires men to act protectively toward her” (Ch. 2, pp. 32–33), and she goes to visit Uncle Lewis. In this hive, however, pheromones are less powerful than law and administrative directives, and her uncle rejects her petition. She then tries sexual attraction (amplified with another hormone) on Siegmund Kluver, a rising young man in the Urbmon hierarchy. But even this “magic” fails, and she suggests to her husband that they both go down the chute.

Her husband, however, has no intention of committing a love-death for Aurea and Urbmon 116; he summons the machines to take her to the consoler—and the consoler sends her to the moral engineers. “For a week she lives in a sealed chamber filled with warm, sparkling fluids. … They speak to her over audio channels embedded in the walls of the chamber. … They drain the tensions and resistances from her” (Ch. 2, pp. 36-37). Upon leaving this mechanical womb, she is adjusted, happy, and glad to be one of the pioneers going to the new building. More, the conventional wisdom of her world that brooding and conflict sterilize proves true in her case: she is soon pregnant and goes to her new home like a joyful queen bee. “Now the poison of negativeness has been drained from her; she is able to fulfill a woman's proper destiny” and “Urbmon 116 has ceased to concern her” (Ch. 2, pp. 38-39).

Dillon Chrimes has no personal complaints. He is happily married with three children; he takes great joy in his job as the lead player in a cosmos group. Unlike the work of the early Bob Dylan, Chrimes's art has no explicit political content. He offers music and a spectacular light show. He know that his cosmos group serves social stability and efficiency: in his words, “bread and circuses” for “the lower levels,” “psychic deconstipation” for the administrators and minor bureaucrats of the upper levels (Ch. 3, pp. 40-41). Still, he shows people the farthest reaches beyond the confines of his building, and there is in him the potential for rebellion.

During a trip on a “multiplexer” pill, Chrimes perceives and merges with the whole urbmon. He comes to see the people as “ants,” a “swarm of biped bees” living a “beehive life” (Ch. 3, pp. 57-59). And during the trip he loves all he sees. After he comes down, though, he experiences doubt. “Is this how it was meant to be? Is this how it has to be? Is this the best we can do? This building. This mighty hive” (Ch. 3, pp. 60-61). The doubt is there, and for a while “He cannot bear to play” his bibrastar instrument. But as we have seen, in the hive milieu, such doubts must be cast aside—or else—and Dillon Chrimes ends the novel content to live in the hive, so long as he can have the universe through his art. Besides, as he tells Siegmond Kluver, the alternatives to the urbmon are the farming communes and the chute, “so we stay here. And groove on the richness of it all” (Ch. 7, p. 169).

Jason and Micaela Quevado also struggle to reunite private yearnings and public weal, but they see their problem as genetic in origin. In his work, The Urban Monad as Social Evolution: Parameters of the Spirit Defined by Community Structure (Ch. 4, p. 68), Jason propounds his thesis “that selective breeding has produced a new species of human in the urbmons” (Ch. 4, p. 93): a species that has acquired a “more pliant, more acquiescent mode of response to events, a turning away from the old expansionist-individualist philosophy … toward a kind of communal expansion centered in the orderly and unlimited growth of the human race. Definitely a psychic evolution of some sort, a shift toward graceful acceptance of hive-life” (Ch. 4, p. 68).7 Unfortunately for them, the Quevados can claim only “a veneer of urbmonism,” with “jealousy, envy, possessiveness” underneath. In terms of Jason's theory, they are “both throwbacks” to a more primitive era, our era. To avoid the chute, they come to a reasonable, if unheroic, decision: “We have to wear better camouflage” (Ch. 4, p. 92).

So far it would seem that Charles Mattern has a fairly good case. The urbmon world of A.D. 2381 has its problems, but application of “the theory of verticality in urban thrust” has solved real challenges and has given a fairly decent life to a huge number of people (Ch. 7, p. 169). Artists and intellectuals in 2381 have some difficulties adjusting, but artists can sublimate and intellectuals can hide—a situation little different from the lot of artists and intellectuals in our world. But what of organization men? Would they not increase in numbers in such a world? Would they not find utopia in a world rapidly becoming a vast bureaucracy, a single mechanistic organism?

What of Michaela's brother, Michael Statler? He is a twenty-three-year-old computer-primer who for eleven years has literally been an extension to a machine.

By now the work is purely automatic for him. … Drifting along the interface, he boosts or drains, shunts or couples, blends or splits, meeting every need of the computer he serves, and does it all in cool mindless efficiency, operating on reflex alone. … [A] properly trained interface crew is in effect a group of ten … excellent little organically grown computers jacked into the main unit (Ch. 6, p. 114).

Thoroughly mechanized, wired into his job, Michael Statler has time left over to think, perchance even to dream, and he does dream “of adventure outside Urban Monad 116” (Ch. 6, pp. 114-15). More important, Michael acts on his dream by leaving the urbmon. Like Forster's Kuno, he thirsts for direct experience of the greater world and takes the risks necessary to get it. He uses his knowledge to get an egress pass, to leave what he sees as a dead world. He walks under a real sky, feels the earth at his feet, sees himself as Adam on “the first morning of the world.” He strips, swims, watches a sunrise, cries; “[H]e watches the sky turn blue, and puts his hand on himself … and summons his vision [from a travelog] of the beach at Capri, the wine, the boy, the goat, the kisses, Micaela, and the two of them bare at dawn, and he gasps as his seed spurts. Fertilizing the naked earth” (Ch. 6, p. 127). He is arrested at a farming commune and learns of their barbaric customs—including the custom of limiting population. Confused and ignorant, he attempts rape and is almost sacrificed as an offering to the harvest god “to become a mystic link binding commune to urbmon” (Ch. 6, pp. 131-55; see esp. pp. 146 or 155). But with help he escapes, then admits defeat and goes home to Urbmon 116, without having seen his major goal, the sea.

Although Michael is but a minor-league fertility god and Adam-figure, his adventure is the greatest odyssey of any urbanized man of his era. For so long he worked on the interface of the computer with the human portion of the urbmon; in leaving the urbmon he was moved through an “interface”—crossed a threshold—into a new world.8 He cannot be allowed to return to the community. Michael had been a dreamer and an explorer. He never viewed himself as a revolutionary and was the most timid and culture-bound of rebels by the usual heroic standards. But the urbmon knows better. “‘Menace to harmony and stability, dangerous countersocial tendencies, immediate removal from environment to prevent spreading of reactive pattern.’ As though he carries a plague of rebelliousness. He has seen this before: the summary judgment, the instant execution. And never really understood. And never imagined” (p. 160).

He must be sacrificed, as the administrators see it, for the common good. His death will bring no regeneration of Urbmon 116, but that does not bother Michael. He has dared and ventured, and discovered. As the chute is opened, he “hears the rushing of the tide. He feels the crash of the waves against the sleek shining sands. He tastes salt water … He has no regrets” (p. 160). With Michael's death, the Narrator tells us, “The Urbmon has taken the necessary protective steps, and an enemy of civilization has been removed” (p. 161).9

Siegmund Kluver's death is equally necessary, and it provides a clear demonstration of the abilities and limitations of the urbmon. Viewed one way—comically, from a distance—Siegmund is “an earnest, pushy little rung-grabber, his gut afire with the upward urge,” the standard-issue organization man, except that he is younger, smarter, and more competent than most (Ch. 5, p. 96). When we first see him at age fourteen, he already lives high up in Shanghai and so is doing very well in urbmon status-seeking, the only game in town for most of the upper classes. When we see him last, at fifteen years, five months, he is less than a year away from “promotion to the highest administrative levels” (Ch. 7, p. 163). Viewed another way—politically, socially—Siegmund Kluver is a young idealist who believes that the urbmon system is ideal, or at least should be ideal (Ch. 2, pp. 26, 164). In this view, he would be the classic prerevolutionary from the upper classes: the privileged, educated citizen who will strive to make reality live up to his expectations.

It is a tribute to the abilities of the urbmon that Kluver never even considers the possibility of revolution or even significant rebellion. On the other hand, the limitations of the urbmon are evident in Kluver's ultimate unhappiness. He becomes alienated from his work and his society, from others, and finally from himself. He comes to see the urbmon as far less than “an ideal commonwealth”; he comes to see it as a mechanical hive with no other purpose than expansion. He sees his world, finally, as a kind of “switchboard” that he is no longer plugged into (Ch. 7, p. 170).

In the book's last chapter Siegmund Kluver goes restlessly about the building, trying desperately to cope with his problem. He tells Dillon Chrimes that it is

“A purely personal thing. A sense of coming apart. Or breaking loose from my roots. …”

“A kind of rootlessness. As though not belonging in Shanghai, not belonging in Louisville, not belonging in Warsaw, not belonging anywhere. Just a cluster of ambitions and inhibitions, no real self. And I'm lost inside. …”

“Inside myself. Inside the building …” (p. 170).

He correctly sees himself as a “hungry rung-grabber who gets almost to the top and decides he doesn't want it” (Ch. 7, p. 170). The Narrator tells us that he suffers from “A sense of coming apart. A dislocation of the soul” (p. 171). The blessman (a kind of priest) tells him that he suffers from “Angst. Anomie. Dissociation. Identity drain. Familiar complaints …” (p. 175).

The blessman's answer is to show him god: the cosmos (Ch. 7, pp. 176-77). This does not work, so he goes to a consoler, what we would call a psychotherapist. The consoler's solution is much more practical; Siegmund cannot learn to cope with his problem; he needs the therapy of the moral engineers for a “reality adjustment.” This is advice that the laws of his society say Siegmund must accept, but it is a course of non-action that he refuses to accept, for “he is afraid of being changed. He will come forth healthy and stable and different. Another person. All his Siegmundness lost along with his anguish.” He thinks of Aurea Holston, who “came forth from her tank docile and placid, a vegetable in place of a neurotic. Not for me, Siegmund thinks” (Ch. 7, p. 178).

On the advice of Rhea, an older woman friend who has the significant name of the Great Mother of the Gods, he uses the Louisville Access Nexus and with exquisite bureaucratic logic, “instructs the computer to yank the therapy assignment for Siegmund Kluver”—on the authority of “Siegmund Kluver of the Louisville Access Nexus” (Ch. 7, pp. 179–80). But while Siegmund can rely on the computer's basic stupidity temporarily to outwit bureaucracy, he cannot defeat the larger enemy. He still has not found god and is still unable to fit into his “social matrix.” He can no longer appreciate “The ecstasy of verticality”; he is no longer “Plugged into the … switchboard,” no longer able to glory in “Homeostasis, and the defeat of entropy” in the monads (Ch. 7, p. 183).

So he goes to the top of the building and jumps, “And sails toward god in a splendid leap” (Ch. 7, p. 184). Siegmund Kluver is defeated in the closest thing to tragedy in this novel. He has been torn apart by his desire to serve his urbmon and his recognition that there is no final purpose to the monads or to the lives of their servants.

Kluver's defeat, however, is a victory for the urbmon, as have all the defeats of the people in The World Inside. The story is one of victory for the villain-hero, the triumph of the mechanized hive antagonist over the novel's philosophical protagonist, the human spirit, over everything in people that would rebel against overpopulation and a dehumanizing static order.

Silverberg insists on this personification of the urbmon. He gives it a head (Louisville), senses (the scanners), a couple of hearts, and a dual reproduction system: the human reproducers and “the machines that stamp out machines” on its lower levels (Ch. 7, p. 164). Silverberg even allows us to see the urbmons reproducing in the construction and stocking of Urbmon 158. The “biped bees” do not exactly swarm; that would be too organic, too disorganized, too much a bottom-up sort of thing engendered by the compulsive urges of the masses.10 No, Urbmon 158 is stocked in a very orderly fashion, with volunteers, encouraged by a well-run propaganda campaign, and with draftees chosen by lottery from among the childless. Still, the stocking of Urbmon 158 is the moral equivalent of swarming: when its human population grows beyond their means to support them all, the urbmons replicate and produce a new one, identical to all the others.

Moreover, the urbmon is entirely self-contained and, with its surrounding farming communes, entirely self-sufficient. It has conduits which carry about its body fluids and “cells” (its human inhabitants). In its efficiency it recycles its waste products. It is sensitive to environmental changes and adapts to them, as when its skin surfaces respond to the coming of day (Ch. 1, p. 1; Ch. 7, p. 184). All these functions the urbmon performs routinely. And like any advanced organism, it defends itself. Those human cells which are not operating in perfect conformity with the urbmon's needs it intimidates, converts, or destroys.11

Thus, all the human failures dramatized in the novel are but the reverse of the urbmon's triumph. That triumph is the unifying action of the novel, comparable to a hive ridding itself of dysfunctional elements (for example, unneeded drones) or a body destroying its own aging or injured cells.

The World Inside, then, presents us with an extreme dystopia in which the human organism is subordinated literally, turned into a cell of a larger gestalt.12 This vision may be regarded as an end of a long process in science-fiction literature.13 Hitherto there have been mechanized and dehumanized societies, like those of 1984, Brave New World, and Yevgeny Zamiatin's We. Surveillance has been used as part of computer tyrannies in Year of Consent and This Perfect Day. And people have found themselves trapped in enormous world-hive buildings like E. M. Forster's “Machine” and Megan Terry's “Home” or have been put out of business by robots, as in Karel Capek's R.U.R. and Jack Williamson's “With Folded Hands.” But never to our knowledge has there been such a thorough depiction of the hive itself coming alive to subsume humanity and establish itself as a world-ruling colonial organism.

By the end of The World Inside, threats from any Falstaffian expression of misrule, any threats, in other words, from the human spirit, have been dispelled. “Life goes on. God bless! Here begins another happy day” (Ch. 7, p. 184).14


  1. New York: Garden City, 1971. Further citations to The World Inside will be found in this text. Excerpts from The World Inside by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 1970 by Harry Harrison, Avon Books, and UPD Publishing Corp., © 1971 by UPD Publishing Corp. and Robert Silverberg. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday and Co., Inc.

  2. When he commented on this paper at the SFRA convention, Robert Silverberg noted that he took some pains to make clear the unity of The World Inside. He specifically mentioned the “happy day” lines beginning and ending the book and his use of a character introduced or given a minor function in one chapter as the major character of the next chapter.

  3. “Flippo,” hence may also suggest “flipped” (down the chute).

  4. Jason Quevedo, at one point in the novel, “sees a forced self-conscious mode of a morality coming into being” (Ch. 4, p. 81); he is thinking about the late twentieth century. The mores of his own society seem to have developed from such “morality.”

  5. The allusion to Pangloss' repeated assertion/phase in Voltaire's Candide serves to reinforce our questioning of the Urbmon as a Utopia. In Candide, “the best of all possible worlds” proves to be unsatisfactory; urbmon civilization is equally, if more subtly, unsatisfactory.

  6. The sentence following the end of Aurea Holston's dream has her clutching Memnon, her husband, “who murmurs sleepily and sleepily enters her” (Ch. 2, p. 29). The juxtaposition of Aurea's being impaled on the building with Memnon's penetrating her cannot be coincidental. It may indicate that Aurea has a lower opinion of sexual intercourse and “a woman's proper destiny” of motherhood than is normal in the world of The World Inside. Certainly it is significant that Memnon “sleepily enters her.” Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, Memnon commits an atrocity in his sleep: not “topping” his wife but sending her off to the moral engineers without thinking a whole lot about an action that condemns her to be radically changed.

  7. For a discussion of some other hive-worlds, see our paper, “A Vision of Dystopia: Bee Hives and Mechanization,” delivered at the Third Annual Conference on Utopian Studies, Section VIII C, 28 Oct. 1978.

  8. For the motif of the Hero crossing a threshold, see Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd ed. (1949; rpt. with minor changes, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968, paperback ed., 1972), Bollingen Series, XVII, Part I, ch. 1, section 4, “The Crossing of the First Threshold,” esp. pp. 77-79, 82. See also Kathleen L. Spencer, “Exiles and Envoys: Liminality and Communitas in the Science Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin,” a paper presented at the Le Guin Seminar at the 9th Annual Convention of the Popular Culture Association, 27 April 1979.

  9. Michael Statler embodies the idea of the pharmakos, as that character is described by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1966). Insofar as we identify with Michael, we see him as a kind of scapegoat, sacrificed out of a perverse vision of the common good. This kind of pharmakos “is neither innocent nor guilty. He is innocent in the sense that what happens to him is far greater than anything he has done provokes. … He is guilty in the sense that he is a member of a guilty society, or living in a world where such injustices are an inescapable part of existence” (Frye, p. 41). This, of course, is the view that readers will and should take. From the viewpoint of Michael's society, however, he is a pharmakos in the sense of ironic comedy: a rascal to be driven out of the community (Frye, p. 45).

  10. For swarming in a more “insectoid” hive, see Frank Herbert, Hellstrom's Hive (original title, “Project 40,” Galaxy Magazine, ca. 1972; rpt. Doubleday, 1973, and New York: Bantam, 1974), pp. 149, 158-59, and 164-65 in Bantam ed.

  11. For the hive as organism and its individual members analogous to cells, see any standard etymology book, for example, Edmund O. Wilson, The Insect Societies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), p. 1.

  12. An alternative metaphor can be found in “The Words of Trova Hellstrom”; she refers to Hive life as “the ultimate form of human domestication” (Hellstom's Hive, Bantam ed., p. 140).

  13. Harold L. Berger discusses The World Inside in his section on “The Obsessional Catastrophe.” For a summary of the process we can only cover briefly, see his Science Fiction and the New Dark Age (Bowling Green: Bowling Green Univ. Popular Press, 1976), Berger's discussion of The World Inside is on pp. 188-89.

  14. For the “Falstaffian spirit” versus the beehive-utopia of Henry V's Archbishop of Canterbury, see our paper “A Vision of Dystopia,” (n. 7), esp. pp. 1-3.

Principal Works

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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 Sky (short stories) 1967

Hawksbill Station (novella) 1968

The Masks of Time (novel) 1968

Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth (nonfiction) 1968

*Nightwings (novella) 1968

The Anvil of Time (novel) 1969; also published in England as Hawksbill Station

The Man in the Maze (novel) 1969

Up the Line (novel) 1969

Downward to the Earth (novel) 1970

Tower of Glass (novel) 1970

A Time of Changes (novel) 1971

Son of Man (novel) 1971

The World Inside (novel) 1971

Dying Inside (novel) 1972

The Book of Skulls (novel) 1972

The Realm of Prester John (nonfiction) 1972

The Second Trip (novel) 1972

Unfamiliar Territory (short stories) 1973

Born with the Dead (short stories) 1974

Sundance and Other Science Fiction Stories (short stories) 1974

The Feast of St. Dionysus (short stories) 1975

Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal (autobiography) 1975

The Stochastic Man (novel) 1975

Capricorn Games (short stories) 1976

Shadrach in the Furnace (novel) 1976

The Best of Robert Silverberg (short stories) 1976

Lord Valentine's Castle (novel) 1980

The Desert of Stolen Dreams (novella) 1981

Lord of Darkness (novel) 1983

The Secret Sharer (novella) 1988

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One, Secret Sharers (short stories) 1992

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Two, The Secret Sharer (short stories) 1992

Kingdoms of the Wall (novel) 1993

Hot Sky at Midnight (novel) 1994

Reflections and Refractions: Thoughts on Science-Fiction, Science, and Other Matters (essays) 1997

*This work was later collected with the short stories “Perris Way” and “To Jorslem” and published as the novel Nightwings in 1969.

†This work first appeared in the anthology Hell's Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers, 1975.

Alexander Nedelkovich (essay date Winter 1980)

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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 award; Larry Niven's “Neutron Star,”2 an excellent work—in fact, one of his best—probably written in 1965; and Robert Silverberg's “To the Dark Star,”3 probably written in 1968, when Silverberg had about fifteen years of professional writing experience behind him. Permit me to attempt an analysis and a personal appreciation of the three works.

Consider the titles. Clarke's “The Star” is the simplest, the shortest, and the only one that could stand just as easily as a mainstream story; to me it has a kind of static dignity. Niven's title “Neutron Star” immediately calls to mind nuclear physics and astronomy; it also implies what the story is “about”: it is “about” an object. This is quite enough to repel many readers but likely to attract those who prefer hardcore science fiction. Only Silverberg's title contains movement—“To the Dark Star.” It signals that the story is science-fictional, but it leaves open many possibilities as to its “contents.”4

All three works are short stories, but not of equal length: Clarke's is about 2,700 words, Niven's about 8,000 words, and Silverberg's about 4,700 words. Later I shall attempt an explanation of these differences in length.

The scientific-fictional core of each is similar, but the degree of complexity seems to increase chronologically. In each story the central object of interest is a star which has exploded, gone, not to nova, but to supernova, a very long time ago. What remains of each, however, is not the same. In Clarke's story a much smaller star, a white dwarf, still shines brightly in the same place. Clarke's main interest, however, is not with the remaining star itself but with the fact that the explosion cindered and swept away its planetary system. In Niven's story, a vast quantity of stellar matter has condensed into neutrons tightly packed together—neutronium, a hypothetical substance thousands of times denser and heavier than rock. Niven is primarily interested in the fact that such a body, so massive but only 18 kilometers across,5 would exert a titanic gravitational pull. And in Silverberg's story what remains after the explosion is a black dwarf, a vast ball of lava gradually cooling off (Earth's Other Shadows, hereafter cited as EOS, p. 130). (It is the unique quality of science fiction that literary criticism of it can sometimes sound like this. Where else in literary criticism can you find any mention of neutrons, novas, gravitation?) Silverberg postulates that this black dwarf star will undergo a gravitational collapse, during which it will first shrink into a black hole, and then under its own gravity shrink into a point of zero volume and infinite density. At that instant it will vanish from the fabric of space and time and from this universe altogether. All three concepts are scientifically plausible but not to the same degree. What Clarke describes—namely, the type of process that he describes—is within the realm of sound scientific fact; Niven's neutron star is a definite possibility; Silverberg's concept is the boldest, and somewhat far-fetched.

It is interesting to note that all three authors opted, in these stories at least, for the same type of universe.6 In all three stories it is shown that the universe is populated, but only very sparsely populated, by intelligent races. Mankind is shown to have acquired faster-than-light (FTL) ships and in the several centuries after the twentieth, to have explored a great number of stars in the nearer parts of the Milky Way.

In all three stories there is a human expedition to the remains of the star concerned, and each is aimed only at gathering knowledge, not material wealth. Two of the expeditions appear to be academically funded, but in Niven's story the expedition is mounted for commercial reasons: gathering knowledge for a business purpose. In one case (Clarke) there is the tragic past to think about, namely, the violent extinction of a civilization that once existed on the planets surrounding the star in question. In fact, in Clarke's “The Star,” that is the main theme. In Niven's “Neutron Star,” there is no mention of this, while in Silverberg's “To the Dark Star,” there is just a passing reference to such a possibility.

Clarke's story opens with the famous sentence (one of the best introductory sentences ever in the American science-fiction short story): “It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican” (BAC, p. 125). The narrator is, curiously, a Jesuit priest who is also a practicing astronomer and a space-traveler, and he is a member (the chief astrophysicist) of a rather multitudinous expedition which surveys the remains of a supernova that exploded 6,000 years before. The story is set in the thirtieth century. (If it is true that one of the jobs of literary criticism is to re-create the work of art, then I should withhold the punch line from you and try to build suspense. But I will not.) The hero computes that the light of this supernova, which killed an entire race of people,7 was the star of Bethlehem; and the readers learn this only in the last sentence of the story, which makes for one of the most famous, classical punch lines in the history of the science-fiction short story. As the ship, with its precious cargo of information, alien artifacts, and works of art, speeds back towards Earth, the Jesuit grieves over the theological and moral implications of his discovery.8

In my opinion, Clarke errs against plausibility in one matter. He postulates that the destroyed civilization, in the years before its destruction, could reach its outermost planet, its equivalent of Pluto, with such huge machinery and so much cargo that a vast bunkered museum was built there and marked by a colossal stone pillar—“The pylon … a mile high when it was built” (BAC, p. 124)—but they did not put a colony of their people into that same shelter to survive. The Jesuit even says, “It will take us generations to examine all the treasures that were placed in the Vault. They had plenty of time to prepare, for their sun must have given its first warnings many years before its final detonation” (BAC, p. 121). Is it credible that they would have such priorities, that they would build a titanic museum instead of a place where hundreds could live?

In Niven's “Neutron Star,” the narrator is a space pilot by profession, but he is also a freelance author of sorts. (Thus it is credible that he can speak with a writer's surety of language.) It is shown here, and in other stories by Niven, that an alien firm is building spacecraft hulls of phenomenal resilience and is selling them on several worlds; the hulls are advertised and sold as impenetrable. But when two explorers journey to observe closely a neutron star, the ship returns with their smashed bodies. What had penetrated the supposedly impenetrable hull? This question, of obvious economic importance to the firm, has to be settled by one or more new expeditions. The hero, Beowulf Shaeffer, is hired to make the trip single-handedly for a sum that sounds like a million dollars. He goes into a onetime, slingshot orbit around the object. With skill, luck, great professional competence, and good intuition, Shaeffer survives and returns with the answer. The force of gravitation, or, rather, a unique combination of disproportionate tidal gravitational forces and inertial forces, has splattered the men inside the first ship against the rigid hull. As the story ends, we see Shaeffer in the hospital for minor injuries, but rich, famous, and happy.

In Niven's story there are, to the best of my knowledge, no serious scientific mistakes, no major offenses against plausibility and logic. The physics of it is convincing (and in this genre, it constitutes a part of the literary merit of the work). There is even the suggestion, almost unnoticeable, that the neutron star's speedy rotation, coupled with its enormous mass and gravity, may distort the space around it (NS, p. 15). This wraps up the matter, covering any possible criticism of the main physical-mechanical point of the story.

And now I go to Silverberg. But there is a hidden flaw in my procedure, an unfairness, because “The Star” (with “The Sentinel,” 1954) represents the very best of Arthur C. Clarke and “Neutron Star” is one of the best short stories of Larry Niven, but Silverberg's “To the Dark Star” is easily eclipsed by some of his other stories.9

The expedition in “To the Dark Star” consists of three scientists on board a spaceship. One is an Earthman. Another, also human, is a mutated woman, a lady from a two-gravities planet, who is by genetic engineering anatomically adjusted to the double burden: very short, strong-boned, thick-legged, squat, powerful. The third scientist is an alien, a creature remotely humanoid in form, but with his brain located somewhere inside his thorax, hence with only a very small head upon his shoulders. The Earthman, who is the narrator, calls him “microcephalon.” In Clarke's story there were no aliens; in Niven's an alien of totally nonhuman anatomy is shown to mingle socially with humans (which we watch and hear in many scenes); and in Silverberg's, an alien is completely accepted and included in the team. These are three different attitudes towards aliens.

There is one unpleasant matter. I have to say that in “The Star,” Clarke reveals an attitude toward aliens which is odd and, in my view, quite unacceptable. Of course, a narrator speaks in the story, not the author, but nevertheless, consider these three points. (1) There are no living aliens in the story even though there easily could have been. It is quite obvious and it really strikes us that there should have been a survival colony in the bunker, not the colossal museum. Perhaps the author went out of his way so that he would not have to deal with any aliens. (2) The preserved pictures of the aliens show them to be “disturbingly human” (BAC, p. 130) in appearance—this should mean, very strongly anthropomorphic. (3) About two hundred words are spent insisting that the aliens were good according to Earth standards of goodness, even “musical” in speech. Is tragedy in the loss of a civilization or only in the loss of a civilization we like? “They could travel freely enough between the planets of their own sun, but they had not yet learned to cross the interstellar gulfs, and the nearest solar system was a hundred light-years away. Yet even had they possessed the secret of the Transfinite drive no more than a few millions could have been saved. Perhaps it was better thus” (BAC, p. 130).

Now imagine a mainstream writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, writing something in this general vein and having his narrator, Nick Carraway, say:

What a lovely, big heap of ruins I saw at West Egg! Gatsby's mansion had caved in, you see, roof and all, during a big party, and all doors were locked, so everybody was killed. Saw their pictures—they all looked like me. I think it is a tragedy because they weren't just any people, they looked disturbingly like me. Oh, and there was a vault there, uncollapsed, quite safe, within their reach, but they didn't go for shelter there, they all just flung their medallions and pocketwatches there, and a tape recorder. Thinking about those doors: even had the doors been wide open, only a few dozen people would have saved themselves. Perhaps it was better thus.

This may be painful to a science-fiction fan, but if science fiction is good literature, why not put its best writers and the best mainstream writers up against one another and just look at them? Perhaps it is better thus.

Let us return to less troubled waters, to Silverberg's “To the Dark Star.” The two humans in the ship, the Earthman and the genetically engineered lady, quarrel bitterly, and this personal feud reduces their professional effectiveness. The third scientist, the microcephalon, acts as a voluntary mediator. They enter an orbit around the dark star, but at a very great, very safe, distance: some eight light-days, which is 200 milliard kilometers. (It would be very unconvincing, to me at least, if the astronauts entered a tight, clearly dangerous orbit unnecessarily. It would have shown an attitude that I call the see-risk-will-plunge attitude.) The three people, despite the quarrel, collect a mass of data about that cooling body of lava and confirm the prediction that the star will soon collapse into its peculiar state of zero-size and nonexistence. They have at their disposal a robot probe, designed for the purpose, which can land on the surface itself, on one of the cooler slag heaps, and which can help observe the end. (Bear in mind that another writer might have the astronauts, perhaps all three, land on the surface of the cooling star; then, even more suicidally, walk right into the nearest “mysterious” cave; then get trapped, etc.—all in accordance with the see-risk-will-plunge attitude—not so Silverberg.) But before the robot probe can be sent, there is a human problem to solve: somebody will have to sit in a control booth on board the ship, utilize the remote-control instruments, and personally observe things that happen to the probe, down on the surface. They know this is perilous because that person will have his senses hooked more or less directly into the probe's sensors and will closely experience those moments when the star, and the probe with it, divorce themselves from this universe. Madness may be the consequence. None will volunteer, and, as the matter apparently has not been settled on Earth, the conflict intensifies. The two humans go beyond quarreling: each attempts to dope or to hypnotize and finally to clobber the other. However, they finally grab the alien and dump him into the control booth. The microcephalon accepts this, observes the event, and reports well, but when it is over, when the humans take him out, he is silent, his mind is blank, erased. (“So it goes”—I seem to hear the well-known refrain.)10 The voyage home begins, and the story ends this way: “Miranda and I perform our chores in harmony. The hostility between us is gone. … She smiles at me. I do not find her hateful now. The microcephalon is silent” (EOS, pp. 138-39). The story does not end with any talk about the astronomical object; matters of human interest prevail. The same holds for the ending of Niven's “Neutron Star,” also given over to personal matters. (So, if for the sake of the argument we decided to judge the three stories exclusively by their endings, it would appear that Clarke wrote a story about a problem, while Niven and Silverberg wrote stories about people.)

Silverberg does make a scientific mistake, but only a marginal one and only by omission. He gives no explanation about the way the remote pickup is effected, over the distance of eight light-days. Obviously an instantaneous communication is implied, but it is not explicitly stated. One could assume therefore that the author completely overlooked the matter, or perhaps saw it but did not bother to do anything about it. I think that just two words, or even a single word, would have sufficed. It appears then that of the three stories, only Niven's is free of such scientific faults.

Silverberg adds one almost unnoticed but brilliant little detail. His narrator says, “We are on our way back … now. The mission has been accomplished. We have relayed priceless and unique data” (EOS, pp. 138-39). Relayed, not brought back—that is the point. In so many stories about space travel, the discovery of an alien civilization or some such thing is never reported, brought back only by the lonely ship, practically by word of mouth, in a somewhat medieval fashion. One example of this occurs in Clarke's story: if the ship with the Jesuit should crash, no one would ever know what was discovered, if anything. All-the-eggs-in-one-starship, then. Robert Silverberg did not use that cliché, and his heroes report back in full detail as soon as they can.11

Perhaps in some cases there is a dilemma between plentiful adventures and suspension-of-disbelief, in the sense that more of one reduces the amount of the other. If the heroes in a story of this kind go into a perilous orbit, it will soup up the adventures. If they walk on the surface, get into caves and pitfalls, etc., it will heighten the tension and provide an opportunity for every individual to assert himself in action: a young lady by getting into danger, the hero by rescuing her, and so on. And if they never call home, then there will be a question—will they return and give the news about their discoveries to the world, or will they perish and the knowledge with them?12 The importance of their safe return is thereby artificially enhanced. Silverberg utilized none of these methods, and consequently his story looks very simply plotted, but very credible and enjoyable.

All three stories are told in the first person, and the reader sees everything through the eyes of the narrator, but Clarke's “The Star” is the most structurally complex of the three. “The Star” opens and closes with the Jesuit Father in his cell, thinking, contemplating, as the spacecraft is voyaging back to Earth. Inside that frame is the canvas itself: remembered discussions on board the ship before the arrival at the star and remembered images of the exploration itself. But there are also brief glimpses of the distant past of 6,000 years ago when the civilization in question still existed. And much is said about what will happen on Earth when the discovery is revealed. This structure reminds me of a canvas in a solid, four-sided frame, with an attached piece of painting behind it and another in front of it. The reader has to change telescopes several times. But all of this is firmly integrated into the confessional monologue. The story strikes me as cold and sad, a monotone voice in a little room. Reading it, I seem to hear a clock tick. Clarke's is the only story I have ever read that detonates a supernova quietly. There is a good reason for the shortness of the story: this solitary contemplation could not go on much longer without, to put it bluntly, getting dull.

Niven's story opens with a flesh-forward, or teaser—Beowulf Shaeffer floating in the cockpit of his ship and approaching the neutron star. Then comes the true beginning of the sequence of events: things that led to the signing of the contract, the preparations for the trip, etc.; the narrative reaches the point shown in the teaser and simply continues to the end, a talk in a hospital, where it is chopped off in the middle of a dialogue. This would make a good movie scenario. The style of the story, the feel of it, differs enormously from that of Clark's. Niven presents many sights and sounds, events, dialogues, and confrontations, and he dwells on the technology and physics of the matter. Of all three authors only Niven describes the outer appearance and the functioning of the spaceship. Not surprisingly, it is the longest story.

At first glance, the structure of Silverberg's story is the simplest: a single-line, straight narrative, beginning with the arrival at the dark star and describing events in their chronological order. But the predominant grammatical tense is past simple, while the last passage—an epilogue of a kind—stands sharply apart, being told predominantly in present simple. Only because of the tense change does the reader then realize that the epilogue is the dramatic now, the vantage point from which the narrator looks back at the past events. The story is put into a frame, but this is achieved with economy, sophistication, and beauty. In addition, it permits greater tension: as we read, we wonder what will happen to the narrator, and only in the end do we see that nothing will happen to him because he is already safely on his way home. Compare! Clarke's story was also a remembrance of a space explorer already on his way home, but this was revealed at the beginning and put across in a rather ponderous manner. I can only repeat here what an editor said about Silverberg, “He does it so well.”13

What Harry Kroitor, in discussing Niven and Silverberg in another context, called a “quick push out of present time”14 is achieved in all three stories with swift and masterly moves. In each story, the very first sentence in itself is full of jolts that elevate the reader from his here and now, into the narrator's then and there. Just listen to them:

(1) “It is three thousand light years to the Vatican” (BAC, p. 125).

(2) “The Skydiver dropped out of hyperspace an even million miles above the neutron star” (NS, p. 9).

(3) “We came to the dark star, the microcephalon and the adapted girl, and I, and our struggle began (EOS, p. 128).

But in none of the three stories is there any use of the Asimov specialty, fancy footnotes with references to some learned works of far future.

I wish to praise all three authors discussed here for displaying the blessed ability not to say the wrong things, not to do the wrong things, not to fall into traps. To wit, can you imagine any one of them putting into the stories discussed here a sentence like this, for example: “And of course our astronauts, those brave sailors of the future, still took some precautions, because people are such: they take precautions …”? A single painful idiocy like that would have burst any story to shreds. Or, a more European kind of fiasco? Try to write this half-sentence into any of the three stories, putting it somewhere near the end: “And now, to make this long fantasy shorter for you. …” No footnotes here; you will have to take my word for it—I have read such things, at times. But in “The Star,” “Neutron Star,” and “To the Dark Star,” the writers displayed the quality of mercy, blessed mercy, by not doing such things. Perhaps this constitutes more than half of success, or at least so I sometimes feel.

On the other hand, if a Kurt Vonnegut took any of these stories in his hands, fragmented it, added a big leaping dog and a few Martians who march to the sound of “rented a tent, rented a tent,” it might still be good, but in a different way, in a different genre. It might become a socially relevant satirical fantasy in science-fiction guise, and that is very far from the hardcore science fiction which the three stories are.

The three hero-narrators have much in common; yet they are very different persons. All three are males, of Earth, highly educated, and presumably relatively young. As all three speak in the first person (what the Germans very conveniently call die Ich-Erzählung—the I-narration), none is ever seen through someone else's eyes, and their physical features are not described, though in Silverberg's story there is an implication that the narrator is very short and slender. We know the name of only one of them, in the longest story (Niven’s), and not surprisingly we get to see much more of Beowulf Shaeffer's personality than of anybody else's.15

The linguistic problems are smoothly avoided; all three men speak English. If the stories were translated into German, all the characters would be speaking German, modern literary German, or French in a French translation, etc.; so that the reader who thinks of such problems will conclude that the characters are simply shown for the reader's convenience to be speaking the reader's language. This is one reasonable solution to a difficult and complex problem16 because it permits easy and untroubled reading while leaving the door open for readers to assume, if they wish, that in the remote future people will be speaking entirely differently and that what they are reading is not a transcript but only a convenient translation into a twentieth-century language.

Clarke's hero, the Jesuit, seems to be a very quiet and composed person. He is primarily concerned with the broad moral and theological implications of his discovery. That discovery he still does not share with anybody. (So, if anything should happen to him, the discovery could be buried forever; thus he increases and prolongs the danger to a piece of scientific knowledge.) Nonetheless, Clarke's excellent story, which appeared in 1955 and was widely read, probably has contributed to the development of the science-fiction genre by focusing so successfully on things other than space opera. The personality of the narrator must have been helpful.

Niven's narrator, Beowulf Shaeffer, could not be more different. He drinks, he upturns skirts, he lives high, and he spends mightily. This big spender only signs the contract because he is heavily in debt and, like Rawdon Crawley,17 must not stop spending spectacularly because that might make his creditors suspicious. But I feel that he accepts the job not just for money, but also because, at heart, he was attracted by it.18 Beowulf Shaeffer has great physical courage, and he delights in matters of professional competence; it is my impression that he loves space piloting. He feels an inner imperative to be good at his job, and in this he resembles some of Ernest Hemingway's characters (though without those irrational, destructive compulsions that some of Hemingway's heroes have about walking tall, staying taciturn, and picking unnecessary fights with men and Nature in order to die proud).

In “Neutron Star,” there is a peculiar, almost masochistic, delight in exposing the cynicism and cold materialism of the world in which the hero lives—a world in which self-interest is announced with blunt disregard for anybody else. Fraud and deceit are planned by each side as a matter of course and are anticipated by the opposite side. Beowulf Shaeffer is, most conspicuously, not an idealist. He apparently believes in nothing higher, and he tries to handle whatever the universe hurls at him strictly on a self-interest basis. This earthliness may be Niven's way of convincing his readers of the realism and credibility of the story. Besides, Niven's characters bring us joy by spectacularly tearing down the veils of hypocrisy. Borrowing a phrase of Robert Philmus, I shall call this earthliness a “rhetorical strategy … to get the reader to suspend disbelief.”19 And to borrow further from Philmus, I believe that all three stories definitely fall into the category that Philmus called “public myth” as opposed to “private myth.”20 Namely, all three stories happen in broad daylight before many witnesses. There is no possibility that in the end the hero will be alone in his knowledge that something has happened, with no one else knowing or having heard or believing, with no proof remaining. In these three stories, the whole world knows about the stellar expeditions, the whole of mankind believes that they are really taking place.

Finally, there is Silverberg's hero, who is only sketched in. The entertaining aspect is that his physical appearance can only be judged in proportion to the woman scientist Miranda, who is said to look titanically fat and to weigh (here the narrator ties himself to a specific figure) 300 pounds. Such a person would have to be short. I estimate that she is about five feet tall. I support this by reasoning that on a two-gravities planet, a tall person would not be able to function; she would soon die of heart failure and broken blood vessels. Therefore, a person genetically engineered, as Miranda is, especially for a 2-G planet would have to be very short. I hope this is how Silverberg meant it because if he did not, he has committed a serious scientific mistake. Yet, if I am estimating correctly, the narrator, who once says of Miranda that “Her enormous body reared up before me” (EOS, p. 136), must be even shorter than she is. There are also clues that he is delicately built. Perhaps the author meant all this to be only a comic aspect of the story and did not bother to work it out in proper detail. In an autobiographical article, Robert Silverberg admitted that at one time he “… mass-produced formularized stories at high speed. … I developed a deadly facility. … I withdrew, bit by bit, from my lunatic work schedule: having written better than a million and a half words for publication in 1965, I barely exceeded a million in 1966, and have never been anywhere near that insane level of productivity since.”21 If he wrote “To the Dark Star” in 1968, perhaps he was more careful by then and wanted his hero to be so small.

Psychologically, both humans in “To the Dark Star” are sour types, as the unnecessary ugliness between them shows. They do not seem at all awed by the grandness of space flight as such or of their particular space flight, not in the sense of becoming dignified and respectful about their great mission. This contrasts very sharply with the atmosphere aboard Clarke's ship, where all people seem dignified, friendly, peaceful, and elevated.

Only in Silverberg's story is there sex. Science-fiction criticism today demands a normalization of science fiction in this respect. For instance, critics Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin acknowledge sex as a “legitimate aspect of science fiction” and even deplore that “science fiction has been a bit belated in according sexual relations their due.”22 This opinion illustrates the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times. In “To the Dark Star,” Miranda, the lady scientist, often walks the corridors naked, maybe with good intentions, but the narrator, immersed in hatred, finds her nudity repugnant, not sexy. This, naturally, contributes to the comical side of the story. Here is the sexiest passage, one that would be totally unacceptable to editors like Hugo Gernsback or to John W. Campbell before 1950:

She devoted her energies to an immature attempt to trouble me. Lately she took to walking around the ship in the nude, I suspect trying to stir some spark of sexual feeling in me that she could douse with a blunt, mocking refusal. The trouble was that I could feel no desire whatever for a grotesque adapted creature like Miranda, a mound of muscle and bone twice my size. The sight of her massive udders and monumental buttocks stirred nothing in me but disgust. (EOS, pp. 132-33)

In Clarke's story, there is absolutely no mention of anything base in the monastic monologue; no mention of any woman on board the ship or any women anywhere; no mention of any females among the thousands of pictures and sculptures that the aliens had left; no reference to any little girls in the one described picture of alien children; no female moths anywhere in the museum; absolutely no creature unclean.

Niven's hero, Beowulf Shaeffer, has sex much on his mind, but not in this story. In the “Neutron Star” there are repeated references to a lady astronaut, Sonya Laskin, who died with her husband in the initial disaster, the disaster that necessitated Shaeffer's trip. There are two references to a female nurse (p. 27) and also a reference to an alien voice exciting to Shaeffer, like that of “a lovely woman” (p. 11). That is all. By comparison, Silverberg's story is by far the most sex-oriented of the three.

As David Larson said, “Most unfriendly critics of … science fiction finally rest their cases on extra-literary grounds.”23 These three stories certainly could be attacked on extra-literary grounds. None of them is “relevant” in the sense of commenting upon the twentieth-century world and advising the readers how to cope with their real problems today, and if any such crude utilitarian demand is accepted as a standard of literary value, if such “relevance” is the differentia specifica of the mainstream, then these three stories must be confined to the science-fiction ghetto. Yet, at least two have underlying philosophical meanings and attitudes. Clarke's story is rather complex in this respect, with two world views, theological and atheistic, being argued side by side in an attempt to explain a tragedy. Niven's is a brightly optimistic story because it postulates a universe governed by reason and logic, an understandable, graspable, controllable universe, one in which a man can struggle and achieve. (It is good reading for young people.) How far it is from the sadness of an Albert Camus and his myth of Sisyphus! Beowulf Shaeffer, the space pilot, may have heard of the Greek legend of Sisyphus, but he himself is no Sisyphus; he does not think that all human effort is basically in vain. He has never heard of Sartre and would only be amused if someone tried to persuade him that his existence is without “essence.” “Neutron Star” ends triumphantly, the success is complete, there is rejoicing, almost cheering. But then, for precisely these reasons, the story might be attacked as puerile, shallow, and naïve.

It might seem natural to conclude by rating the stories—which is the best, which the second-best, and in what way and to what degree—but I will do no such thing. I only hope that their similarities allow their important differences to be seen more prominently.


  1. The Best of Arthur C. Clarke, 1937–1971 (London: Sphere Book, 1975), pp. 125-32. All further references to Clarke's story are based on this edition. Citations in the text are coded BAC.

  2. First published in Worlds of If magazine, October, 1966. However, all references here are based on Larry Niven, Neutron Star (New York: Ballantine, 1976), pp. 9-28. This is a collection of stories, a book within a tetralogy. Citations in the text are coded NS.

  3. At least the copyright indicates 1968. All references are based on Robert Silverberg, Earth's Other Shadow (New York: New American Library, 1973), pp. 128-39. Citations in the text are coded EOS.

  4. “Contents” may be the wrong word to use in literary criticism because it might imply that the work itself is only a vessel for something else, separable and distinct, a “contents.”

  5. Eleven miles, Niven's narrator says, and if he meant the old land miles of 1,609 meters, it computes to 18 kays. But if he meant English miles of 1,523 meters, it is 16.7 kays, and if he meant geographical miles—and who can tell?—then it is 20.4 kilometers.

  6. Niven's universe, however, is worked out in greater detail. He plotted the history of it in detail (like Heinlein who, decades ago, constructed his future history of the Earth). Niven marginally linked his universe to the Star Trek universe through the cartoon episode The Slaver Weapon which he wrote.

  7. Perhaps I should say, of non-Earth humans.

  8. Clarke's story fits in well with certain of David Ketterer's ideas about apocalyptic aspects of science fiction; though he speaks of “an epistemological or philosophical apocalypse,” while in “The Star,” indeed, “a new world destroys an old world” quite literally. See David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old (New York: Doubleday, 1974), p. 77.

  9. For instance by Silverberg's superb story “Passengers,” which is a genuine masterpiece and, in my opinion, stands side by side with Franz Kafka's much acclaimed 1916 piece “Transformation” (“Die Verwandlung”).

  10. From Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (New York: Dell; eleventh printing, n.d.), pp. 19, 21, 22, 23, et passim.

  11. Niven's hero reports as soon as he is rescued and, in the hospital, is visited by his employer.

  12. Star Trek is inclined to this all-the-eggs-in-one-starship attitude, and also to the see-risk-will-plunge attitude. In many episodes, Captain Kirk learns of something vastly important, and it is obvious that he ought to retreat a little, have a long talk with his Admiralty, and then act—but no, he wants to first plunge into desperate battles.

  13. Harry Harrison said it, in Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss, ed., The Year's Best SF No. 7 (London: Sphere Books, 1975), p. 119.

  14. Harry P. Kroitor, “The Special Demands of Point of View in Science Fiction,” Extrapolation (May, 1976), p. 154.

  15. But it is difficult for me to separate what one can learn about Beowulf Shaeffer from this one story, and what comes from those other stories in which he appears, such as “At the Core,” “Flatlander,” “Grendel,” etc. These can be found in Niven, Neutron Star.

  16. One of the works about the linguistic problems in science fiction is Myra Jean Barnes, Linguistics and Languages in Science Fiction-Fantasy (New York: Arno Press, 1975).

  17. A character in Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

  18. This despite the fact that he schemed to break the contract and run away with his employer's excellent and fast ship.

  19. Robert M. Philmus, Into the Unknown, the Evolution of Science Fiction from Francis Godwin to H. G. Wells (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1970), p. vii.

  20. Philmus, pp. 33-35.

  21. Robert Silverberg, “Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal,” an autobiographical article in Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, ed., Hell's Cartographers, Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson Publishers, 1975), pp. 19, 20, 33.

  22. Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin, Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 187.

  23. David M. Larson, “Science Fiction, the Novel, and the Continuity of Condemnation,” Journal of General Education (Spring, 1976), pp. 63-74, 71.

Thomas D. Clareson (essay date August 1980)

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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 of science fiction.1

I imagine that many of us have recently returned from Majipoor, and I will wager that few of us will quickly forget the rich diversity of landscapes and cultures of that immense planet which Silverberg created in what has been called, variously, his epic novel and his tour-de-force. Nor, I'm sure, am I alone in being highly pleased that Silverberg has ended his five-year silence, although there may be fewer who enjoy the manner in which he ended it: that is, with a novel like Lord Valentine's Castle. It is almost certain to be a Nebula Award nominee, and although a part of me hopes that Fred Pohl will make it three out of four in terms of his last novels, that desire retreats before my wish that Silverberg receive the Nebula. Undoubtedly it will also be nominated for various other awards by academe and by fandom. But one question bothers me at this point: will it win as the finest science fiction of its year—or the finest fantasy?

Whose castle stands beyond the Labyrinth of Glayge Valley on the stratospheric heights of Castle Mount? One of the accomplishments that Silverberg has achieved in this major work is that he forces us once more to question all our definitions as well as our criteria for sharply distinguishing science fiction from fantasy. Much of the science fiction paraphernalia is there. Some 14,000 years ago colonists came from old Earth (p. 292) to find the Metamorphs, the so-called Shapechangers, who are now “archaeological relicts, survivors from the era when there were no humans here, nor Skandars nor Vroons nor Ghayrogs …” (p. 161). To this vast world came many races as settlers, “intruders, ultimately conquerors.” But inasmuch as Majipoor lies in the backwaters of its galaxy rather than upon main trade routes, it has been left to itself. In fact, one may regard it as a barbaric world whose inhabitants have fallen from the heights of civilization (a theme which calls up echoes of Silverberg's Nightwings). Only in the final struggle for Castle Mount does the reader learn that the machines of the ancients—weather machines—“create an eternal springtime” atop the mountain (pp. 399, 421).

Valentine himself represents the use of one of science fiction's oldest conventions: the protagonist whose enemies have thrust/imprisoned his mind in a different body in their effort to strip him of his power. (Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury employed a variation of this device in “Lorelei of the Red Mist” in Planet Stories in 1946.) In the lovely Carabella, Silverberg has introduced Valentine's companion in one of the less graphic love affairs that he has portrayed—and that in itself also changes the tone which readers became used to in such of his novels as Dying Inside. And finally, his humor will not be denied: certainly Lisamon Hultin, “who hires as bodyguard and warrior” (p. 132) must be one of the most hilariously comic (and loyal) Amazons to grace any science fiction tale.

Yet given this science fiction skeleton, Lord Valentine's Castle proceeds to ignore the more obvious, possibly shopworn possibilities in favor of adventure. In a far cry from most of Silverberg's last protagonists, as well as the majority of those in fiction receiving critical approval, Valentine declares “… let it not be said of Lord Valentine that he regained his throne with magnificent heroism and then ruled feebly and aimlessly for fifty years” (p. 330). Early in the novel, after one of the nightmares visited upon Valentine by the King of Dreams, Carabella salutes him as Lord Coronal of Majipoor (p. 94), and he immediately accepts that identity. In short, the novel becomes a quest. Valentine can be identified as a traditional hero, and he can also be interpreted as a personification of the lost heir—amnesiac or not—without which the mainstream of British fiction could not have survived, perhaps even in this century.

Lord Valentine's Castle recounts an epic quest, as does so much science fiction and fantasy. Significantly—and the pattern belongs to the quest—the novel is not political, nor does it either foresee or advocate tremedous changes in social order. Valentine does at times ponder the problem of government and authority (pp. 154-55), but in doing so he calls to mind Beowulf and Arthur and Shakespeare's Henry V, who meditate upon the qualities possessed by the perfect king. The quest permits an episodic, if not picaresque, structure, which takes its readers upon a series of adventures that evoke endless literary echoes. For example, Valentine and his companions become pilgrims as they seek The Isle of Dreams, where the Lady of the Isle acknowledges Valentine as her son and the true Coronal of Majipoor. The very names call up Arthurian legend. The journey down the River Steiche may be an escape from the province of the Metamorphs rather than a Conradian journey into the horrors of any jungles, but the reader recalls Silverberg's earlier use of Conrad. That the tone differs radically from those earlier works is illustrated, for example, by the wreck of the rafts and the separation of the characters—all finished within a chapter so that Silverberg may move on to other matters. Surely one of the most comic portions of the narrative, one showing Silverberg's skill in adapting literary materials to his own ends, occurs when the companions set sail abroad Gorzval's ill-fated ship, Brangalyn; they will be taken along as passengers, but their presence is not to interfere with the hunting of sea-dragons, the largest beast upon the planet. When Lord Kinniken's dragon rams the ship, sinking it, who does not think of Moby Dick? And it is at that precise point when Silverberg will assert his own individuality, for few scenes can parody heroic adventure (and thus in this instance parody one's own deliberate, carefully manipulated actions) more effectively than that in which Valentine and Lisamon Hultin, swallowed by the dragon—one almost said whale—cut their way to freedom through the creature's living flesh, even as it replaces itself.

In his review of the novel,2 Algis Budrys cites Silverberg's use of in-jokes and his borrowing of incidents “from mythologies obscure to western audiences …” He continues by saying that “What comes through as a result of all this is a sense of Silverberg's wittiness as well as his intelligence: the book has charm, outweighing all other considerations. It operates on an intellectual plane of more than ordinary elevation, at the same time that it entertains, entertains, entertains.” His most telling point comes, however, when he says of the novel that “what legitimizes it as a creation in itself is the world in which this story takes place—huge Majipoor, planet of vast distances, vast populations, and, most important, plenty of room for a wandering protagonist to encounter richly imagined outre situation after exotic situation.” That is good for starters, but one may go a step farther. Through his rich accumulation of detail, Silverberg has created a complex panorama of life that is at least as vivid and memorable—however different it may be—as Herbert's Dune.

The quest is essentially a static, mythic form. One is attracted to it both because of the values it presents and because of the fulfillment it promises—not because of the reforms and changes that it demands. It is a tale of adventure. Before her death, writing in 1974, Leigh Brackett remarked, “The tale of adventure—of great courage and daring, of battle against the forces of darkness and unknown—has been with the human race since it learned to talk. It began as part of the primitive survival technique, interwoven with magic and ritual, to explain and propitiate the vast forces of nature with which man could not cope in any other fashion. The tales grew into religions. They became myth and legend. They became the Mabinogion and the Ulster Cycle and the Voluspa. They became Arthur and Robin Hood, and Tarzan of the Apes.” She was speaking of the so-called space opera as she added, “[it] is the folk-tale, the hero-tale of our particular niche in history.”3

I have spoken of no political or literary theory, or no rigid definition of science fiction, and I do not intend to do so. But I must ask whether or not we have come together at a time in history when disappointment—yes, alienation and estrangement, if one must use those clichéd terms—has so blinded us that, at best, we can see only myopically—only politically, even when we discuss matters of literary theory and form? Whatever else it does, Lord Valentine's Castle insists that we re-examine the development of modern science fiction over the past four or five generations. Perhaps we will not see a jungle; instead, perhaps, we will glimpse the intricate weaving of many fabrics into a far more complex tapestry than any single interpretation can imagine. It is quite possible that like that proverbial student who wants to know only of me, now, we have lost a sense of historical perspective. Worse, perhaps even in literary ctiticism, we have forgotten the concept of multiplicity.

That is why I ask, “Whose castle?” Science fiction's or fantasy's? The question itself may become irrelevant when one is caught up in the magic of Valentine's quest for Castle Mount, Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail, or Ulysses' quest for that home island where Penelope awaits him.

Whose castle?


  1. This article was presented at the SFRA meeting at Wagner College, June 18, 1980, at the panel by recipients of the Pilgrim Award. The page references are to the volume of uncorrected proofs of the novel released early in 1980.

  2. In Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1980, pp. 24-25.

  3. In The Best of Planet Stories, No. 1 (1974), p. 2. (Ballantine Books, 1974).

Further Reading

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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. 13, 91, and 104.

John Dean (essay date September 1980)

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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 intensity with his left hand that his veins and arteries are bulging out in painful detail all the way up to his shoulder blades. Lower down in the engraving we see his right leg, slightly elevated and swollen to twice its normal size—especially in the calf and in the foot which sustains the vengeful wound of Chryse's sacred serpent.

Philoctetes' festering wound is ringed by a swarm of flies. Some of the flies nip at the infected flesh. Others hover over his leg in greedy anticipation while the sick hero vainly tries to brush them away with his right hand. As if these problems were not bad enough, a human predator is about to attack Philoctetes. For behind him on an overhanging rock is Odysseus, eyeing the suffering man's bow and no doubt scheming how to steal away both the bow and Philoctetes in order to secure the downfall of Troy.1

Thus this sard intaglio affords us an excellent incapsulation of the Philoctetes myth: the story of a constantly ill man who maintains his hold on life, who—after undergoing the sustained agony of psychological alienation and physical debilitation—will be drawn back into an active life.

Over the ages the Philoctetes myth has been expressed by many writers. Among these have been Homer, the author of the Kypria,2 Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Ovid, François de Fenélon, André Gide and Robert Silverberg.3 Few versions of the Philoctetes myth are both as complementary in thematic content and yet as divergent in style as Sophocles' Philoctetes (409/8 B.C.) and Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze (1969). One is a masterpiece of Greek classical tragedy, the other is an excellent modern American work of science fiction. Sophocles' version ends by reintegrating Philoctetes among his own kind. Silverberg's version argues that reintegration for a man of Philoctetes' sensitivity and experience is only possible after an extended period of contemplative isolation. Both Philoctetes and The Man in the Maze are forceful, provocative pieces which are mutually enriched when compared—though they have yet to be analyzed in comparison with each other by classical, comparativist, or American literature scholars.4

Sophocles' Philoctetes is that odd creation in Greek drama: a tragedy with a happy ending. The play begins as the heroic young prince Neoptolemus, Achilleus' son, is duped into accepting Odysseus' pragmatic, vainglorious argument that he should “ensnare / the soul of Philoctetes with … words”5 for the sake of the common good and because the “prize of victory is pleasant to win” (P., 81). Eager to obey his elders, Neoptolemus cooperates and tricks the Heraklean bow away from Philoctetes. After nine years of suffering on Lemnos this is more than Philoctetes can bear and he becomes “a man crazy with storms of sorrow” (P., 1194).

Neoptolemus suddenly changes his mind and returns the magical bow to Philoctetes. Odysseus reappears, confronts Philoctetes, and backs down before him in a scene of cowardly retreat. Philoctetes then falls into a misanthropic, bilious frenzy. Neoptolemus tries to convince him that not only is life worth living, but life is especially worthwhile when acted out in heroic terms. Then, just when Neoptolemus is about to give in to Philoctetes' desire to return back home, an epiphany of Herakles appears and coerces Philoctetes to return to the battle at Troy. Philoctetes subsequently recovers his health, kills Paris, and regains his place as one of the great heroes of the Trojan War.

In both his misfortune and his good fortune Sophocles' Philoctetes is a victim of circumstances and the inexplicable will of heaven. This is the key to his special appeal for modern readers: he suffers without reason, without justifiable cause—yet he endures and he overcomes his suffering. He is that particular type of twentieth century hero which we see as a dominant figure in the works of writers as widely divergent as Saul Bellow, James Dickey, Alexander Solzhenitysn, Ilona Karmel, Albert Camus, William Golding, Hannah Arendt, Bernard Malamud and Ernest Hemingway. The character of Philoctetes as crafted by Sophocles is a survivor figure: “a practical image of the self … [a] prospective carrier of life and hope … a type of moral identity commensurate with dark ages.”6

In our age commensurate with the “inexorable agonies and contradictions of super-states founded upon the always insoluble contradictions of injustice,”7 Philoctetes is a fellow citizen of an oppressive modern world. He is kin to a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp or a Soviet work camp. Philoctetes' survival “is an act of refusal and resistance,”8 a victory “against the monolith of destruction.”9 “Sir,” argues the inexperienced Neoptolemus to Philoctetes, “learn not to be defiant in misfortune” (P., 1387). To which Philoctetes angrily replies: “I know you will ruin me by pleading to me in this way.”10

In more localized terms Philoctetes' prolonged illness symbolically personifies the sufferings of the Greek tribes gathered below the walls of Troy. His illness on Lemnos parallels their daily give-and-take of slaughter, the Pyrrhic victory of their ten year, man-killing siege. Like Philoctetes, the Greeks endure their sufferings in the hopes of better times to come—contrary to what they experience every day.

On yet another level relating to the war at Troy “Philoctetes … signifies … the punishment which pursues sin as the shadow follows the body.”11 The Greek kings broke certain taboos in their undertakings against Troy, such as Agamemnon's infanticide of Iphigeneia, and the gods would not let these crimes pass without retribution. The gods exact an especially Philoctetean kind of suffering upon Iliadic warriors such as Achilleus and Ajax. This is shown in Achilleus enduring agony that “a man's life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted / nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth's barrier.”12 The same sentiment appears in the First Semichorus' comment in Sophocles' Ajax directly after Ajax's suicide: “Toil breeds toil upon toil.”13 Philoctetean suffering is a “sterility of the spirit,”14 a Hamletesque realization that the noble dust of Alexander can stop a bung-hold, that life can be reduced to loneliness, futility and death.

Yet, in defiance of this suffering, the tensions of life are maintained by the Greek tribes and by Philoctetes. Philoctetes will not relinquish his Heraklean bow. After all, his name means the “lover of the possession.”15 He struggles to keep his last hold on potency, on his weapon which was once strong enough to kill the man-eating Stymphallian birds and to frighten the great Sun-God Helios himself. Philoctetes endures great suffering, but he can not endure being without any means of combative expression. Likewise with the Greeks fighting at Troy: they will endure all manner of hellish experiences as long as they can continue their war.

Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze fights the same thematic battle on different terms. The three main characters duplicate Odysseus (Charles Boardman), Neoptolemus (Edward Rawlins), and Philoctetes (Richard Muller). The island of Lemnos is matched by the planet of Lemnos, “one of the abandoned ancient planets of an unknown ancient race.”16 The main characters belong to an upper-class elite. Richard Muller (Silverberg's Philoctetes, survivor figure) is incapacitated not by a festering snake-wound in his foot but by a sickness of spirit, really an uncontrollable telepathic ability to communicate and expose the innermost workings of his heart, mind and soul. He received this psychic wound while serving as humanity's first envoy to an alien race, the Hydrans. They operated on his mind and left the wound open. “It was not true telepathy that the Hydrans had given him … What came forth was this gush of self; a torrent of raw despair … all the sewage of a soul … [his] goddamn soul leaking into the air” (TMITM, p. 113, 108).

Like Philoctetes' wound, Richard Muller's emanating soul gives off an unbearable sensation. “It's like stepping into a bath of acid … You can get used to it, but you never like it” (TMITM, p. 18). As with Philoctetes, Richard Muller is needed to save his own kind. Humanity is threatened by a second alien race which can only be restrained from consuming mankind if mankind can prove “that we feel, that we sense, that we are something other than clever machines” (TMITM, p. 154). Or, as the young Edward Rawlins summarizes the situation for Richard Muller: “if we could persuade them that we have … souls—they might leave us alone” (TMITM, p. 167). Richard Muller is the nauseating proof of mankind's spiritual capacity, and, if used correctly, the reason why mankind should be spared the hideous fate of becoming “radio-controlled robots” (TMITM, p. 165) at the mercy of “monstrous masses of glossy pink protoplasm” (TMITM, p. 166).

Placing the Philoctetes myth in a science fiction context allows Silverberg to reinvigorate the Sophoclean sense of wonder at the insoluble mysteries of the universe. While Philoctetes is bracketed by the goddess Chryses and the god Herakles, The Man in the Maze is bracketed by the alien Hydrans and the alien Radio Beings. Silverberg's aliens are effectively divine, especially the Radio Beings who are omnipotent, all-knowing and capable of “controlling [their] flunkeys from eighty light-years away” (TMITM, p. 165). It must be stressed here that Silverberg is writing a highly sophisticated style of science fiction, for an audience of which approximately seventy-five per cent have unusually high attainments in formal education.17 Silverberg's reinvigoration of Sophoclean wonder is successful because of his ability to adapt science fiction to Greek classicism, his audience demands, and the inherent quality of his own writings.

Silverberg also manages to maintain in The Man in the Maze a Sophoclean sense of cosmic dissatisfaction. Richard Muller is victimized by the natural conditions of existence. As he says to Edward Rawlins: “You hate me because you learn things about your own soul by getting near me. And I hate you because you must draw back from me. What I am, you see, is a plague carrier, and the plague I carry is the truth” (TMITM, p. 119). Yet Richard Muller endures his suffering and he eventually achieves, as he admits in a bittersweet tone: “A happy ending to my doleful story” (TMITM, p. 188). But why his life story concludes positively is finally beyond explanation. Richard Muller triumphs in spite of the surrounding universe. “There is wonder, indeed / … how in his loneliness / … he kept hold at all / on a life so full of tears” (P., 86-87; 89-90).

Silverberg counterbalances this morbid, heroic theme drawn from Sophocles with the game-like aspect of the Lemnos maze. On one level The Man in the Maze is an extremely playful book. This element is especially evident in chapters one through six which create the effect of a literary pinball game of traps, death alleys and extra-ball lanes as the robot drones and the various humans struggle through the maze. The Man in the Maze is certainly a serious work of literature, but it also succeeds because it is occasionally light-spirited and amusing.

After the adaptation of the Philoctetes myth to a science fiction context the most important distinction between Philoctetes and The Man in the Maze is that Silverberg grafted on to the Philoctetes myth the theme of the city. This is the kind of science fiction city which Clifford D. Simak used in his novel City (1952) and James Blish used in his Cities in Flight (1952-1962) quartet. In The Man in the Maze the city is used as a psychic metaphor for man. The character of a city, with all its twistings and turnings, its patterns of architecture, its centering of social life and culture, is used as perfect mirror image for man's own nature.

In his nine years of isolation on the planet of Lemnos Richard Muller lived in “a city designed to last a million years” (TMITM, p. 25): the maze of Lemnos, a tricky fortress swarming with deadly traps, a “mindless, deathless, diabolical city” (TMITM, p. 27) which approximates Philoctetes' Sophoclean cave on the island of Lemnos. Richard Muller is in perfect harmony with his demanding surroundings since he flourishes only in a “time of testing” (TMITM, 190). Moreover his life has always been dedicated to decoding alien symmetries, and so he appropriately decides to end his life within the Lemnos maze.

By creating this harmony between the protagonist and his environment, Silverberg is suggesting that the intricacy of man's mind and soul, personified by Richard Muller, finds its perfect mirror image in a literal urban maze. The labyrinth of Lemnos is as deadly, dark, alien and potentially unfathomable as man's own subconsciousness. The essential philosophy of this urban monument is to “kill the stranger” (TMITM, p. 109). It represents the cultural paranoia upon which man's nature is founded: which first led men to build cities as protection against their fellow mankind, which continues to rebound in self-hatred and misanthropy.

The city of Lemnos also functions as an initiation maze for the young Edward Rawlins. Rawlins is a much deeper character than his equivalent in Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, a difference which Silverberg accomplishes by making Rawlins undergo a far greater variety of tests in the Lemnos maze than Neoptolemus undergoes on the island of Lemnos. Neoptolemus switches too quickly from being a full-fledged supporter of Odysseus and the credo that “it is the tongue that wins and not the deed” (P., 99) to being an all-out supporter of Philoctetes. His change is not wholly credible. Edward Rawlins changes slowly, unevenly and with long, painful insights into his moral dilemma. He even considers suicide and wonders if the “only way to avoid … moral ambiguities … [is] to die in the maze” (TMITM, p. 73). Fortunately, he finds his way safely both to the inner sanctuary of the maze where Richard Muller resides and to the center of his individual conscience dominated by an ethos of justice.

The labyrinth metaphor developed by Silverberg heightens as well the character of Charles Boardman, the Odysseus figure. Boardman is a polútropos Odysseus, the wily and unscrupulous trickster. Yet he is paradoxically divided between working for a higher good, “the fate of galaxies … billions yet unborn” (TMITM, p. 97), and his own self-aggrandizement by succeeding in the most important assignment of his career. Boardman is preeminently the diplomat, the politician. As with the raw, inexperienced Rawlins, so with Charles Boardman: his name betrays his inner character. He belongs to the Board of Directors, he is a board-man, an establishmentarian, a type of sly, overweight Henry Kissinger who “easily dominated any group at a conference table” (TMITM, p. 13). The maze of Lemnos matches Charles Boardman's character as a metaphor for his foxiness, a man who wears “a facade of shrewdness to hide shrewdness” (TMITM, p. 142), who builds a maze of trickery, lies and compromises in order to extract Richard Muller from his cave.

In sum, the supreme achievement of Sophocles' Philoctetes and Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze is their painfully invigorating examples of mankind's paradoxical ability to be degraded and ennobled at the same time. The true sense of tragedy in both works is the “deeper insight that it is not his individual sins that the hero atones for, but original sin, i.e., the crime of existence itself.”18 Man may struggle through the sufferings which flesh is heir to even though his deepest level offers him:

nothing more than an awareness of the punishments the universe devises for its inhabitants … the missed chances, the failed loves, the hasty words, the unfair griefs, the hungers, the greeds, the lusts, the knife of envy, the acid of frustration, the fang of time, the death of small insects in winter … aging, loss, impotence, fury, helplessness, loneliness, desolation, self-contempt, … madness … a silent shriek of cosmic anger. (TMITM, p. 113).


  1. A photo of a cast taken from this sard intaglio (M.F.A., Francis Bartlett Collection 13.237) can be found in The Trojan War in Greek Art, eds. M. Comstock, A Graves, et al. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Press, n.d.), p. 39, illus. No. 36A “Odysseus Finds the Wounded Philoktetes on Lemnos.”

  2. Variously ascribed to Homer, Stasinos & Hegesias. See: H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Literature (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1960), p. 48.

  3. For all but the Silverberg version, useful summaries of these different variants can be found in H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Literature, op. cit., & W. B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1968; 2nd edn.).

  4. There is, of course, a wide range of material on Sophocles' Philoctetes, most useful of which are: W. J. Oates, ed., From Sophocles to Picasso (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1962); Gilberte Ronnet, Sophocle, poète tragique (Paris: Boccard, 1969); J. C. Opstelten, Sophocles & Greek Pessimism, trans. J. A. Rose (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publ. Co., 1952); C. H. Whitman, Sophocles. A Study of Heroic Humanism (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 195k).

    While the critical material on Robert Silverberg includes his own reflections on writing in Hell's Cartographers, eds. B. W. Aldiss & H. Harrison (London: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1975; Orbit pb. rpt., 1976); R. Silverberg, ed. The Mirror of Infinity: A Critics Anthology (New York: Harper & Row, 1970); “Silverberg (Robert)” in Encyclopédie de L’Utopie des Voyages Extraordinaires et de la Science Fiction (Lausanne: Editions L’Age d’Homme S.A., 1972); Stella Nova: The Contemporary Science Fiction Authors, ed. R. Reginald (Los Angeles: Unicorn & Sun, 1970; rpt. 1975, New York: Arno Press).

  5. Unless otherwise noted all quotes from Sophocles' Philoctetes are from: The Complete Greek Tragedies, Sophocles II, ed. D. Grene & R. Lattimore (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967), pp. 202-264. The Greek text used: F. Storr, ed., ΦΙΛΟΚΤΗΤΗΣ in Sophocles, Vol. II (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1913; rpt., 1967), pp. 364-493. To economize on footnoting all further references to Philoctetes will be included in the text, referred to as P., followed by the line number in the Grene & Lattimore text.

  6. Terrence Des Pres, “The Survivor” in Encounter, Vol. XXXVII, Sept. 1971, pp. 3-19, above quote, p. 3.

  7. Norman Mailer, “The White Negro” in Dissent, Summer 1957, rpt. in Protest, ed. G. Feldman & M. Gartenberg (London: Panther, 1959), pp. 288-306, above quote, p. 289.

  8. T. D. Pres, “The Survivor,” op.cit., p. 10.

  9. loc. cit.

  10. This seems to me a more effective translation of the Greek [text …] than Grene's “You will ruin me, I know it by your words” (P., 1388).

  11. J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971; 2nd edn.), p. 168.

  12. Homer, The Iliad, trans. R. Lattimore (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951; rpt. 1967), p. 209, Il., IX, 408-409.

  13. Sophocles, Ajax,, trans. J. Moore in Sophocles II, ed. D. Grene & R. Lattimore, op. cit., pp. 1-66, above quote p. 43, l. 867.

  14. J. E. Cirlot, loc. cit.

  15. C. Kerényi, The Heroes of the Greeks (New York: Grove Press, 1962; rpt. Thames & Hudson, 1959 edn.). p. 343.

  16. All quotes from The Man in the Maze refer to Robert Silverberg, The Man in the Maze (London: Tandem, 1977; rpt. Sidewich & Jackson 1969 edn.). To economize on footnoting all further references to The Man in the Maze will be included in the text, referred to as TMITM, followed by page no. in Tandem text.

  17. For more on the statistical breakdown of modern science fiction readership see: A. I. Berger, “Science-Fiction Fans in Socio-Economic Perspective: Factors in the Social Consciousness of a Genre” in Science-Fiction Studies, No. 13, Vol. 4, Part 3, Nov. 1977, pp. 232-246, esp. pp. 236-237.

  18. Arthur Schopenhauer as quoted by Raymond Williams in Modern Tragedy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1969), p. 37.

Andrew Gordon (essay date Winter 1982)

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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 modern literary technique.”1 This is precisely what Silverberg achieves in his short story, “In Entropy's Jaws” (1971).2 Through a complex narrative structure of flashbacks and flashforwards, he gives us a novel time travel story and a fresh view of the Einsteinian notion of the relativity or randomness of time. “In Entropy's Jaws” is an example of what science fiction can do at its best: it is at once a carefully crafted, dramatic tale in which the structure helps convey the themes; a sophisticated work aware of the conventions of both science fiction and modern “mainstream” literature; and a clever extrapolation from current ideas about information theory, entropy, and the human perception of time. Silverberg weaves together the elements of his story to create a twentieth-century myth about the shift from a Newtonian universe to an Einsteinian space-time continuum.

This is by no means to claim that “In Entropy's Jaws” is a perfect work. Silverberg tries to do perhaps too much, encompassing the materials of a heroic epic in a forty-page story, and his ending is overly ambiguous. Nevertheless, the ambitious attempt extends both Silverberg's range and the scope of what a science fiction story can do; it is worth examining in detail how Silverberg accomplishes his ends in “Entropy.” The short story has been Silverberg's testing ground, where he has pushed the form to the limits of experimentation. As the critic Russell Letson notes, “The novels are formally, if not thematically, closer to traditional science fiction models: there is rarely any doubt about whether an experience is real or not, and never the degree of structural disruption found in the shorter pieces.”3 However, before looking at the “structural disruption” Silverberg achieves in “Entropy,” it would be useful to set his achievement in perspective by examining briefly what time travel has meant in the history of science fiction in general, and in the career of Robert Silverberg in particular.

In Silverberg's view, “The only workable time machine ever invented is the time travel story. … Of all the basic themes of science fiction, I think that voyaging in time is the most fundamental, the closest to the heart of the matter. … The essential science-fiction thing for me is to reveal the future. That was what drew me to science fiction. … Science fiction became my time machine.”4

Silverberg is correct in his assessment of the fundamental importance of the time travel story to science fiction; the rise of science fiction as a genre is tied to changing modern concepts of the nature of time. The tale of a voyage through time became popular in America and England in the late nineteenth century as a response to the accelerated technological development of that era. The citizens of the most highly industrialized Western nations began to feel a disjunction with the past, as though they had been hurled abruptly into the future. The altered time sense of that era is reflected in the popularity of novels about a voyage into the future, such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888), or novels about a voyage into the past, such as Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Both are studies of the effects of technological change on the social system, Bellamy's an optimistic view and Twain's a pessimistic one. H. G. Wells's classic, The Time Machine (1895), links the altered time sense directly with the changes wrought by technology; he invents the idea of a machine which transports one rapidly into the future. This is precisely what many late Victorians sensed the machine age was doing to them: displacing them in time. Ever since Wells, time travel stories have been a good index to changing twentieth-century attitudes toward the nature of time and our hopes and fears about past, present, and future, particularly as we have moved from a Newtonian conception of time to the radically new space-time continuum of Einstein.

Robert Silverberg has always been fascinated by time. He recalls reading “H. G. Wells when I was ten, most notably The Time Machine (which promised to show me all the incredible eons I would never live to know). … There was Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which also I read repeatedly. (How early my fascination with time travel emerged!)”5 From the beginning of his career up to the present, he has produced many short stories and novels of increasing sophistication concerned with time travel, including “Absolutely Inflexible” (1956), “Mugwump Four” (1959), Stepsons of Terra (1958), The Time Hoppers (1967), Hawksbill Station (1967), The Masks of Time (1968), Up the Line (1969), “In Entropy's Jaws” (1971), and “Many Mansions” (1973).

Most of these stories show a fundamental ambivalence toward time travel: it is both a liberating experience and a potential trap. “Mugwump Four,” for example, begins as a comedy, with the hero accidentally stumbling on a conspiracy of mutants who shunt him forward in time. By the story's grim conclusion, however, he finds himself trapped in an endlessly repeating time loop: “Inwardly Al wanted to scream. No scream would come. In this continuum, the past (his future) was immutable. He was caught on the track, and there was no escape. None whatever. And, he realizes glumly, there never would be.”6 The protagonist of “Absolutely Inflexible” also is imprisoned by means of a time loop. in Hawksbill Station, the metaphor of time travel as imprisonment becomes literal: the station is a penal colony situated in prehistoric times. And Up the Line, like “Mugwump Four,” begins as comedy and ends as grim tragedy: Jud Elliott at first finds time travel an enjoyable experience, but when he meddles too much with time paradox, he eliminates himself.

“In Entropy's Jaws” manifests the same ambivalence about the possibilities of time. The hero, John Skein, at first oscillates wildly in time, out of control and “unstuck in time” much like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, though by no means as passive about his situation as Pilgrim. In the end, Skein has apparently overcome his disability and become master of space and time. Or has he? The wording of the closing paragraph makes the meaning ambiguous, as if Skein is trapped in another of Silverberg's time loops: “He feels the sudden swooping sensations of incipient temporal fugue. Before he can intervene to regain control, he swings off into darkness. … Now he understands. The circuit is closed; the knot is tied; the identity loop is complete. He is destined to spend many years on Abbondanza VI, growing ancient and withered” (p. 504). If Skein is master of his fate, then why is he once again suffering from “temporal fugue”? And what is the word “destined” doing in there? Silverberg seems unable to decide between a universe of free will or one of determinism, and so leaves us deliberately dangling. Even though there are certain thematic continuities from an early Silverberg time travel story like “Mugwump Four” to a more recent one, the superiority of “In Entropy's Jaws” as literature is undeniable. It is the difference between a craftsmanlike, formula adventure story and a daring, experimental work of art.

The critic M. A. Goldberg distinguishes between two types of novels: in the old “novel of adventure,” time is chronological, whereas in the new “novel of inner consciousness,” all of time is available at any given moment.7 Since the growth of American science fiction was connected to the growth of pulp magazines, the literature was largely restricted for decades to the adventure story model. Consequently, we hear the complaints of such radical science fiction writers as Stanislaw Lem that, since H. G. Wells, the narrative structures of science fiction have become worn out, “frozen, fossilized paradigms.” Lem writes that “the premise of time travel stories serves frequently as a simple pretext for weaving tales of sensational, criminal, or melodramatic intrigue; this usually involves the revival and slight refurbishment of petrified plots.”8 What we are dealing with in “Mugwump Four,” then, is what Goldberg would call an “adventure novel” and Lem a “petrified plot.” “In Entropy's Jaws,” on the other hand, is akin to the “novel of inner consciousness.”

The fundamental difference between “Mugwump” and “Entropy” is a question of narrative structure. The inadequacy of most twentieth-century time travel stories (and one might even extend that to say most twentieth-century science fiction) is that they fail to follow through on their radical premises in the form of the story.9 To postulate a fundamental change in the flow of time requires a concomitant change in the sequence of time in the narration, yet most time travel fiction follows a standard linear plot progression. As the critic Gary K. Wolfe notes, “Experiments with narrative time sequence … are practically unheard of in science fiction, and yet the problems involved with time as an isolated concept are a staple of science fiction writers from Wells to Asimov.”10

The problem is that time travel stories have been trying to deal with twentieth-century conceptions of time in narrative forms borrowed from the nineteenth century.11 According to the novelist and critic Alain Robbe-Grillet in For a New Novel, most eighteenth and nineteenth-century fiction was characterized by the “systematic use of the past tense and the third person, unconditional adoption of chronological development, [and] linear plots.” In such a fiction, “everything tended to impose the image of a stable, coherent, continuous, unequivocal, entirely decipherable universe.”12 Obviously this form of fiction is inappropriate to portray a universe in which time is now perceived in the light of Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

The Newtonian universe ran on clock time. Time was considered an absolute whose flow was perpetual, unalterable, and measurable by mechanical devices. But, as Lincoln Barnett points out in The Universe and Dr. Einstein:

Einstein discarded the concept of absolute time—of a steady, unvarying, inexorable universal time flow, streaming from the infinite past to the infinite future. … Sense of time, like sense of color, is a form of perception. … And just as space is simply a possible order of material objects, so time is simply a possible order of events. … The time intervals provided by a clock or calendar are by no means absolute quantities imposed on the entire universe by divine edict. … For Relativity tells us … there is no such thing as ‘now’ independent of a system of reference.13

It was not until the late 1960s that science fiction writers began to explore fully the possibilities of time travel stories using the entire range of literary techniques for dealing with time pioneered by twentieth-century authors such as Proust, Conrad, Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf: present tense, stream-of-consciousness to indicate the disjunctions of memory and mental time; dense literary allusion to create the sense of the simultaneity of historically separated events; and abrupt shifts in point-of-view and fragmentation of narrative chronology to suggest the relativity of our interpretation of events and the disjunctive nature of time.

In the late 1960s, as science fiction moved away from the simple adventure novel, we began to get time travel stories which dealt with inner consciousness and experimented with nonlinear chronological structure. Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) was of course a breakthrough in this area: the narrative jumps with Billy Pilgrim through time and space.14 One can read this either as literal time travel or as Billy's unhinged fantasies—the free associations of a mind fleeing from a traumatic reality. Either way one reads it, the destructured narrative perfectly conveys a “Tralfamadorian” sense of time, in which moments are strung like beads without regard to past, present, or future, each moment equivalent to every other. “In Entropy's Jaws,” published two years after Vonnegut's novel, also juggles chronological sequence to convey a different perception of time. Like Billy Pilgrim, John Skein is on a quest through time and space. “Entropy” is a sort of spiritual pilgrimage with mythic undertones, similar to such other Silverberg works of the late sixties and early seventies (a period we might classify as “psychedelic” Silverberg) as Downward to the Earth (1970), A Time of Changes (1971), and The Book of Skulls (1972).

Briefly, “Entropy” is the story of Skein, a man who had reached the top of his lucrative profession as a “Communicator” able to create telepathic communion between individuals widely separated in space. Like other Silverberg heroes, such as Jud Elliott in Up the Line or David Selig in Dying Inside, Skein has everything and then must lose it in order to find himself or to learn the vanity of human wishes. Silverberg has always been very much the moralist, suggesting again and again that it does not profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul. So Skein falls. While facilitating communion between Coustakis and Nissenson, a client and a consultant with very powerful minds, Skein suffers a “burnout.” As a consequence, he loses most of his talent and begins to suffer from “time fugue,” during which he involuntarily relives past or even future experiences. One of the repeated future visions is of a remote planet on which he meets a“skull-faced man,” a guru who understands his problem and leads him to an amoeba-like creature, in a pit, who can presumably cure him. Thus Skein embarks on a lengthy pilgrimage through space to find the planet with the skull-faced man.

This synopsis, of course, does little justice to the skill and complexity with which the story is told: it opens on board a ship in space as Skein is already far into his quest, and it progresses through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards as Skein moves toward a climactic meeting with the man and the encounter with the creature on the planet Abbondanza VI. The story is primarily related in present tense, with a few shifts into past tense. As Skein shuttles from present to past to future, some sections are repeated, though in progressively abridged form, so that we begin to experience, along with Skein, the sensation of “déjà vu.” The flashes to the climactic encounter move forward a little bit each time they are repeated, until we approach the ending, when they become Skein's “present.” Thus the story generates a great deal of suspense. The skull-faced man keeps telling Skein that time is random, but we have no reason to trust him and no idea till the end what the creature in the pit will do to Skein. After Skein is cured, he goes back and edits the scene of his burnout, and then, slipping forward in time, discovers—the story's final revelation—that the skull-faced man is actually himself in old age.

Silverberg must maintain a delicate structural balance throughout the story. On the one hand, “Entropy” proposes that there is no such thing as cause and effect, that time is random. Time is not a river constantly flowing forward. “Time is an ocean, and events come drifting to us as randomly as dead animals on the waves. We filter them. We screen out what doesn't make sense and admit them to our consciousness in what seems the right sequence” (p. 476). On the other hand, he is writing a work of fiction which must be read in linear fashion in time; he must develop a plot and maintain tempo and suspense to sustain reader interest. A totally random, cause-and-effectless story would be unreadable.

Therefore Silverberg finds a compromise between total shapelessness and standard linear chronology: he scrambles the time sequence enough to allow the reader to participate in Skein's disorientation, but not so much as to baffle the reader and make him lose the thread of the story. He accomplishes this by having Skein's flashbacks and flashforwards follow a definite pattern, revealing information selectively, as it becomes necessary for the reader to know it. The oscillations in time are not as random as they appear, but contribute both to the exposition and to the maintenance of suspense. For example, once Skein has been introduced as a mystery man, on board ship for some unexplained quest, and hints are dropped as to his problem with time, the first flashback takes us to his disastrous burnout during the communion between Coustakis and Nissenson. The reader must watch along with Skein, aware but powerless to prevent the catastrophe we are told is coming. Skein returns briefly to his present on the ship, only to drop almost immediately into a vision in which he meets the skull-faced man. Thus the first two deviations from normal chronology show us dramatically the nature of Skein's disorder and establish the parameters of his journey. We move from his present (we begin “in medias res,” or in the middle of things, like the classical epic) to the point in the past where his problem began, and then to the point in the future where the solution may lie. Once Silverberg has established these markers (past, present and future), he can fill in the incidents in between, jumping back and forth in time without overly confusing his reader. Moreover, even as it oscillates into past or future, the story is gradually progressing in Skein's “present.” This technique corresponds to Conrad's “chronological looping” or “time shift” technique: establishing the main character first with a strong impression and then working backwards and forwards over his past.15

Silverberg also paces the narrative so that the fragmentation gradually increases; that is, the story concerns entropy, and its own entropy or randomness builds as we read. The first ten pages are divided into four sections, the second ten into seven, the third ten into ten, until the last ten pages shatter into sixteen separate units. The greatest degree of fragmentation occurs, appropriately, as the story nears its climax: “A tense, humid night of thunder and temporal storms. Lying alone in his oversized hotel room, five kilometers from the purple shore, Skein suffers fiercely from fugue” (p. 497). What follows is a rapid-fire series of seven flashbacks and flashforwards, each composed of brief or fragment sentences. All of them together take up less than a page; the effect is to increase the tension and the tempo of the narrative at this crucial juncture.

The fact that most of the scenes, whether past, present, or future, are written in present tense, also contributes to the message of the story. If, as the skull-faced man insists, “causality is merely an illusion … the notion that there's a consecutive series of events is nothing but a fraud” (p. 476), then the use of present tense suggests the equivalence of past, present, and future. The deliberate repetition of certain incidents, in whole or in part, adds to the message of the random nature of time.

In terms of narrative point of view, Silverberg has found another effective compromise. He uses a restricted point of view for most of the story, that of third-person, limited omniscience. Skein's is the only consciousness to which we have access, but the narrator provides us a perspective on the action. Thus the tale reflects Skein's bewilderment but distances us sufficiently from him. We avoid both the overwhelming confusion which a first-person narration would have created by plunging us on an unmediated journey into Skein's disoriented mind, and the excessive control which an omniscient narrator would have imposed.

In order to gain some of the advantages of omniscient narration without its drawbacks, Silverberg further fragments the narrative by interpolating brief parables or essays concerning time at strategic points in the narrative (Ursula Le Guin uses a similar device in the planetary myths included in The Left Hand of Darkness [1969]). These essays, which read like lectures or extracts from a textbook, give necessary supplementary information in a neutral, objective manner. They are separated from the narrative incidents and add an extra narrative “voice” which temporarily distances us from the action, providing a philosophical framework by which we may interpret an experience which would otherwise be perceived primarily in dramatic and emotional terms. Such periodic distancing suggests to the reader that idea is as significant in this story as action.

Silverberg diminishes the sense of randomness in the tale by anchoring it, just as Joyce did in Ulysses, in classical mythology. The substructure of “Entropy” is the archetypal quest motif. Skein is both a unique individual and an Everyman who must come to terms with time: Skein means “thread,” suggesting the classical Fates, who spun out destiny on a thread. Like a classical epic, such as Homer's Odyssey, the story begins in the middle of things and ranges over enormous stretches of space and time—in this case, over most of the Earth (Africa, Mexico, and Istanbul), into distant solar systems, and over decades of the hero's life. Skein even descends symbolically into Hades when he goes into the pit to commune with the alien being. His mentor, the skull-faced man, guides him like Dante's Virgil. Silverberg invokes other classical myths when he refers to “the Perseus relay booster” (p. 464), to the “Titanic lightnings” and “laughing centaurs” (p. 466) Skein supposes to be outside the spaceship, and to Skein imagining himself before his catastrophe as “Aeneas relishing a vision of unfallen Troy” (p. 467). Skein is equated with Odysseus when the ship passes through a deceleration station in space known as “Scylla” (p. 480), and the “Panama Canal” of space is a kind of Charybdis, or whirlpool: “the celestial vortex …, the maelstrom of clashing forces” (p. 465). Finally, the flashforwards serve the same purpose of foreshadowing the future as the visions granted classical heroes by the oracles.

Aside from classical mythology, the story also invokes the Bible: Skein before his fall is not only Aeneas but also “Adam looking back into Eden” (p. 467). There is even a naked Eve, here called Nilla (suggestive perhaps of nothingness?), who accompanies him into a tropical paradise. Skein gains forbidden knowledge, the knowledge of the true nature of time, and because of this he falls. Yet, Christlike, he must go apart from men, suffer, and be reborn in the end.

Midway through the story, as Skein skims through the ship's library, Silverberg works in a score of literary references which broaden the tale's range of meaning and reinforce the mythic substructure. We get a rapid montage of brief quotes from works spanning the centuries: Marlowe's Faust, Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Keats's “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,” Blake's “Tyger,” Nietzsche's Man and Superman, Yeats's “Leda and the Swan,” Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, Pound's Cantos, Eliot's The Wasteland, and Lowry's Under the Volcano, among others. Rather than explicate the meanings of each quote, let me suggest some of the purposes they serve in the story. First, many of the quotes refer directly to classical (“Chapman's Homer,” “Leda,” and Portrait), Biblical (Faust, Ulysses, and Under the Volcano), and even Hindu (The Wasteland) mythology, adding to the symbolic reverberations of “Entropy.” Second, some comment indirectly on Skein's situation, as for example the Nietzsche: “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—A rope over an abyss” (p. 481). Skein too is a “rope” (his name means “thread”) stretched over the abyss of time; by the story's end, he will become a Superman. Third, as in T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, the modernist technique of a pastiche of quotes from different centuries creates new meanings through juxtaposition. For example, consider this linkage of quotes: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Hieronymo's mad againe. Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken” (p. 481). The first two sentences evoke Kyd by way of T. S. Eliot; the last comes from Keats. The juxtaposition applies to Skein, who is afraid of madness and using bits of culture (his reading) as fragments shored against his ruins—but at the same time he is on the verge of a great breakthrough, like the astronomer finding a new planet. Finally, this collage of fragments, which is interspersed with bits of an essay on time, itself represents the process of disorganization, or entropy.

Aside from the quotes, Silverberg also includes a wide-ranging and suggestive list of authors and titles for the books Skein reads in the ship's library; it could almost serve as a bibliography for anyone researching Silverberg's reading in literature and science. Besides the abovementioned authors, the list includes Rilke, Kafka, Poe, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Jung, and Pirandello, and several authors with whom the general reader may be unfamiliar, such as Bury and Eddington. J. S. Bury was a twentieth-century historian whose study, The Idea of Progress, traced the development of the modern belief in progress. According to the skeptical Bury, progress is a myth and belief in it “an act of faith,” for the most prominent fact in the history of civilizations has been “arrest, decadence, stagnation.”16 One can see the relevance of Bury's views to a story such as “In Entropy's Jaws,” for entropy is a measure of the disintegration of systems. Silverberg certainly shows us decadence in his future civilization in such scenes as the callous slaughter of an almost-extinct breed of turtle by venal Mexican fishermen, and the greedy behavior of the tour guides in the cathedral of Haghia Sophia. The twentieth-century scientist Sir Arthur Eddington was another firm believer in entropy, as he explained in The Nature of the Physical World: “The practical measure of the random element which can increase in the universe but never decrease is called entropy. … The law that entropy always increases—the second law of thermodynamics—holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of nature.” According to Eddington, as we move into the future, randomness or entropy must always increase. He invented the terms “time's arrow” to explain this concept: “Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element, then the arrow is pointing toward the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points toward the past. … I shall use the phrase ‘time's arrow’ to express this one-way property of time.”17 Silverberg refers to the notion of “time's arrow” on four occasions in the story.

I have tried to demonstrate the sophistication of “In Entropy's Jaws” in terms of narrative structure and awareness of modern literary tradition; moreover, as its title indicates, it is unmistakably a science fiction. For the remainder of the essay, I will explicate some of the scientific knowledge from which Silverberg extrapolates: first of all, entropy and information theory and their relation to time; next, the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, “future shock,” and temporal lobe epilepsy on the consciousness of time; and finally, the nature of our unconscious perception of time. Silverberg synthesizes all of these ideas in his story. The fact that Silverberg mixes together in Skein's booklist works of literature, science, and philosophy suggests the interdependence of the three in his fiction. The scientific concept of entropy leads Silverberg to questions of cosmology and the nature of time; physics leads to metaphysics.

The concept of entropy entered popular culture in the 1960s in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. “Entropy” (1960), V (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity's Rainbow (1973) use entropy as a symbol of the fragmentation and decay of modern civilization and of the hopeless feeling that it is not just a local energy crisis but that the universe itself is running down. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and the novels of Kurt Vonnegut can also be considered entropic fiction in their fragmented structures and wild improvisation. In science fiction. J. G. Ballard's gloomy stories are obsessed with entropy, and George Alec Effinger plays with the concept in What Entropy Means to Me. Like Pynchon, Silverberg links the notion of entropy with the new science of information theory, thus developing the theme of the difficulty of communication. (“The failure of sentient beings to communicate” is one of Silverberg's recurring themes, according to the critic Thomas Clareson.18)

The scientific understanding of communication took a major step forward in the late 1940s with the publication of two works: The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, and Cybernetics (1948) by Norbert Weiner. Shannon developed a universal, symbolic model of a communication system consisting of an information source, a transmitter, a communication channel, a receiver, and a message destination. This model would hold for any message, from something as simple as two people talking (the brain serving as the information source, voice the transmitter, ear the receiver) to something as complex as a television program. Every system has a built-in limit: the channel capacity, or amount of information it can carry in any given instant. Moreover, in the process of sending a signal, an element of distortion, static, or error always creeps in: “All these changes in the transmitted signal are called noise.”19 The noise must be filtered out of the system.

To attempt to convey organized, meaningful information is to battle constantly against entropy in the form of noise and time (for all messages must be sent in time, and entropy, as Eddington points out, always increases in time). According to Norbert Weiner, inventor of the science of cybernetics, “Just as the amount of information in a system is a measure of its degree of organization, so the entropy of a system is a measure of its disorganization: the one is simply the negative of the other.”20 To convey organized information is therefore to create negative entropy (also known as negentropy).

Therefore, when Silverberg writes a story in which the protagonist is a “Communicator” who is swallowed up “in entropy's jaws,” we see that he is extrapolating in fiction from current ideas about the science of communication. Silverberg makes us inescapably aware of the theme of communication from the opening lines of the story: “Static crackles from the hazy golden cloud of airborne loudspeakers drifting just below the ceiling of the spaceliner cabin. A hiss: communication filters are opening” (p. 464). Skein as a communicator deals in information; in fact, his office is flooded with it: “With the amplifiers on he can see as far as Serengeti in one direction, Mombasa in the other. Count the fleas on an elephant in Tsavo Park. A wall of light on the east-southeast face of the dome, housing his data-access units. No one can stare at that wall more than thirty seconds without suffering intensely from a surfeit of information. Except Skein; he drains nourishment from it, hour after hour” (p. 467).

The theme is further developed when Coustakis approaches Skein for help with a problem in communication: “Coustakis has almost invented a system for the economical, instantaneous transportation of matter. … However, Coustakis has not yet perfected his system. For five years he has been stymied by one inescapable problem: keeping the beam tight enough between transmitter and receiver. Beam-spread has led to chaos in his experiments; marginal straying leads to loss of transmitted information, so that which is being sent invariably arrives incomplete” (p. 470). Thus both Skein and Coustakis deal in information, and both will suffer problems from communication breakdown.

Skein's burnout is caused by an overload in his channel capacity: when he tries to filter the telepathic communion between Coustakis and Nissenson, the synergy of the two minds overwhelms him. He simply takes on more information than he can handle. Skein's mind is overly sensitive: “he cannot disengage; he has no mental circuitbreaker” (p. 472). Excessive feedback builds up, similar to the effect of noise or static created when one turns a live microphone back towards its amplifier: “A fiery oscillation is set up. Skein sees what is happening; he has become the amplifier of his own doom” (p. 472).

Feedback is nothing more than the regulation of a system by its own output, like a heater which switches itself on or off according to its output. The same term can also be applied, as Norbert Weiner does, to biological systems. Feedback is not perfect; it is always subject to delay and may either undershoot or overshoot. If a system has no dampener—if it is oversensitive—it will not be able to steady the channel but will instead go into unrestrained and increasing oscillation. As Norbert Weiner notes, “a badly designed thermostat may send the temperature of the house into violent oscillations.”21 This is roughly analogous to the catastrophe which overtakes Skein.

One way to explain his resulting disorientation in time is that it constitutes entropy's revenge. As a Communicator, Skein was constantly battling entropy, matching positive entropy with negative. Now, with his filters burned out, he finds himself trapped in continuous wild oscillation between the two stages of entropy. But, as Eddington explains, to increase in entropy means to move forward in time; to decrease it means to move backward in time. Thus Skein “was no longer anchored firmly to his time-line, but drifted in random oscillations of twenty years or more in either direction” (p. 483).

Skein's problems throughout have been those of communication, and his solution comes through communication, when he “makes communion” with the alien being who heals him. The necessity to find a higher form of communication, to merge in a mystical union with the alien in order to gain awareness and spiritual transcendence, is the message not only of “Entropy” (1971) but also of Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (1970). Thus “Entropy” is concerned with communication in the late 1960s and early 1970s sense of communion, union with the cosmos or with all sentient beings. As I mentioned, “Entropy” was written during Silverberg's psychedelic phase, when his stories reflect an interest in the attainment of cosmic consciousness through hallucinogenic drugs or other means. Skein can be seen as breaking through to a “countercultural” mode of perception of reality.

According to the psychologist Robert Ornstein, the normal modality of time perception in Western civilization is linear. Certain other cultures, such as the Sufis, Zen monks, Trobriand islanders, and the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest see time as a patterned whole or gestalt.22 During the late sixties, with widespread experimentation in consciousness-altering drugs, some Americans began to break through to a nonlinear perception of time:

Certain drugs, such as marijuana, psilocybin, LSD, and the amphetamines, including MDA, may occasionally alter the “reducing valve” of the normal sensory system. If the dosage is mild, the great increase in the contents of consciousness may produce an effect similar to increasing the amount of information reaching the person. … But with stronger doses the effect sometimes overwhelms the linear mode of consciousness entirely, and induces a nonlinear mode of experience. … These experiences, for many, represent the first significant break from a normal linear consciousness, normal reality, and normal time. For some, the break into a new area of experience is unsupported by the remainder of their lives and their training, and they may not be able to return to normal consciousness. The very discontinuity of these experiences is difficult for many to deal with.23

This is one way to understand Skein's dilemma: he has broken through to a nonlinear mode of perception, and as a consequence he is “freaking out.”

Yet another way to interpret Skein's case of information overload is that he is suffering from what the sociologist Alvin Toffler calls “future shock.” Toffler invented the term in the 1960s and popularized it in his book Future Shock (1970); Silverberg was probably aware of the concept when he wrote wrote “Entropy.” According to Toffler, the accelerated pace of modern life strains our information-processing abilities—in other words, our channel capacity. Psychologists and communication theorists who tested to discover the limits of the channel capacity of the human organism found that “overloading the system leads to serious breakdowns of performance.” The psychologist James G. Miller speculates that “information overload may be related to various forms of mental illness” and perhaps accounts for the common symptoms noted among “battle-stressed soldiers, disaster victims, and culture-shocked travelers.”24 In such an interpretation, Skein's disorientation merely reflects, in extreme form, the cognitive overstimulation to which all of us are subjected just in getting through the day.

Whereas Silverberg may have had the experiences of the drug culture and of victims of “future shock” in the back of his mind as models for Skein's disorientation, he also seems to have patterned it directly on a medical model, a disorder known as “temporal lobe epilepsy.” Neurosurgeons have recently discovered by stimulating sections of the brain with electrodes that we all carry a permanent record of the stream-of-consciousness, like a tape recording or a film. “The evidence suggests that nothing is lost, that the record of each man's experience is complete.”25 Certain people suffer from occasional, involuntary stimulation of the centers of memory in the form of epileptic seizures. According to the neurologist John N. Walton: “The typical major attack may begin with an aura or warning which indicates the situation of onset of discharge, but quite often this sensation is indefinable and little more than a ‘sinking feeling’ or ‘an odd sensation in the head.’ It is rare for an aura to last for more than a second or two and very often there is no warning at all. Consciousness is lost, the patient falls to the ground.”26 The attack itself “may include intense emotional experiences (fear, depression, anxiety), feelings of unreality (depersonalization) and a sensation of intense familiarity as if the patient were living through a vivid past experience (déjà vu).” This past experience is not so much remembered as it is reexperienced in its entirety, complete with all the attendant past sensations and emotions. Subjects report a feeling of doubleness: simultaneous awareness of present circumstances and the past experience. Powerful sensory stimuli can sometimes provoke these temporal seizures. “Conversely, it is sometimes possible to abort an epileptic seizure by means of sensory stimuli which presumably compete for the occupancy of the fibre pathways along which the epileptic discharge is spreading.”27

Silverberg seems to pattern Skein's attacks according to the symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy. First, the seizures are preceded by physical sensations and an aura: “Skein feels the familiar ugly throbbing at the base of the neck, as if the tip of his spine is swelling like a balloon” (p. 466). During the seizure, he may lose consciousness, as he does in the first episode on board ship, or fall, as he does from a stool while talking to a fellow passenger in the ship's lounge. His seizures are also accompanied by fear and feelings of depersonalization. Again, like the epileptic, be experiences déjà vu and a sense of doubleness: “Quite clearly most of them invoked scenes of his past, which he would relive, during the moments of fugue, with an intensity so brilliant that he felt he had actually been thrust back into time. He did not merely recollect, but rather he experienced the past anew, following a script from which he could not deviate” (p. 477). Like an epileptic's, Skein's seizures are sometimes provoked by powerful sensory stimuli, as when he slips into fugue while the ship is passing through a celestial vortex: “Outside the ship the universe is being wrenched apart; some of that slips in and throws him into a private epilepsy of the time-line” (p. 466). Conversely, he can sometimes forestall temporal seizures by means of sensory overload, as when he reads compulsively on board ship: “He finds this heavy verbal overdose helps, to some slight extent, to fight off the fugues; his mind is weighted, perhaps, bound by this leaden clutter of borrowed genius to the moving line of the present, and during his debauch of reading he finds himself shifting off that line less frequently than in the recent past” (pp. 480-81).

However, Silverberg adds a few features to the medical model of temporal lobe epilepsy. First of all, Skein experiences both flashbacks and flashforwards. Second, Silverberg suggests that it may not be a disorder at all but a breakthrough in consciousness. Skein then is not so much a temporal spastic as he is a seer who has gone beyond the normal, limited human categories of perception. One is reminded of Aldous Huxley's account of his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs in The Doors of Perception. As the skull-faced man explains to Skein:

Your brain has been injured; what was destroyed was the center of temporal perception, the node that humans use to impose this unreal order on events. Your time filter has burned out. The past and the future are as accessible to you as the present, Skein: you can go where you like, you can watch events drifting past as they really do. Only you haven't been able to break your old habits of thought. You still try to impose the conventional entropic order on things. … (p. 496)

In other words, Silverberg incorporates current medical knowledge about temporal lobe epilepsy into his story, but as any good science fiction writer must do, he goes beyond it, using it as the basis for speculation, for a philosophical critique of the limitations of conventional Western perceptions of time.

Apart from the extrapolations in the story about the effects of temporal lobe epilepsy, Skein's bizarre experiences convey a fundamental truth about the nature of unconscious time. The story has, as I indicated, an archetypal, mythical substructure. Skein on his quest or spiritual pilgrimage must grow up, undergo a rite of initiation like the typical mythic hero. The twist here is that his guide, the skull-faced man, turns out to be an older version of himself. There are premonitions of this throughout the story: Skein is described in the opening as having a “high-vaulted skull” (p. 464), and later, when he asks the old man, “How do you know so much about me?” the skull-faced man replies, “I was injured in the same way as you” (p. 496). Thus the surprise ending is carefully prepared for, and even has a certain inevitability. Psychologically, it makes sense, for the theory of the unconscious has shown us that the past persists in the mind. As one critic puts it, all phases of human development are “present at the same time in the unconscious,” and are “constantly modifying conscious behavior.”28 We all carry into adulthood earlier versions of ourselves, and like Skein, we all must become our own parents and help these younger selves to survive and to change. So the story is true to psychological time.

Silverberg claims that the science fiction story is the only workable time machine, but he forgets that it is modeled on the operations of the original time machine: the human mind. In the opinion of the critic H. Bruce Franklin, “When one says time travel what one means is an extraordinary dislocation of someone's consciousness in time. Every day we all travel in time in a number of ways. … Time travel fiction simply asks us to exaggerate some part of our everyday time travel. We may do this by observing and thus sharing someone else's extraordinary movement of consciousness in time.”29 And, as the psychologist R. H. Knapp notes, “In dreams, fantasy, hallucinations, and the arts, time indeed may stand still or even reverse itself as though it obeys our deep wish that it assume the flexibility of spatial extensibility and yield to the relative mastery by which we govern space.”30

Time travel stories, as I suggested before, are a way to express our wishes and fears about time. According to the critic Mendilow, the twentieth century has been particularly “time obsessed” because of the acceleration of change, “the widespread sense of the transience of all forms of modern life.” Time, the agent of entropy, seems to be working against us, constantly cutting away the ground on which we stand. We all feel caught in entropy's jaws: “The universe has proliferated into a multiverse. … We are bewildered and frustrated in our attempts to synthesize for ourselves a new, harmonious and stable pattern of living and thinking.”31 Science fiction writers offer a particular expertise in coping with change, in dealing with new syntheses. The deliberate dislocations in time and space of science fiction can give us a perspective on the dilemma of the human situation in modern times.

Silverberg's fiction, in such stories as “In Entropy's Jaws,” reflects the bewilderment and frustration of modern individuals dislocated in space and time. His stories ceaselessly absorb new information and play with ideas, always searching for new integrations, for “a new, harmonious and stable pattern of living and thinking” in the face of an apparently indeterminate, discontinuous, and aimless universe. Chaos can be a trap, suggests Silverberg, but it can also be liberating: if time is random, then it is up to all of us to become time travelers, to pattern it as we wish. Time has, as the title of another Silverberg story puts it, “many mansions.” One may live in any or all of them.

“In Entropy's Jaws” is a twentieth-century myth about the trauma which ensues when you leap from absolute, linear, Newtonian time into the relativistic, Einsteinian space-time continuum. As mythic hero, Skein stands in for all of us, defeats the evil dragon Entropy and restores harmony to the land. Yet, ironically, the order he brings to the wasteland is not that of the status quo ante, but the radically new consciousness of the Einsteinian universe. This universe is a product of our consciousness, suggests Silverberg, and we have all the bewildering variety of space and time in which to exist. “Abbondonza” is the name of the planet on which Skein finds what he is seeking, and “abundance” is what this rich story seems to promise we will find amid the chaos of our time.


  1. Barry Malzberg, “Robert Silverberg,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Apr. 1974, p. 69. See also Thomas D. Clareson, “The Fictions of Robert Silverberg,” in Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers, Vol. 2, ed. Thomas D. Clareson (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green Univ. Popular Press, 1979), p. 2. “In short, by the 1970s Silverberg was writing science fiction much as such of his contemporaries as Barth, Reed, Barthelme, and Coover were presenting their renditions of everyday American life.”

  2. Robert Silverberg, “In Entropy’s Jaws,” in Modern Science Fiction, ed. Norman Spinrad (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1974), pp. 464-504. Further references are to this edition of the story and will be given in parentheses.

  3. Russell Letson, “‘Falling through Many Trapdoors’: Robert Silverberg,” Extrapolation, 20 (1979), 114.

  4. Robert Silverberg, Introduction to Trips in Time: Nine Stories of Science Fiction, ed. Robert Silverberg (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1977), p. 1.

  5. Robert Silverberg, “Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal,” in Hell's Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers, ed. Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison (New York: Harper, 1975), p. 11.

  6. Robert Silverberg, “Mugwump 4,” in Trips on Time, p. 112.

  7. M. A. Goldberg, “Chronology, Character, and the Human Condition,” in Critical Approaches to Fiction, ed. Shiv K. Kumar and Keith McKean (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), p. 20.

  8. Stanislaw Lem, “On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction,” in Science Fiction Studies: Selected Articles on Science Fiction 1973–1975, ed. R. D. Mullen and Darko Suvin (Boston: Gregg Press, 1976), p. 7; and “The Time Travel Story and Related Matters of SF Structuring,” (same volume), p. 21.

  9. I am indebted for this idea to R. B. Kershner, Jr., “Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: The Alien Self” (unpublished essay): “Science fiction frequently, often naively, alters some fundamental characteristic of our world or of ourselves. Only the most sophisticated writers are able to follow the implications of such a change on the level of a book's hypothetical universe and on the level of the literary work. Cosmology determines literary structure.”

  10. Gary K. Wolfe, “The Limits of Science Fiction,” Extrapolation, 14 (Dec. 1972), 34.

  11. See Frank Orin Sadler, “Science and Fiction in the Science-Fiction Novel,” Diss., Univ. of Florida 1974, p. 20: “The science-fiction novel of the first half of the twentieth century shows little or no modification or development from its ancestry. The form of the novel remained essentially unchanged while the ideas it presented and treated underwent a radical and revolutionary change.”

  12. Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, trans. Richard Howard, 2nd ed. (1963; rpt. New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 32, 30.

  13. Lincoln Barnett, The Universe and Dr. Einstein (New York: William Sloane, 1948), pp. 39-41.

  14. See Sadler, p. 151: In Slaughterhouse-Five, the “relativistic and associative concept of time results in a nonlinear and discontinuous effect in the structuring of the novel.”

  15. See A. A. Mendilow, Time and the Novel (1952; rpt. New York: Humanities Press, 1965), p. 104.

  16. J. S. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth (1932; rpt. New York: Dover, 1935), pp. 14, 342.

  17. Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1928; rpt. Ann Arbor, Univ. of Michigan, 1958), pp. 74, 69.

  18. Thomas D. Clareson, “Robert Silverberg: The Compleat Writer,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Apr. 1974, p. 74.

  19. Warren Weaver, “Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication,” in The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver (1949; rpt. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois, 1964), p. 8.

  20. Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, 2nd ed. (1948; rpt. Cambridge: M.I.T., 1969), p. 11.

  21. Weiner, p. 97.

  22. Robert E. Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1977), p. 112.

  23. Ornstein, p. 108-9.

  24. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (1970; rpt, New York: Bantam, 1974), p. 353.

  25. Wilder Penfield, “The Permanent Record of the Stream of Consciousness,” in Readings in Physiological Psychology, ed. Thomas K. Landauer (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), p. 371.

  26. John N. Walton, Essentials of Neurology, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966), p. 105.

  27. Walton, pp. 103-4.

  28. Mendilow, p. 5.

  29. H. Bruce Franklin, Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford, 1978), p. 364.

  30. R. H. Knapp, “Personality and the Psychology of Time,” in The Study of Time, ed. J. T. Fraser, F. C. Haber, and G. H. Muller (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1972), p. 313.

  31. Mendilow, pp. 6, 7.

Peter S. Alterman (essay date 1982)

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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 interstellar space, or giant amoebae casually snacking on leg of starlet, well, then, we recognize the improbable reality created as science fiction. On the other hand, when the improbabilities are few—the landscape well known, the situations and characters drawn from everyday life—then they constitute mere fiction.

Like every other generalization about language, literature, and psychology, what I have just said won't really stand up to harsh analysis. Generally, however, it is fair to say that science fiction is more improbable than the novel of romantic intrigue. On the face of it, distinguishing science fiction from so-called realistic fiction would appear to be a fairly simple thing. After all, science fiction is demonstrably more improbable than fiction about current society, isn't it?

This question artfully leads to Robert Silverberg's novel Dying Inside, a science fiction novel whose protagonist is a genre cliché, a telepath. It is also a novel about the change in a man's life caused by aging, set in the real New York City of the early seventies. We could call this a novel about a man's “midlife crisis.” No worlds are shattered, no galactic civilizations are saved from conquest, not even one diabolical Russian spy plot is discovered.

What does happen is that David Selig, the telepathic protagonist, loses his telepathic power (hence the title), is mugged by black students on the steps of Columbia University's Low Library, and comes to a tentative rapprochement with his sister. During the course of the novel, we learn about David's past, his worries, thoughts, and private ecstasies; we discover the interior life of a telepath. Through flashbacks we learn the effects of telepathy on David's childhood, his emotional relationships, the two women he had lived with, the only other telepath he has ever known, and above all, his sister. It doesn't sound much like science fiction, does it?

But Dying Inside is generally considered science fiction, and very good science fiction at that. Also, it's not as though the novel of character hasn't been successfully written as science fiction. Frederik Pohl did it in Gateway; Delany's Triton did it in a completely different way. Olaf Stapledon's Sirius and Odd John come to mind also.

The real distinction between Dying Inside and the formula telepath stories is scope. The scope of Dying Inside is the private, psychological life of one inconspicuous man doing nothing more sinister than ghostwriting student papers for hire, but who is losing the single most basic part of his identity, his gift for reading minds. This focus has been called, disparagingly, the curse of Henry James. Dying Inside is an example of how unfair that generalization can be. A novel which can create a realistic picture of the psychological life of a telepath can reveal things about telepathy which all the suspense and adventure fiction in the genre cannot. For one, it can tell us what it's like to read minds, and how it feels to do it.

Dying Inside is also about dying and being reborn. In 1971 and 1972, when this novel was written, Silverberg also published a number of other works concerned with death and rebirth. Among them are Downward to the Earth, a novel about a former colonial administrator's search for rebirth on the alien world he once managed; Son of Man, a strange novel in which the human protagonist meets a series of characters who are future human forms; The Second Trip, about a man who returns to society after the equivalent of a personality transplant; and the novella “Born with the Dead,” in which the protagonist follows his beloved wife through death and revivification. Clearly, the themes of death and rebirth were churning around inside Silverberg's head during the time Dying Inside was written.

Dying Inside is a tapestry woven from flashbacks, contemporary narrative, excerpts from essays, and confessions. The flashbacks show what telepathy meant to David's earlier life and identity. The essays he writes show his grasp of expository prose, his intellectual competence (the papers are too good to be student-written), and are used incidentally to comment on his personal situation. In the contemporary narrative, David Selig's story is of a ghostwriter who is beaten by a dissatisfied customer. Along the way he memorializes the death of his power to read minds, has dinner with his sister, attends a faculty party, and has dinner with his sister a second time.

When we are introduced to David in chapter one, we immediately learn about his literary ability and how he makes his living. In this chapter alone he quotes Eliot twice, Beckett once, and cites Yeats. During the course of the novel, his grasp of Western humanities becomes evident. He is at home with Kafka's novels, ancient Greek poetry and drama, Montaigne, Virgil, and Dante. He quotes Huxley, Wiener, and the Curé d'Ars. He's somewhat pompous—imagine, “Poor goofy Yeats”! David is obsessed by his age. Writing about Kafka's novels, he says:

The two books represent varying attempts at telling the same story, that of the existentially disengaged man who is suddenly involved in a situation from which there is no escape, and who, after making attempts to achieve the grace that will release him from his predicament, succumbs.

This is an excellent summary of David's own condition and of the course of the novel.

The goal Kafka's Joseph K reaches for is the goal David strives for: grace in acceptance of the inevitable. His power is dying, the power which has both blighted and illuminated his life:

It's always been a curse to him, hasn't it? It's cut him off from his fellow men and doomed him to a loveless life. … On the other hand, without the power, what are you? Without that one faltering unpredictable unsatisfactory means of contact with them, how will you be able to touch them at all? … You love it and you despise it, this gift of yours. You dread losing it despite all it's done to you. You'll fight to cling to the last shreds of it, even though you know the struggle's hopeless.

The last line here emphasizes David's identification with Joseph K.

David's soul is cleft; he loathes his ability and at the same time he clings to it. On the novel's first page, he splits himself in two. He speaks of “myself and … that creature which lives within me, skulking in its spongy lair and spying on unsuspecting mortals.” David rejects his power; he distances himself from it psychically. It is the fault of his telepathy that David is isolated, unloved, a failure.

His power has condemned him to being “society's ugliest toad, the eavesdropper, the voyeur.” He is Leopold Bloom of Ulysses watching his wife tupped by Blazes Boylan, through a keyhole. The connection between telepathic power and sexual potency is emphasized throughout Dying Inside. David's sister frequently refers to the connection, and David makes much of it himself. When David finally admits his secret to his sister Judith, it is in the context of his knowing about her sex life. The words she uses in responding to his revelation are touchstones of the telepathy-sexuality connection: “… why I always felt dirty when I was a kid and you were around. … If I ever catch you poking around in my head after this, I'll cut your balls off.”

That David equates his telepathic power with sexual power is not pathological, though. Athletes equate their sexual potency with their special prowess, as do many writers. This is a nice bit of psychological realism: telepathy feels like any other ability; it's part of one's identity, and therefore part of one's sexual identity. This particular conjunction, however, is poisoned. Since David cannot send his thoughts, but only receive, he sees himself as passive, a voyeur. The problem with the power is transferred, psychologically, to the personality.

As a voyeur, David feels isolated. The only other telepath he meets, Tom Nyquist, is aghast at this attitude:

“The problem is that I feel isolated from other human beings.”

“Isolated? You? … How can you pretend you're isolated?”

“The information I get is useless,” Selig said. “I can't act on it. I might just as well not be reading it in.”

This is the heart of the irony. David can watch, but not act. His telepathic power gives him access to a keyhole; it is not a key.

David feels isolated by his telepathic power because it is essentially passive. Nonetheless, it is a form of communication. Without it, David is alone; his one method of communicating with the world is gone. This argument seems to be quite reasonable, except that telepathy has kept him isolated. Release from telepathy—to be merely normal—should imply revivification. After all, he no longer will be part of the.001٪ of humanity with the power to read minds. He won't be a voyeur anymore.

But no. David dreads the death of his power as a descent into absolute isolation. Without his telepathy, who is he? “Where's my identity? I'm Selig the Mindreader, right? The Amazing Mental Man. So if I stop being him—” One of the things David is, without his power, is normal, mortal. Look back to the above quotation from page one of the novel and note the word “mortals.” There's a key to his desire to keep his power: it makes him godlike. He thinks of himself as more than mortal, and when his power dies, it leaves “behind this merely mortal husk of mine.”

The connection between godhood and telepathy is another true note this novel chimes, like the association between potency and telepathy. David thinks of himself as a Christ. He parodies Jesus' words, as in “let nothing human be alien to me” and he fears crucifixion if his ability is ever discovered: “They'd all love me. Loving me, they'd beat me to a pulp.”

The twin themes of communion and godhood join together in the ecstasy which the telepathy provides him, and transcendence is the watchword.

Yes! Oh, the joining, the touching, the union, the oneness! No longer is he David Selig. He is a part of them, and they are a part of him, and in that joyous blending he experiences loss of self, he gives up all that is tired and worn and sour in him, he gives up his fears and uncertainties, he gives up everything that has separated himself from himself for so many years. He breaks through. He is fully open and the immense signal of the universe rushes freely into him. He receives. He transmits. He absorbs. He radiates. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

In his transcendent state he is not David Selig. He is all. The union is sexual, godlike, total. It surpasses the receive-only condition of his power. Actually, it is mystical. The acquiescence of the four “yesses” at the end of the quote above is practically orgasmic. It is also the state of grace he aspires to as his power dies.

This condition of ecstasy is the one true gift David has gleaned from his telepathic power—an orgasm of selflessness, the joy of losing one's ego in something larger than oneself. In these ecstatic moments of total contact, David mines “the real stuff, the whole person.” At bottom, David's transcendental ecstasy is a way of getting outside himself, of being part of someone or something else. Without it, he is caught inside himself, which one would think would be a fate David would desire. After all, in the privacy of his own mind he can be himself. And yet, that circumstance is just one which frightens him, because it is one he has never experienced. The privacy and silence terrify him. They trap him inside his single self and he is permanently cut off from the ecstasy he has known.

David equates the coming silence with death. In an interior essay written in the term paper style, David links communication and entropy to death:

Human beings, says Wiener, carry on anti-entropic processes. We have sensory receptors. We communicate with one another. We make use of what we learn from one another. … But what if a human being turns himself, inadvertantly or by choice, into an isolated system? … Gradually the chaos expands in him, gradually the forces of entropy seize possession of this ganglion, that synapse. He takes in a decreasing amount of sensory data until his surrender to entropy is complete. … This condition is known as death.

So not only is David's loss of telepathy a reverse apotheosis, a loss of potency, a loss of identity and isolation from the living, it is death. Personal death as well as the “heat-death of the universe.”

In fact, looking at the language of these citations, it would appear that David equates his condition (aging) with the process of universal entropic decay. At the beginning of the novel, David compares himself to Prufrock, Malone and Bloom. Here he compares himself to the universe.

And why not? The transcendental ecstasy of David's telepathic communions does make him part of a larger whole. It is, however, true that the whole is indifferent to the fate of one of its motes. This is why the correspondence between David and the universe is weak, and an example of the exaggerations of self-pity which he is heir to throughout the novel.

Structurally, the novel presents us with a correspondence between the decay of David's telepathic power and the decay of Western civilization. Not only does David's ability to read minds knit him into society more intensely than normal, but he is a fount of Western humanism. He lives by it for the purposes of his papers, and because of his mastery of the subjects coupled with his telepathic ability to read his clients' minds, he can always deliver and guarantee his work.

Except for Yahya Lumumba. David has difficulty with Lumumba's paper because he cannot find an appropriate voice to use. He dips into Lumumba's mind and finds it “A roaring furnace … I can't handle this volcanic blast.” Not only is David driven off by the intensity of the mind, his power actually shuts down: “Never have I lost my grip and slipped from a mind like this. I look up, dazed, shattered.” This last quote highlights the connection between Lumumba's hatred and David's coming psychic impotence, as Lumumba beats David unconscious, following which David loses his power for good.

Besides the obvious hatred Lumumba has, the second and more significant reason that David cannot produce the paper is that Lumumba has no ties to Western culture:

Europydes Sophocles Eeskilus why the fuck do I have to know anything about them to write anything about them what good is it to a black man those old dead Greek fuckers how are they relevant to the black experience relevant relevant relevant

Not only is Lumumba unable to write the essay, he cannot find a reference point in his experience for it.

In effect, David fails to satisfy Lumumba with a paper because Lumumba's young life, both in and out of the university, is an artifact of society's sports culture. David, of course, is unconcerned with trivialities such as college basketball. Yet to Lumumba, basketball is truly the only important issue in his life. It got him into college, presumably. Writing papers on Greek plays did not. The black youth (the future) is divorced from the cultural tradition of Western civilization (Europydes Sophocles Eeskilus). Furthermore, Lumumba hates the purveyors of such knowledge (David, the assignment, Jews). David's other jock clients at least find their cultural inheritance relevant, if not accessible. Symbolically, hatred, violence, and physical activity, supersede the more genteel and intellectual characteristics of the old society.

It is pretty clear that David is losing a lot, but as we have come to expect in this novel, there is a more mundane side to the issue. David bemoans not only the loss of his power, but his loss of hair, the death of his contemporaries, and the rise to power of those younger than he. The death of his power is just a warmup for the real thing. Since he cannot reverse time, entropy, or the loss of his telepathic power, David must accept inevitability; he tries to be a good Joseph K. This he does by groping his way unsteadily towards a bond with his sister Judith.

At the outset of the novel, Judith is attempting to reconcile herself with David after years of hostility. David is not a willing partner to the reconciliation at first: “Her love is unpalatable to me, and her sentimentalism is even less to my taste. … Her remorse for her past coldness toward me has a flavor even more stinking than her newfound love.” He feels this way partly because he still mistrusts her for “all the years when she treated me like a circus attraction” and consequently his perception of their relationship is dark:

We're locked in a kind of marriage, Judith and I, an old burned-out marriage held together with skewers.

As David loses his ability to read minds, he finds himself drawn increasingly to her. She is the only person he can discuss his condition with, for one thing. For another, she is his only living relative, his only source of love, no matter how bitter. She confides her sexual and romantic concerns to him, in return for his love.

When David recounts the story of his revealing his power to her, he discovers the kernel of closeness hidden within him: she never used the knowledge of his telepathy against him. It is as if recognizing this allows David to draw closer to her, and as an example, he attends a party given by one of her lovers at her request. At the end of the novel, when he is merely human, David accepts and returns her love: “I embrace her warmly, pulling her tight against my body for perhaps a minute.”

David is learning that he can communicate; that his loss can actually be seen as a gain, and that love can become a distinct possibility in his life. His growing love for Judith is the touchstone of the change, of course, but he projects that potential onto a fantasized meeting with ex-lover Toni, and into an imaginary letter to his lost love, Kitty:

As the power slips away from me, as it dies, perhaps there's a chance for an ordinary human relationship between us at last, of the kind that ordinary human beings have all the time.

David sees the potential for a normal life in the vacuum left behind by his vanishing telepathic power, and he acts on it. Dying Inside ends with the family, or marriage, as David points out, reunited, held together by mutual caring rather than by skewers. The feel of it is reminiscent of the happy endings of Shakespeare's comedies, where marriages not only restore order to the specific relationships, but to the State and to Nature as well.

David is a mortal at the end of the novel, one who can give and receive love. He still is not secure in his identity, still shocked and filled with loss. But he has touched grace, and he feels that acceptance is within reach. The novel ends with David saying “hello” four times, echoing the accepting “yes” of his last telepathic moments.

David's acceptance and achievement of grace are important to the novel because they come only after he acknowledges that he does want to keep his ability, which is an important developmental step. The method he attempts to use to reclaim his dying power (a feat he acknowledges to be impossible) appears in the fifth chapter, which is an essaylike discussion of Huxley's theory of a “cerebral reducing valve” which filters out paranormal insights, thus allowing daily life to be lived. From this conceit, David proceeds to speculate on the physiology of self-abuse as a means of opening the reducing valve. Since he wants to revivify his power, flagellation seems like a possible tactic. So for the rest of the novel David flays himself with emotionally painful recollections.

It doesn't work, of course, as he knew it wouldn't. Yet by knowing that he is doomed (a fact he repeats often), he gains one distinct advantage. It assures him that he will be a tragic figure like Joseph K and reach a form of grace, rather than K., “who simply sinks lower and lower … so crushed by the general tragedy of the times that he is incapable of any tragedy on an individual level. K. is a pathetic figure, Joseph K a tragic one.” Knowing he is doomed and that he can only accept assures David that he is not K., who could not even reach that perception.

Within the mundane world of David's 1976 New York, the grandeur of this goal transforms itself into skipping a Chinese dinner. David isn't only mocking himself in that, though. He's also truly ambivalent and unable to believe in the restoration of his power. Beside that, the rest of chapter six, from which the Chinese dinner transformation is taken, is pretty unusual.

For one thing, it's only a single short paragraph long. For another, the paragraph begins in the third person: “But why does David Selig want his power to come back?”, slides into the second person: “On the other hand, without the power, what are you?”, and finishes in the first person: “I'll skip the chow mein.” It's as much as he can do in his world, skipping a meal; at least it is an acknowledgment of his desire to keep the power.

Now, recognizing the strangeness of chapter six, think about the “essays” in chapters four, fourteen, and twenty-three, and the fact that chapters two, twelve, sixteen, twenty, twenty-two and twenty-five are written in the third person.

Most of these latter are flashbacks, separated in time from David's present. Moreover, they are all focused on the experience of being telepathic. Chapter two is an interview David has with a school psychologist which clarifies how then-current behavioral sciences failed to deal with either David's telepathy or anxiety. Chapter twelve exemplifies the experience of David's telepathic ecstasies. In chapter sixteen, David meets Tom Nyquist, another telepath, and we understand how two telepaths communicate. Chapter twenty is another childhood flashback, to a time when David's power was almost discovered in school. Chapter twenty-two documents David's meeting Kitty Holstein and his inability to read her mind. In chapter twenty-five, David finally loses his telepathic power and his former way of life.

To see how important the question of voice is to the novel, look back at the very first paragraph of the first chapter of the novel. Near the end of the paragraph, the following appears:

Let us go then, you and I, when the morning is spread out against the sky. …

You and I. To whom do I refer? I'm heading downtown alone, after all. You and I.

Why, of course I refer to myself and to that creature which lives within me, skulking in its spongy lair …

The “you and I” are introduced as part of the reference to Eliot's “Prufrock,” but quickly David picks up the words and focuses on them.

You and I. David is a man split in two. He sees himself as separated into David Selig and the power of telepathy. This division strengthens our sense of how divided he is on the question of his telepathy. It also is an intimate device for speaking directly to the reader. For example, looking back on chapter six, the “you” clearly refers to himself. Yet at the end of chapter nineteen the “you” referred to is clearly the reader:

What the hell are you doing reading someone else's mail? Don't you have any decency? I can't show you this.

In this section, we are put into the role of voyeur which David accuses himself of, and then treated accordingly. The whole chapter has this sense of direct communication between David and the reading audience. The tour of his life furnishings isn't for his own benefit so much as it is for ours.

Although there is one point of view in Dying Inside, there are four voices: “I,” “you,” “he,” and none. Each, in its own way, contributes to enlarging the reality of David's telepathy. The sections of the novel written from the “I” are immediate in time and impact. We have immediate access to David's thoughts and feelings in these sections, as well as his actions. We are embedded in David's mind just as he can imbed himself in other minds. The process works as a mirror.

In the sections written in the “you” voice, David is either talking to his split self, a technique which dramatizes the duality he believes in, or directly to the reader. Either way, the communication is less intimate than the unobtrusive intimacy of the implied listener of the “I” sections. When David is talking to “you,” he is more self-conscious. An example of this is his retreat from exposure in the quote from chapter nineteen, above. When his “I” writes an imaginary letter to Kitty, the pain David feels is obvious. He abruptly becomes aware of his audience, though, and shuts the letter off. He increases the distance; he guards his privacy.

The chapters written in the “he” voice are more distant yet. They are flashbacks in his personal history, and as such they are about David Seligs who are no longer the David Selig who is losing his telepathic power. They are in the past, which is distance. They are also about the experience of being telepathic. In this novel, it is imperative that we experience what it feels like to be telepathic. The focus on the telepathic experience nicely couples with the distance that using “he” creates, for it shows David isolating himself from the telepathic David (the “you” of page one). And, since this is David's special experience, use of the “he” distances the reader further in a way which adds stylistic impact to David's claim that his power isolates him from the rest of humanity.

And then there are two apparently nontelepathic chapters, twenty-two and twenty-five, written in the third person. In chapter twenty-two, David meets Kitty and finds that he cannot read her mind. Here the distance from self which the “he” provides is a good match for the isolation David feels from the woman he loves. In chapter twenty-five, David wakes in a hospital after having been beaten unconscious. Then, before the Dean of Columbia, he experiences a transcendental moment of ecstasy, and his power dies.

First, the distance of the “he” construction is a stylistic match for the alienation of the hospital, where he is first ignored, then treated impersonally. The fact that, in the former chapter, he cannot read Kitty's mind is an obvious parallel construction. Second, the transcendent ecstasy belongs to the list of telepathic experiences described in the third person in earlier chapters. Third, David's loss, finally, of his power is a profoundly isolating experience, and being far from his perspective reinforces that fact. The style matches the content and reinforces it.

The three “essays” which dot the novel are papers that David writes, two for students, one to himself. In each, the subject ostensibly is an intellectual analysis of a nonpersonal issue: Kafka's novels, the Oresteian myth cycle, and information theory, entropy, and death. And yet, each comments directly on David's condition. Joseph K's problem is David's problem. The truncated discussion of the “Electra theme” is about interpreting an act from several different perspectives. This we do with the different “voices.” It is also the beginning of a discussion about the interaction of the individual and destiny, another of David's concerns.

Finally, David's essay on communication, entropy, and death ties the essay from explicitly into an analysis of his condition. In a paper on “Entropy as a Factor in Everyday Life,” for “Selig Studies” run by “Prof. Selig,” he discusses his perception of the relationship between lack of communication and death, a highly emotional topic for him.

These dispassionate essays offer relevant parallels to the larger concerns of David's stories. They are overviews, though, theories, like Huxley's “cerebral reducing valve,” which define the larger structure—the philosophical underpinnings—of David's loss. They help answer the question of why we should care about David and his problems. He is not just a freak; he is a man who is living through an experience, which, in many ways, is fundamental to us all. The stylistic sleight-of-hand is designed to offer us a share of that experience.

The four different voices of Dying Inside allow Silverberg to alter the focal distance between us and David. From deep within his mind, we can pull back to look at the larger picture, the philosophical implications and the story of David's loss of his telepathic power. The skill with which the style enhances the themes help knit them smoothly into a very believable story about a very believable man. The “Amazing Mental Man” comes alive in Dying Inside.

Malcolm Edwards (essay date 1982)

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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 “Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal,” 1975.) He studied English at Columbia University and, while still a student, began to sell stories with some regularity; his first sales, in January 1954, were the short story “Gorgon Planet” (1954) and the juvenile novel Revolt on Alpha C (1955), although the latter had to be extensively rewritten before it was published.

Silverberg's career moved into high gear in the summer of 1955 when Randall Garrett—already well established as a magazine writer—moved into the residential hotel near Columbia University where he lived. They began to collaborate, and in the last five months of the year Silverberg (still a third-year student) sold no less than twenty-six stories, written alone and in collaboration.

During the mid-1950's there was a great boom in science fiction magazine publishing. Many new titles appeared, and although most of them were destined to be short lived, for a few years there was considerable demand for material to fill their pages. A fast and efficient writer could obtain as much work as he or she liked, and Silverberg soon became the fastest and most efficient worker of all. As he puts it in “Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal”:

I developed a deadly facility; if an editor needed a 7500-word story of alien conquest in three days to balance an issue, he need only phone me and I would produce it. … By the summer of 1956—by which time I had graduated from college and had married—I was the complete writing machine, turning out stories in all lengths at whatever quality the editor desired, from slam-bang adventure to cerebral pseudo-philosophy. (page 20)

Silverberg became a full-time writer immediately upon graduation and has remained one ever since. By the end of 1956 he had already published more than a million words, and he and his wife Barbara were able to live in some comfort in New York.

The stories Silverberg wrote during these astonishingly prolific early years were, for the most part, utterly forgettable. He would from time to time attempt more ambitious stories, but he found these difficult to sell; from this fact he drew the rather cynical conclusion that there was no demand for quality in the science fiction magazines, although it is perhaps more likely that the twenty-one-year-old Silverberg, despite his precocious technical facility, was not yet capable of producing work of the quality to which he occasionally aspired.

His best early work is to be found in some of his early novels, notably Master of Life and Death (1957), Invaders from Earth (1958), and Recalled to Life (serialized in Infinity Science Fiction, 1958; book form, 1962). All are efficient entertainments, dealing respectively with overpopulation, the colonization of Ganymede and the concurrent conducting of an advertising campaign designed to make acceptable the destruction of its intelligent inhabitants, and the invention of a process to bring the dead back to life. Invaders from Earth and Recalled to Life, in particular, attempt to grapple with serious subjects, but they rely too heavily on action and melodrama to do justice to their themes. (When Silverberg later rewrote Recalled to Life he removed much of its stylistic awkwardness, but its melodramatic aspects remained.) They do mark the young Silverberg, though, as an author of considerable promise, one who might be expected to live up to the Hugo award he received in 1956 as “most promising new author.”

But Silverberg's career in the late 1950's took a different course. The predictable collapse of the science fiction magazines, due to oversaturation of the market, started in 1958. Silverberg began to look for work outside the field, taking on almost any job as long as the publisher could be relied on to pay on time. His output of science fiction fell away almost to nothing in 1960 he published just four magazine stories (as compared with more than one hundred in 1957) and a juvenile novel; in 1961 three stories and an expanded version of a 1959 novella; in 1962 the revision of Recalled to Life and a single, quite short novel.

The full extent of Silverberg's productivity has never been made public, and no comprehensive bibliography listing all the books he has published under all his pseudonyms has been attempted. Certainly he ranks among the most prolific of all modern writers: Barry M. Malzberg, in his profile of Silverberg in the April 1974 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, estimates that Silverberg published 450 books in his first ten years of full-time writing (which may be an overestimate), while Silverberg himself has said that his output probably ranks with that of Georges Simenon, but falls short of John Creasey's. In the early 1960's, it seems, he wrote about 2 million words—the equivalent of thirty-five average-length novels—a year.

During this period Silverberg managed to begin a respectable career writing children's nonfiction books popularizing historical, archaeological, and scientific subjects. Here his gift for writing quick, clear expository prose stood him in good stead, and he swiftly acquired a respectable reputation, and restored his self-respect. He was still prospering commercially, and in 1962 was able to buy a mansion in New York City that had once belonged to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

Silverberg did not contemplate any serious return to science fiction, though, until Frederik Pohl, then editor of Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow, tempted him with the promise of absolute creative freedom. He responded in 1963 with a short story, “To See the Invisible Man” (collected in The Best of Robert Silverberg, 1976), which may be viewed as the first manifestation of the “new” Silverberg, a writer more interested in the serious exploration of ideas and themes than in facile displays of technique. The story, derived from a line in Jorge Luis Borges' “The Lottery in Babylon,” 1945 (and also, perhaps, from Damon Knight's story “The Country of the Kind,” 1955), explores a society in which the punishment for consistent law breaking is total ostracism; the condemned person becomes effectively “invisible.” The story presents an effective metaphor for alienation.

Over the next three years or so, Silverberg gradually increased his output of science fiction stories, although he was still primarily engaged in writing nonfiction (no longer just children's books, but longer and more complex adult works requiring extensive research). His emergence as a writer demanding serious consideration came in 1967 with the publication of his novel Thorns and the novella “Hawksbill Station” (collected in The Best of Robert Silverberg). Both are further explorations of alienation and pain, and are concerned with the achievement of some measure of redemption.

Thorns, a novel as jagged and uncomfortable as its title suggests, brings together two extremely alienated humans—a man (Minner Burris) who has been disfigured through surgery by curious aliens, and a woman (Lona Kelvin) whose ova have been used to produce many extrauterine births but who has never been permitted to bear her own child. Burris and Kelvin are used for the amusement of a wealthy man (Duncan Chalk) who feeds on raw emotion.

“Hawksbill Station”—which was expanded into a novel of the same title in 1968, but which is more concentrated and rewarding in its shorter version—is less outwardly anguished; it describes life in a penal colony located in the remote past—the late Cambrian era—where dissidents of a near-future United States society are expelled with no hope of return. The gray barrenness of their place of exile is an effective metaphor for their hopeless predicament. “Hawksbill Station” is also to a degree a time travel story—and thus an early exploration of the traditional science fiction motif to which the new Silverberg would return most frequently in the next few years.

Pain and alienation feature in other significant Silverberg works. The short story “Flies” (1967)—Silverberg's contribution to Harlan Ellison's anthology Dangerous Visions (1967)—seems almost a “dry run” for Thorns, with its protagonist surgically altered by aliens, so that he can receive and transmit the feelings of others. The Man in the Maze (1969) is also similar: here the alien-altered human protagonist broadcasts new emotions, so that other people cannot bear to be in his presence. He retreats to the center of a strange and dangerous maze on another world (itself an echo of the lunar maze in Algis Budrys' 1960 novel Rogue Moon), another extravagant but effective metaphor for pain and isolation. In the 1968 Nebula award-winning “Passengers” (collected in The Best of Robert Silverberg), parasitic aliens seize control of humans and use their bodies for their own inexplicable and whimsical purposes. People's lives become discontinuous passages between periods of take-over. This story, effectively told in the present tense to convey the feeling of transience and lost memory, foreshadows a number of subsequent experiments with tense and viewpoint.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is the short story “Sundance” (1969; in a collection of that title). On the surface it is the story of an American Indian, Tom Two Ribbons, who is agonizingly forced to relive the destruction of his ancestral culture as he participates in a terraforming operation on another planet. Are the teeming hordes of “Eaters” being exterminated as part of this process no more than alien equivalents of the herds of bison that once roamed the American plains? Or are they more: are they intelligent beings, equivalent to Tom's Indian forebears who fell before the encroaching European settlers? Silverberg adds to the uncertainty by making it unclear whether this destruction is even taking place or whether it is part of Tom's delusions (if that is what he is suffering). The story switches between first-, second- and third-person narration and between present and past tense, using each alternative in a tightly controlled way to delineate a different level of ambiguity. The result is a rich, accomplished, and effective story that ranks with the later “Schwartz between the Galaxies” (1974, collected in The Feast of St. Dionysus, 1975) as Silverberg's best short fiction.

“Sundance” was written in the aftermath of an accident that was to have a profound effect on Silverberg: the partial destruction by fire early in 1968 of his New York house. The damage was so severe that it took more than a year to restore the house, and for the first nine months he was forced to live elsewhere. By his own testimony, he was singularly unprepared psychologically for such an event.

Silverberg's life had been untouched by personal tragedy, and while he may have viewed much of the pseudonymous work he had done as unworthy, in material terms his career had been one of constant and enviable success. Even when he turned to more serious work in the mid-1960's, he still composed everything in one draft, at a speed other writers would regard as prodigious. But after the fire he found writing for the first time a slow and difficult process, requiring several drafts to achieve the desired effects. It must be said, though, that by many writers' standards he remained, at least through 1971, quite prolific, writing two or more novels—plus numbers of short stories—each year.

One of the first stories Silverberg wrote after the fire was the novella “Nightwings” (1968), which won a Hugo award in 1969 and which was amalgamated with two sequels, “Perris Way” and “To Jorslem,” into the novel titled Nightwings (1969). As Brian M. Stableford has pointed out, the far-future background of this story is reminiscent of many of the space adventures the young Silverberg had written, but here such material is used very differently. The novel is a tale, partly mythic in quality, of rebirth and renewal. The decaying future Earth is invaded by aliens, but this ultimately heralds a revitalization of the planet. The protagonist—a member of the guild of Watchers, whose task it has been to detect and warn of such an invasion—likewise undergoes a process of rejuvenation and renewal, a rite of passage undoubtedly suggested, to some degree, by the author's personal travails.

Aside from differences in plot and setting, a similar description would apply to Downward to the Earth (1970), but this is a much more successful novel and remains among Silverberg's three or four best. The setting is a well-realized alien world, Belzagor, which has achieved independence after a period as a human colony. A former colonial administrator, Edmund Gundersen, returns to Belzagor to expiate his guilt over the mistreatment of the intelligent, elephantlike nildoror, who had been forced to work as beasts of burden; specifically, he wants to undergo the nildor religious rite of rebirth to redeem himself for an incident in which he prevented a group of nildoror from going themselves to participate in the ceremony. Eventually he does so and undergoes a transcendent and literal rebirth into a possibly immortal human-alien form. There are strongly religious overtones to this, but the novel is most notable as an exceptionally attractive evocation of an alien world and an alien civilization more spiritually developed than ours. It owes a considerable debt to Joseph Conrad—specifically to Heart of Darkness (1899), which is acknowledged by several references in the text.

Silverberg novels continued to appear in a steady flow, each with some point of interest. Up the Line (1969) is a humorous, rather bawdy, and enjoyable time-paradox story. Tower of Glass (1970) is more ambitious. On one level it is the story of an attempt to communicate with alien intelligences. The wealthy Simeon Krug begins to construct an immense tower from which a beam of tachyons will project, at faster than the speed of light, a reply to coded signals received from a distant star. But Krug, for all his desire to exchange messages with unknown distant aliens, is unable to communicate properly with another intelligent species that he himself has created, a race of androids who do menial labor but are not accepted as fully human, least of all by Krug himself. Nevertheless they worship Krug as their creator, and look to him to redeem their status. When the impossibility of this dream becomes evident, they revolt and Krug's tower (among much else) is destroyed. The novel is complex in conception and plot but too heavily freighted with science fiction trappings—some of which remain resolutely clichéd despite all Silverberg's efforts at revivification—to be wholly satisfying.

Son of Man (1971) is a strange, surreal, and psychedelic novel, a dreamlike fantasy of the very distant future, a world in which everything is changeable, and in which feelings are manifested as landscapes. In conception Son of Man clearly owes a debt to David Lindsay's phantasmagoric A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), but in execution it is quite different. A Time of Changes (1971) won Silverberg a Nebula award—the only award he has won for a novel—but it remains the weakest of his later novels, an exotic adventure on a distant planet whose main human society is so repressed in self-expression that even the use of the first person is taboo. Clearly influenced by Jack Vance in its creation of an exotic human society, it contains many elements that were by then familiar in Silverberg's work: the redemption of the protagonist; the sense of transcendence, here achieved through the use of psychedelic drugs; the sharing of minds as a result of using the drugs. The problem with A Time of Changes is primarily that Silverberg had done it all better before.

The World Inside (1971) is an episodic novel about a heavily overpopulated future world that, unusually, views its state not as a curse but as a blessing—continued breeding is greatly to be encouraged. People live in “urbmons” (urban monads), gigantic tower blocks hundreds of stories high; the outside world between urbmons is given over entirely to automated agriculture. Although the episodic structure makes it a little too diagrammatic, it is a powerful dystopian vision. The people of this future society are largely happy but we see their society as progressively dehumanized. Traditional social relationships have disintegrated; privacy is a thing of the past. Relinquishing privacy is the only way to maintain a debased form of sanity in such an overcrowded world.

In 1972, the year that marked the end of his prolific phase, Silverberg published three novels. The Second Trip, although generally neglected by critics, is one of his strongest novels. It is set in a future world in which the punishment for habitually violent criminals is erasure of personality. A new, “artificial” personality is then inscribed on the tabula rasa of the criminal's brain. The novel concerns the efforts of one such rebuilt personality to ease his way into society. Unfortunately, he encounters a telepathic girl who knew the obliterated criminal that he had been, and she awakens some remnant of the former personality surviving in a corner of his brain. The novel then becomes a battle of wills between the two minds for possession of a body that each, with good reason, regards as his own. It is, of course, a battle charged with symbolic significance, and as such is treated expertly by Silverberg, although he does gloss over the moral and ethical questions raised by the novel's science fictional rationale.

His other two novels of 1972, Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls, remain his most successful to date. There has been some debate over whether they can properly be classed as science fiction—a debate that, in the case of Dying Inside at least, is difficult to understand. The Book of Skulls is more problematical. It is about the search by four college students for a mysterious sect, the Brotherhood of the Skull, which has apparently discovered the secret of immortality. The members of the sect are duly found, but it is never clear—nor is it relevant to the novel—whether they actually do possess the secret or whether they are plausible fakes. The importance of the novel lies in its examination of the four students' personalities under the stress of reaching toward what may be eternal life. It is told with great skill; Silverberg narrates the novel from the alternating first-person viewpoints of all four main characters. The result is a richly textured, persuasive novel.

Dying Inside is better still. All Silverberg's recent novels—as Stableford has shown in “The Metamorphosis of Robert Silverberg” (1976)—can to some extent be read as studies of alienation and (sometimes) redemption. In Dying Inside the theme is addressed most directly and powerfully. This is the story of David Selig, a telepath who is slowly losing his powers (hence the title of the novel). Alienated from the rest of humanity by his paranormal talent, he is becoming more like them yet, paradoxically, is also losing his unique ability to understand them, as his powers wane. Selig himself is a fully realized and very believable character, and is to some extent autobiographical; interestingly, there are echoes in the novel of Silverberg's description in “Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal” of his waning fecundity as a writer.

Throughout the early 1970's Silverberg continued to produce short stories that were, on the whole, more experimental than his novels. Whereas in his longer work he had embarked on an apparent project to reexamine the traditional themes of science fiction by using a wider range of literary techniques, in his shorter work he showed a disaffection with these same themes and treated them ironically, or he wrote stories in which the theme was precisely their obsolescence. One ironic piece, “Good News from the Vatican” (1971; collected in The Best of Robert Silverberg), won another Nebula, as did “Born with the Dead” (1974; in a collection of that title), a novella that achieves another powerful metaphor of alienation in its depiction of the strange, emotionless, revived “dead” living alongside—but apart from—normal humanity. His best story of the period, though, is “Schwartz between the Galaxies” (1974), in which a cultural anthropologist living in a future world of increasing cultural uniformity fantasizes a universe of brilliant diversity, constructing for himself a science fictional world to compensate for the emptiness he feels in his own life. In this and other shorter works, Silverberg shows an awareness of recent sophisticated techniques of fiction writing—as epitomized by such writers as Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover—and, as mentioned previously, many of the stories are ironically concerned with the subject matter of science fiction.

Two further novels were written before Silverberg announced his retirement from writing. The Stochastic Man (1975) and Shadrach in the Furnace (1976). The former concerns a man developing powers of precognition, and is in some ways a reverse companion piece to Dying Inside. While written with considerable skill and certainly among his better novels, it lacks the emotional commitment that made Dying Inside outstanding. Shadrach in the Furnace is a smoothly accomplished story of Mordecai Shadrach, the personal physician to an old and crafty future dictator who learns of a plan to transfer the despot's mind to a younger body—his own. It is comparatively traditional science fiction.

Silverberg's “retirement” from writing, which received considerable publicity in the science fiction field, was occasioned by his general disenchantment with that field as it is traditionally constituted, with its publishers, and with its readers. He remained inactive for four years, after which he returned to writing with a long science fantasy epic, Lord Valentine's Castle (1980), an expansive and entertaining story quite different in mood from his intense, introspective stories of the early 1970's.

It has been followed by a novella, The Desert of Stolen Dreams (1981), the first of a series of stories set in the world of the novel. Other short stories have begun to appear, and it seems that as of 1981 Silverberg is once more an active writer. This is to be welcomed, for no contemporary writer has shown a greater mastery over the themes and motifs of science fiction, and few can match Silverberg's command of literary technique. If he has an enduring flaw, it is that his technical facility tends to make his work, however skilled, a little superficial; but in his best work, where there is emotional commitment to match the technique, this ceases to be a problem. Despite the extraordinary range of his career, he is still at an age where his best work may lie before him.

Merritt Abrash (essay date 1983)

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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 enough to arouse sympathy yet fascinating in their twenty-fourth-century context. Cleverly interrelated plot elements sustain dramatic interest from beginning to end. For sheer readability, The World Inside ranks among the best utopian novels, even though rather less than a masterpiece is necessary to join that particular company.

At the same time, it is a description in detail of a futuristic society which clearly belongs somewhere in the utopian/dystopian spectrum. Characters in the book talk about the society's utopian qualities, and in the course of the narrative the author provides numerous commentaries of his own. Through ingenious devices, such as the research into the past by a member who happens to be a trained historian, the nature of society in A.D. 2381 is observed through a variety of perspectives and temperaments. Concern with the basic utopian dilemma of the individual's relationship to society is always present behind plot developments.

Furthermore, this close integration of idea with story is achieved within an unambiguously science-fictional context. Several of the works surveyed in this volume [No Place Else] can be classified as science fiction, but The World Inside is the only one that first appeared in a science fiction magazine (Galaxy) in the hallowed serial form, and Robert Silverberg has described it (along with his Tower of Glass) as “closer to pure science fiction, the exhaustive investigation of an extrapolative idea, than anything else I have written.”1 As an exploration of an arguably utopian society, written by one of the best known names in the science fiction field and directed in the first instance toward precisely that audience, The World Inside has exceptional significance for students of utopian literature and thought.

The failure of science fiction novels to break into the ranks of widely studied utopian visions is interesting. Of course Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed have gained extensive recognition, but considering the natural proclivity of science fiction writers to deal with exotic civilizations at various removes of time and space, it is clear that connoisseurs of utopia dismiss the overwhelming proportion of science fiction output. This deserves some explanation, the better to understand how Silverberg avoids falling victim to it.

The bedrock of science fiction, as of mysteries, westerns and other genres, is action rather than reflection. The story is the sine qua non, not to be interfered with or slowed down by ideas. Serious utopian literature, however, reverses the relationship: ideas are what count, and the story is meant to lend point to the ideas and not to distract from them. “The distinction,” explained I. F. Clarke in a related context, “is that in Brave New World science is the situation; but in admirable stories like The Day of the Triffids science merely provides the opportunity for tales of action that are not very different from the adventures of Sinbad or Robinson Crusoe.”2 The near-absence of overlap between science fiction and utopian literature is attributable not to writers' skills or profundity, but to their priorities.

A case in point is Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, a renowned novel which takes place in a future setting rather akin to Silverberg's world of 2381. Both societies occupy entirely enclosed spaces (a roofed-over New York City in The Caves of Steel) and have made elaborate technological adjustments to deal with population pressure. But there the similarity ends, because whereas Silverberg is seriously concerned with the nature of individual and group life under such constraints, Asimov uses the futuristic environment only as a prop for his detective story. He has written about so many different things during his career that he could no doubt write about utopia as well, but, appearances notwithstanding, serious utopian insights or commentary are almost entirely absent from this novel.

The rationale for and operation of the supercities in The Caves of Steel receive only two pages of summary and conventional treatment, concerned entirely with outward aspects. No perceptible psychological change can be detected in the inhabitants, whose conversations, relationships and daily rounds seem remarkably like those of non-luxury apartment dwellers in a crowded late-twentieth-century metropolis. Even when novel mores or customs are described—“By strong custom men disregarded one another's presence entirely within or just outside the Personals [centralized lavatory-laundry chambers]. … The situation was quite different at Women's Personals”3—they prove to be solely for plot purposes and lack significant connections with the distinctive nature of the society. When a character speculates on the consequences of a potential technique for beaming energy to earth from space stations, the range of considerations is, in terms of utopian thinking, pitifully narrow:

Baley had the picture of an Earth of unlimited energy. Population could continue to increase. The yeast farms could expand, hydroponic culture intensify. Energy was the only thing indispensable. …

Earth's population could reach a trillion or two. Why not? … But they would be dependent on imported air and water and upon an energy supply from complicated storehouses fifty million miles away. How incredibly unstable that would be. Earth would be, and remain, a feather's weight away from complete catastrophe at the slightest failure of any part of the System-wide mechanism.4

Not a word about social instability, or the consequences of failure in the organizational mechanism. To be sure, such matters were less in evidence in the science fiction mainstream when Asimov wrote the book (1953) than they are now, but Silverberg's achievement in providing an absorbing plot and high level of action while remaining reflective and sophisticated about ideas is still an uncommon one.5 A summary of the world of 2381 will show the breadth of his treatment and how its science/technology features, while important, are kept subordinate to human aspects.

In 2381 the earth supports seventy-five billion people, of whom the overwhelming majority live in “urbmons,” self-contained (except for food) one-thousand-floor skyscrapers. A minute portion of the population lives in food-growing communes. Urbmons and communes are dependent on each other, but avoid direct contact and share no common culture, not even language.

Each urbmon is divided horizontally into “cities” of between twenty and forty floors, with about eight hundred people on each floor. The cities (which are further broken down into villages) have strong occupational identities and an undefined degree of control over their own affairs. In the center of the urbmon is the service core, including innumerable connections with a central computer, and underneath are facilities for “turning mass into energy”—recycling wastes, trash, the dead and, in the case of dangerous or persistent deviants, the living.

No one is allowed to leave the urbmon except to populate new urbmons or for professional requirements which cannot be satisfied by the gigantic data bank which is available to all. Maintenance outside the urbmons and the conveyance of products to and from the communes are carried out by robots.

Within the urbmon is a wide range of intellectual, recreational and spectator activities. Although formal religion still exists in attenuated forms, the dominant spiritual concept is the “blessworthiness” of maximizing human fertility. Most criteria of virtue, obscenity, etc., are related to this. Sexual activity is at the forefront of social interest, partly because of the pressures toward procreation and partly because urbmon society has, in consequence of population density, developed “post-privacy” norms which eliminate privacy in dress and behavior. All inhabitants agree that “the total accessibility of all persons to all other persons is the only rule by which the civilization of the urbmon can survive.”6

The urbmon in which the novel takes place is administered by a privileged ruling class which co-opts fresh talent wherever it appears. There does not seem to be any political process involving the population at large. Police exist, with no apparent duty except throwing deviants from urbmon ideals “down the chute” into the recycling process. Less serious cases are referred by “consolers”—first-line therapists—to “moral engineers” whose techniques, although gentle, permanently change personality. “Blessmen” offer superficial assurances of oneness with the universe to those who undergo moments of alienation.

Everyone in the urbmon works, although for the less intellectual classes there is a good deal of makework. Outside of working hours, one's time is one's own, and family life and the pursuit of individual entertainment are similar to twentieth-century counterparts except for the sexual mores which result from the rule that no one can refuse a reasonable sexual request. Sexual activity, which is engaged in with spouses, friends and total strangers alike, is at a phenomenal level of frequency. Since jealousy is incompatible with a post-privacy culture, liaisons are not meant to be taken “personally,” and traditional feelings of love and affection seem to play as full a role between husband and wife as in twentieth-century marriages. No mention is made of divorce or separation; almost all marriage partners are happy with each other and their family situations.

This information and a great many supporting details and statistics emerge without the use of much overt exposition in what is quite a short book—under two hundred pages. Silverberg manages this through a device rarely met with in utopian novels. Traditionally, a utopian plot line follows one character, usually a visitor or dissident, through a series of adventures which touch upon those features of the society important to the author. This can be unfortunate if the character is personally uninteresting (Julian West in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward), the adventures are not very adventurous (a long list, on which such worthies as William Morris's News from Nowhere must be included), or the emphasized features are presented in rigidly schematic form (the “journalistic” sections of Ernest Callenbach's otherwise skillfully constructed Ecotopia). The World Inside, in contrast, consists of seven distinct episodes, each focusing on different combinations of characters, most of whom are in more than one episode but none of whom are in all of them. This arrangement permits Silverberg to portray a great variety of aspects of urbmon life as elements in the lives of nicely assorted inhabitants who become familiar to the reader.

Chapter 1

The convenient device of an outsider being introduced to the society is employed in this one chapter, in the form of a sociocomputator from a settlement on Venus (still underpopulated) who is shown around an urbmon by a fellow professional, Charles Mattern.

Chapter 2

A young woman and her husband are selected to be among the initial population of a newly-built urbmon. She resists leaving the urbmon she has always lived in, is sent to the moral engineers, and is then able to leave without regrets.

Chapter 3

A musician, Dillon Chrimes, participates in a spectacular concert, then takes a pill which gives him the sensation of merging with everyone in the urbmon. It is a fantastic high, followed by a dreadful low.

Chapter 4

A married couple find themselves trying to arouse jealousy and acting generally “unblessworthy” toward each other. Just before they become likely candidates for going down the chute, he (a historian) realizes they are emotional throwbacks to pre-urbmon society. They conspire to camouflage their feelings, and find themselves deeply in love.

Chapter 5

Siegmund Kluver, a rising specialist in the theory of urban administration, discovers that the urbmon's leaders are debauched, self-aggrandizing and utterly cynical. At their orgy, to which his invitation is a major step toward joining their ranks, Siegmund hesitates to show these qualities in adequate measure and his prospects immediately fade.

Chapter 6

A computer primer, Michael Statler, becomes obsessed with the desire to see the outside world and forges an exit pass. He comes to a commune where he is charged with spying for the urbmon and almost sacrificed to a harvest god by the puritanical, superstitious farmers. He escapes back to the urbmon where he is immediately executed as a social danger.

Chapter 7

Siegmund Kluver tries to regain his sense of purpose by visiting a blessman, a consoler and various friends and strangers throughout the urbmon. When nothing succeeds, he climbs to the roof and in a moment of mystic exaltation jumps off trying to reach the sky.

The World Inside seems on first reading to have both the breadth and depth, the drama and insight, of a major utopian novel. A study of antecedents, internal consistency and implications will help determine if this work, most of which originally appeared in science fiction magazines, indeed belongs among the key visions in utopian literature.


The World Inside is certainly a “hive” society, but it is not so certain what a hive society should be. The only indisuputable characteristic seems to be extreme crowding. But “hive” also implies an enclosed space, and even though the dictionary definition does not require this, the hive concept is not easily kept distinct from mere crowdedness without it. The concept's source in insect societies also suggests that hives should manifest a high degree of organization, especially a drastic and wondrously efficient differentiation of functions between members of the society, who are programmed or conditioned to keep as busy as bees or as industrious as ants (or any other suitable metaphor).

However, few fictional societies have met the criteria of crowding, an enclosed space and organization along the lines of insect societies. H. G. Wells came close in The First Men in the Moon, where the huge numbers of Selenites inside the moon are biologically specialized beyond the dreams of the most fanatical Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. But since the Selenites actually are insects (or more insect than anything else), calling them a hive society doesn't quite come to grips with the issue. The Caves of Steel meets the physical critieria of a hive, but the lives of its characters bear no resemblance at all to those of ants or bees. They live instead like familiar human types who have had to make numerous piecemeal adjustments to overburdened space facilities. Both Wells and later commentators refer to When the Sleeper Wakes as a hive or anthill society, but rather than envisioning distinctive hive characteristics it describes a late-nineteenth-century society, with some features exaggerated, in a technologically visionary environment.

Silverberg's urbmons are completely enclosed and crowded to the limit the society's standards of civilized living will allow. This is of course a prescription for severe population pressure, which would seem an inescapable fact of life (so to speak) in a hive yet plays no part in Wells's novels mentioned above and is assumed to be under rational control in The Caves of Steel (“their I.Q. rating, Genetic Values status, and his position in the Department entitled him to two children, of which the first might be conceived during the first year”). Silverberg recognizes that population pressure in a hive environment will necessarily lead to social patterns unlikely in any but a hive society, and accordingly goes much further than Wells or Asimov in exploring not merely how a hive operates, but the effects of such operation on the way of life and the psychology of the inhabitants.

On the other hand, there is nothing of bee- or ant-like regimentation in the urbmon. Organization is pervasive and unchallengeable, yet no one seems to feel any urgency about their role in it. What little is said about the atmosphere and relationships in daily work makes them sound relaxed and even informal. No one has problems on the job (except poor Siegmund Kluver), working hours are apparently quite flexible, and specialization is no more intense than in any advanced twentieth-century industrial society. Insect hives were never like this.

Since The World Inside is a unique blend of some elements appropriate to a hive and others which are not, it cannot be expected to owe much to previous hive stories. Curiously, its chief debt is to a Wells story about a society which is neither fully enclosed nor rigidly organized and in fact can be considered a hive only in the elementary sense of crowdedness. But “A Story of the Days to Come” anticipates key environmental features of The World Inside, and makes some of its points about human consequences with plot developments very similar to those in the later novel.

Wells describes England in the twenty-second century, with the entire population concentrated in four huge cities.7 Thirty-three million people live in London and no one in the countryside, which is devoted exclusively to food production. The vertical orientation of the city is as emphatic as in an urbmon: “The towering buildings of the new age, the mechanical ways, the electric and water mains, all came to an end together, like a wall, like a cliff, near four hundred feet in height, abrupt and sheer.”8 And within the city, verticality provides the scale along which class is measured, just as in The World Inside: “The prosperous people lived in a vast series of sumptuous hotels in the upper storeys and halls of the city fabric; the industrial population dwelt beneath in the tremendous ground-floor and basement, so to speak, of the place.”9 Farming is done by a distinct social group, but instead of commune dwellers they are an enormous agricultural proletariat which the Food Company conveys out of the city each day. Production is so efficiently organized that weeds have almost disappeared, and fertilizer is supplied by fountains sprinkling deodorized urban sewage—a concept closely akin to the urbmon's distillation of urine into pure water for the inhabitants and chemicals to be sold to the communes. Moving roadways and widespread use of powered vehicles have made walking “a rare exercise,” and when Denton and Elizabeth, Wells's hero and heroine, walk from the city they soon find themselves footsore, just as Michael Statler, the obsessed computer primer in The World Inside, finds when he leaves the urbmon on foot that “short horizontal walks along the corridors have not prepared him for this.”

Denton and Elizabeth, who have decided to live in the uninhabited countryside in order to marry without means, are, like Michael, full of romantic imaginings about an outside world for which they are wholly unprepared. The newlyweds are besieged by savage dogs, and Michael narrowly escapes being sacrificed to the harvest god by the commune people. All three are likable, eager and courageous, but do not know how to live off the land or defend themselves against the dangers there. “Ours is the age of cities,” says Denton after the encounter with the dogs; “More of this will kill us. … To each generation, the life of its time. … In the city—that is the life to which we were born.”10 “His conditioning asserting itself after all,” writes Silverberg of Michael's flight back to the urbmon, “Environment conquering genetics” (p. 156). Denton, Elizabeth and Michael return to their cities defeated, the former to the harsh necessity of finding “means,” the latter to execution.

Later, in a moment of profound despair after becoming serfs of the Labor Company to avoid starvation, Denton and Elizabeth go to a high flying-machine landing stage on the outskirts of London and look at the stars. Denton has a mystical experience he can scarcely express:

Down there it would seem impossible almost to go on living if one were horribly disfigured, horribly crippled, disgraced. Up here—under these stars—none of those things would matter. They don't matter. … They are a part of something. One seems just to touch that something—under the stars.11

Siegmund Kluver, disgraced in fact and not merely in imagination, climbs to the top of the urbmon and has a similar experience.

Stepping out on the flat breeze-swept platform. Night, now. The stars glittering fiercely. Up there is god, immanent and all-enduring, floating serenely amidst the celestial mechanics. … Siegmund smiles. He stretches forth his arms. If he could only embrace the stars, he might find god. (Pp. 182-83.)

Denton, thwarted in his middle-class ambitions, subsides into the grim life of the lowest class; Siegmund, who had aimed much higher, leaps off the urbmon.

The points of resemblance do not extend past these matters of environment and plot into the natures of the two societies. Urbmon inhabitants sincerely contend that they are living in utopia, but no one could make such a claim for the society in Wells's story, where class differences have been hardened by technological advance and their effects compounded by the inequities of the economic system. Even considered as a dystopia, “A Story of the Days to Come” is confusing to analyze, since Wells provides little hard information about its economics and none at all about its politics. (These gaps are filled in When the Sleeper Wakes, which is a much more significant futuristic vision but, in the absence of the adventures of Denton and Elizabeth, less closely related to The World Inside..)

In contrast to “A Story of the Days to Come,” The World Inside is crammed with details and statistics about urbmon society. Information about its economic life is plentiful, and its politics are seen through the eyes of a rising administrator who proffers convenient insights and analyses. The initial impression made by the two works considered together is that in this case Wells fell into the occupational hazard of simply telling a story, whereas Silverberg retrieved Wells's hints and fragments and constructed a genuine utopian vision around them. The question to be explored is the validity of that vision.


Utopian novels have traditionally been more specific about institutions (or lack of them) than about the corresponding individual and mass psychologies. In Utopia, More imparts all kinds of information about how Utopian society operates and its prevailing religious and philosophical beliefs, but little sense of the Utopians themselves aside from their relentless commitment to propriety and keen conviction of superiority to all other peoples. Looking Backward is notorious for the shallowness of its portrayal of personal and social life in A.D. 2000, in sharp contrast to the depth and passion of Bellamy's vision of a new economic and class order. No doubt this emphasis on how a society works is an occupational hazard of utopian novelists in the same way as science fiction writers give priority to narrative action, and it is a measure of Silverberg's skill that in The World Inside he avoids these particular tendencies of both types of writers.

Avoiding a tendency, however, is not the same as striking a balance, and Silverberg's penetrating exploration of the psychological consequences of urbmon society is accompanied by a strangely inadequate approach to institutions. This may sound like an unreasonable criticism, since The World Inside is replete with descriptions and explanations of the urbmon's operation, backed up with numerous statistics.12 Yet from all this information no clear picture emerges of how the politics and economics of urbmon society actually work. The vagueness about politics is especially puzzling, since the character most in evidence throughout the novel is Siegmund Kluver, who is well on his way to becoming one of the ruling elite and lets the reader in on privileged information about how the urbmon is governed. But what his insights boil down to is that the leading men (apparently all the top administrators are male) are power-hungry, self-serving and cynical, and delegate all work except decision-making. Nissim Shawke, the thoroughly unpleasant possessor of vast administrative power, does, as far as Siegmund can tell, “nothing at all. He refers all governmental matters to his subordinates. … Shawke need not do but only be. Now he marks time and enjoys the comforts of his position. Sitting there like a Renaissance prince. … A single memorandum from him might be able to reverse some of the urbmon's most deeply cherished policies. Yet he originates no programs, he vetoes no proposals, he ducks all challenges” (p. 97). He also makes cruel fun of Siegmund's idealism and particularly any suggestions that urbmon life should live up to its utopian professions even if administratively inconvenient.

The other leading administrators are more amiable than Shawke but equally lacking in commitment and dynamism. Even the orgy at which Siegmund loses his nerve deserves no better than his disdain: “So common, so vulgar, the cheap hedonism of a ruling class.” Yet Silverberg would have us believe that these decadent citizens and indifferent administrators, who in fact in his portrayal do not have a single redeeming quality among the lot of them, are allowed to possess power and privilege without a whisper of opposition, not even from the ambitious “rung-grabbers” rising in the official hierarchy. And this in a society where political standards are neither reinforced by the prevailing ideology nor imposed by formal conditioning!

Such an incongruity is possible because the book makes no effort to analyse the fundamental nature of urbmon politics. Siegmund cannot figure out which of the leaders is most important: “At the top level, power becomes an abstraction; in one sense everybody in Louisville [the topmost floors] has absolute authority over the entire building, and in another sense no one has” (p. 96). In the absence of further explanation, the “inside information” air of this statement merely disguises a complete lack of content. And what about the governmental level among or above the urbmons? One must exist, since decisions are made to build new urbmons and allocate resources for them, but it is never mentioned.

The nature of urbmon economics is even vaguer. No one buys things, gets salaries, handles money or is needy, so it is logical to assume that distribution is organized on communistic principles. However, there are occasional references to expense, and at one point Siegmund “authorizes a credit transfer to the blessman's account.” The vast economic and social implications of “credit transfer” are so studiously ignored that the phrase seems to have wandered in from another book. Silverberg seems no more concerned with the economic than with the political functioning of urbmon society.

Of course the utopian writer gives unequal emphasis to different aspects of his or her imagined society. The areas perceived as most significant—in all likelihood the ones in which contemporary disharmonies stimulated the author to construct a utopia in the first place—will receive the most serious and detailed attention. Other elements will be treated less fully (or even, as in the case of the common people in Plato's Republic, ignored altogether) or simply settled arbitrarily. The outstanding example of the latter is the reaction of the hero of News from Nowhere to the “force vehicles” which convey heavy loads on land or water without noise, pollution or visible machinery: “I took good care not to ask any questions about them, as I knew well enough … that I should never be able to understand how they were worked.”13

Just as Morris's “Nowhere” required an ideal form of mechanical power but his real interest was in entirely different aspects of the society, urbmons must have politics and economics but Silverberg's primary concerns lie elsewhere. The illusion he gives of having provided many answers obscures the fact that, like Morris's hero confronting the force vehicles, he takes care (but much more skillfully) to avoid asking serious questions about the less favored subjects. The social relations of urbmon society are what really interest him, and it is in that area, where he is most specific and consistent, that the essential utopian/dystopian quality is to be found. Sexual mores, of course, dominate urbmon sociology, but class considerations are surprisingly prominent. Although there is some relationship between material goods and class, the main indicator of status is vertical location in the urbmon, just as in “A Story of the Days To Come.” Location is determined generally by occupation, with a ranking of rulers, professionals, minor officials, technical workers and manual workers similar to twentieth-century evaluations. Education, sophistication and even per capita living space decline as one descends in the urbmon, and classes have little contact with each other, which is not a surprise to the reader after the information that inhabitants of the upper floors label those of the lower with the term “grubbos.”

If these attitudes toward class are reminiscent of Silverberg's own twentieth century, class characteristics are even more so. Top administrators and their families display arrogance and “cool” and are in no doubt of their superiority. In our only glimpse of them, industrial workers are described as “slumped and sullen human handlers.” Artists live in San Francisco, rather low in the building but a tolerant place where “we don't push hard.” The description by musician Dillon Chrimes of the inhabitants of Rome, which is located in the middling 500s, will be familiar to readers of modern European fiction.

The people here are mostly minor bureaucrats, a middle echelon of failed functionaries. … Here they will stay in this good gray city, frozen in hallowed stasis, doing dehumanized jobs that any computer could handle forty times as well. Dillon feels a cosmic pity for everyone who is not an artist, but he pities the people of Rome most of all, sometimes. Because they are nothing. Because they can use neither their brains nor their muscles. Crippled souls; walking zeros; better off down the chute. (p. 44.)

Unlike class considerations, sexual mores have undergone drastic change, and this is Silverberg's real focus of interest in terms of pages devoted to it and depth of analysis. Mattern explains to his visitor from Venus that “each of us has access at any time to any other adult member of the community,” and that means exactly what it says. Access is institutionalized in the practice of nightwalking, whereby anyone (but almost always the male) can enter any room in the entire urbmon (but as a matter of good form people are expected to stick to their own cities) for any sexual purpose within reason. Nightwalking is at the core of “post-privacy culture,” guaranteeing—so urbmon theory runs—that frustration, which would be explosive in a hive, will be forestalled. Since no one can withhold anything from anyone else, there is nothing to get frustrated about on the interpersonal level. The devaluation of the emotional intensity of sex in favor of sheer physical expertise reduces the danger of social strain that much further.

The World Inside's description of a stable and unregimented post-privacy culture is an original contribution to futuristic thought, a refreshing change from the usual population-pressure scenario of desperate social measures and totalitarian politics. However, imposing a radical new sexual code to enable people to live in hives, when hardly anyone would choose to live in a hive, seems a bit perverse. Wouldn't it make more sense to simply stop living in hives? But that cannot be done in the world of 2381, because the core of religion, morality and social planning is the absolute priority of unlimited fertility. Nightwalking is not only a mechanism for controlling frustration, but a tribute to the sacred duty to procreate. Sexual training and deliberate stimulation are not only aspects of society in which sex is fully open, but social aids toward the fulfillment of the most profound ethical obligation. The proliferation of human life in 2381 is perceived not as a population “problem” but as an exalted condition of things to which men and women, in their essential humanity, have discovered how to adjust their attitudes, behavior and institutions.

When the Venusian visitor happens to mention fertility control, Mattern, although a sophisticated sociologist, “clutches his genitals in shock at the unexpected obscenity. … ‘Please don't use that phrase again. Particularly if you're near children.’” He then provides as provocative a formulation of utopian criteria as any ever written:

“We hold that life is sacred. Making new life is blessed. One does one's duty to god by reproducing. … To be human is to meet challenges through the exercise of intelligence, right? And one challenge is the multiplication of inhabitants in a world that has seen the conquest of disease and the elimination of war. We could limit births, I suppose, but that would be sick, a cheap, anti-human way out. Instead we've met the challenge of overpopulation triumphantly, wouldn't you say? And so we go on and on, multiplying joyously, our numbers increasing by three billion a year, and we find room for everyone, and food for everyone. Few die, and many are born, and the world fills up, and god is blessed, and life is rich and pleasant, and as you see we are all quite happy. We have matured beyond the infantile need to place layers of insulation between man and man.” (pp. 12-13.)

The power of this statement lies (as is the case with all significant utopian statements) in its self-sufficient quality, its invulnerability to refutation on its own ground. If life is better than death, if encouragement and support of new lives is better than prevention or suppression, if human ingenuity can find room and food for everyone, where is the opening for dispute? When Mattern says, “Can you deny that we are happy here?” his use of “happy” may not be the same as someone else's, but that is a different argument, as John Savage finds out in attempting to grapple with Mustapha Mond's self-sufficient argument in Brave New World. In any event, the Venusian does not even try to answer his host, and Silverberg's own response, while effective enough in literary terms, is deeply flawed in its character as serious utopian commentary.


Silverberg's reaction to Mattern's claim of utopia is not in doubt. Every chapter in the novel ends on an ironic or negative note pointing up the diminished human quality of urbmon life. This gets rather heavyhanded toward the end. After alert, eager Michael Statler, whose expressions of initiative and curiosity closely reflect most twentieth-century readers' professed values, has been speedily executed upon his return from “the world outside,” the chapter concludes: “The journey is over. The source of peril has been eradicated. The urbmon has taken the necessary protective steps, and an enemy of civilization has been removed.” Siegmund's soul-tormented leap off the urbmon is immediately followed by the novel's final paragraph, in which dawn breaks over the urbmon and “God Bless! Here begins another happy day.”

Michael and Siegmund have plenty of company in their disenchantment—namely, all the main characters in the book. Perhaps the most obvious evidence for Silverberg's determination to portray urbmon society as dystopia is his failure to allow a good look at contented members. Mattern, to be sure, is completely adjusted, but after serving as guide in the first chapter he scarcely appears again, and is not a particularly attractive character when he does (“sleek, fast-talking” and “tight-souled” are the adjectives attached to him). Even during the “happy day” in the first chapter he is “sickened and dizzied” when he remembers his brother thrown down the chute many years before for antisocial behavior.

Dillon Chrimes, the musician, seems perfectly adjusted and at times filled with a positive delight about the urbmon. He enjoys a full life, has complete freedom to exercise his art, and toward the end of his ecstatic drug episode exults “‘Oh what a beautiful place. Oh how I love it here. Oh this is the real thing. Oh!’” But the net effect of the drug trip is negative—“‘You go all the way up, then you come all the way down. But why does it have to be so far down?’” (pp. 60-61)—and his creativity is temporarily blocked.

Dillon later admits to Siegmund, who has confessed his own feelings of alienation, that on the downside from the drug the urbmon “‘struck me as just an awful hideous beehive of a place.’” Nevertheless, “‘what's the good of hating the building? I mean, the urbmon's a real solution to real problems, isn't it?’” Since it works most of the time, and there's no sensible alternative, “‘we stay here. And groove on the richness of it all’” (p. 169). So even Dillon, who has experienced that total identity with his fellows which is the ultimate fulfillment of a hive's inner nature, offers no better justification for the urbmon than utilitarian calculation.

Even nightwalking, which is universally recognized as indispensable to post-privacy culture and also as a liberation from the “sterilizing” emotions of earlier societies, is not exempted from the disillusion afflicting all the main characters. Siegmund leaves his room because a nightwalker is visiting his wife there (although in a post-privacy culture no one cares if he stays), then realizes he is more interested in sleep than in sex. “Nightwalking suddenly seems an abomination to him: forced, unnatural, compulsive. The slavery of absolute freedom” (p. 174).

Silverberg does himself a disservice by concentrating on the dissidents and pointing up their plight with his own overt commentary. A mock utopia is most effectively exposed when it is shown at its best (by its own standards) and that best proves to be grotesque. Huxley does this superbly in Brave New World—Henry Foster, Lenina and Mustapha Mond are allowed to go through their usual paces on their own terms, and if the results appear ridiculous and appalling, it is not because Huxley says so, but because they are inherently ridiculous and appalling in the light of his readers' standards and need only be described to be condemned. Silverberg, in contrast, rarely lets his imagined civilization speak for itself.

A more serious flaw in The World Inside as a dystopian novel is that it strains the limits of utopian plausibility. Of course all utopian fiction involves a high degree of speculative “what if?,” but the “if” should not be ruled out by the nature of things. If the lion has to lie down with the lamb, or telepathy become a common mode of communication, or a comet's gases transform human nature, the story should be classified as a fantasy rather than a utopian vision. The cult of maximum fertility in The World Inside—which demands positive action toward procreation, not merely the elimination of restraints (i.e., continence is as morally reprehensible as abortion), and does so as a permanent command, not merely as a temporary measure to offset some population deficiency—is so exceptional a departure in recorded human affairs14 that readers need a plausible scenario of the events and attitudes which brought it about. Silverberg fails to provide this.

Historical developments from the twentieth century to the twenty-fourth are never described. A historian reflects that the twentieth century was the climax of the “ancient era,” followed by a chaotic twenty-first and the arrival at modern times in the twenty-second, but the reader is left to guess what happened, and why New York's skyscrapers have been reduced to stumps and London is deep under water. Nearest to a causal explanation of the preoccupation with fertility is the remark, made in light conversation, that “‘a cultural imperative telling us to breed and breed and breed [is] natural, after the agonies of pre-urbmon days, when everybody went around wondering where we were going to put all the people’” (p. 25)—and that is not very near. Thus urbmon society, which could not have come into existence without extraordinary events in both the material and ideological realms, floats in mid-air as far as historical conviction goes.

The World Inside’s most damaging shortcoming as a utopian novel—as a manifestation of serious visionary ideas in a persuasive fictional framework—is that too many of urbmon society's characteristics do not follow logically from its inner nature. The caste system in Brave New World mirrors perfectly the values and priorities of Fordian society, but the class system in The World Inside is simply arbitrary. Nothing in the organization of urbmon life makes class privilege and snobbery necessary or even probable. The only reason equality of sexual access does not produce the same social equality as equal income in Looking Backward or equality of refusal in Eric Frank Russell's … And Then There Were None is that Silverberg makes the outcome different. The same can be said about the political system. In Looking Backward it is a wholly logical outgrowth of socioeconomic priorities, but in The World Inside it is reduced to administration by a cynical elite for no stronger reason than that the author says so.

On a broader scale, all aspects of life on Le Guin's utopian planet Anarres flow persuasively from the society's ideological foundations, just as they did centuries earlier in More's Utopia. But many of the features of urbmon society do not survive the elementary question, “Why should they have taken these forms and not others?” Something as taken for granted as the rigid prohibition against leaving the urbmon is, when considered apart from story line, only one alternative among several. Sightseeing trips in land or air vehicles, for example, could hardly engender more restlessness than the frequent travelog shows on the “screen.”

All of this suggests that The World Inside is a dystopia because its author uses his literary skill to make it sound like one, not because he demonstrates that a society organized like an urbmon will inevitably be a dystopian place to live. Instead of persuading his readers that the application of some principles which may seem obviously in the human interest will actually lead to diminished human qualities in the future, Silverberg portrays a future which is less human mainly because he imposes unattractive features on it. He loads the dice so consistently that the cautionary element (inseparable from all dystopian visions) is clearly intended to be taken seriously, but it is not easy to pin down just what is being cautioned against. On the assumption that the novel is concerned with something of greater scope than “permissiveness” or “hedonism,” it seems to point to the loss of individualistic/romantic freedom under conditions of pervasive organization, even when that organization is not overtly oppressive and makes possible so estimable a goal as that propounded by Mattern after his visitor's reference to fertility control. The basic theme is hardly original, but is presented in an absorbing fictional framework and with some unusual variations.

But the classics of utopian literature do more (sometimes without even doing that): they weave so tight a bond between a society’s inner nature and institutional and psychological manifestations that the reader cannot help thinking, “Yes, it would have to be like that.” The urbmons, however, do not have to be as Silverberg describes them. What makes for literary effectiveness in a cautionary tale does not necessarily contribute to a fuller understanding of ideas. The World Inside, an outstanding achievement as science fiction, falls short of the more rarefied level of significant utopian thought.


  1. In Hell's Cartographers, ed. Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1975), p. 40.

  2. The Tale of the Future (London: Library Association, 1961).

  3. The Caves of Steel, in The Robot Novels (Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, n.d.), p. 37.

  4. Ibid., pp. 137-38.

  5. Silverberg accomplished the same feat in his short story “Getting Across,” in Future City, ed. Roger Elwood, (New York: Trident, 1973). The story features a suspenseful adventure in a highly original yet plausible dystopian setting, the origins of which are intelligently described.

  6. The World Inside (Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, 1971), p. 7.

  7. In its description of the physical appearance and functioning of the twenty-second-century world, “A Story of the Days to Come” is like a trial run for When the Sleeper Wakes, in which Wells greatly expanded this aspect. Therefore several of the points in this and the following paragraph are identical, or nearly so, with material in the latter novel.

  8. “A Story of the Days to Come,” in The Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells (London: Benn, 1948), p. 741.

  9. Ibid., p. 737.

  10. Ibid., p. 751.

  11. Ibid., p. 771.

  12. Despite his attention to most matters of detail, Silverberg's arithmetic suffers from a carelessness which lessens the impact of his “facts.” The most serious case concerns world population. This is said (by both a sociocomputator and an administrative insider, so it must be assumed to be the correct figure) to total seventy-five billion. But consider the following points, all quite clear in the book:

    1. The Chipitts constellation of fifty urbmons contains forty million people.

    2. Chipitts is not the largest constellation but is larger than most.

    3. Constellations cover large stretches of territory: from Chicago to Pittsburgh, Boston to Washington, San Francisco to San Diego, Berlin to Paris, Vienna to Budapest, Shanghai to Hong Kong, Bogota to Caracas, to list the ones actually referred to in the book. There is plenty of room between them, since no part of any other constellation is visible from the top of the three-kilometer- high urbmon in which the story takes place.

    4. Michael Statler walks many miles from the urbmon without coming across a single house or person, and when he is flown even further away, the settlement he arrives at is a small town at best. The non-urbmon population is clearly a negligible part of the world total.

    The conclusion from these points is that world population cannot be anywhere near seventy-five billion. If forty million is a more or less average figure for a constellation, it would take almost two thousand constellations to reach seventy-five billion; but since constellations cover such enormous swaths of land, it would be impossible to fit even five hundred of them on the earth's habitable surface.

    Less significant in the novel but still indicative of carelessness with numbers is the calculation of the urbmon's midpoint, where Dillon Chrimes, for symbolic reasons, wants to be when he starts his transcendent drug experience. He has to settle for the 500th floor even though the “true midpoint” is “somewhere between 499 and 500.” But of course the midpoint in a 1000-floor building is between 500 and 501.

    Finally, when Charles Mattern is showing his visitor from Venus around the urbmon, they enter a newlyweds' dormitory where “a dozen couples are having intercourse on a nearby platform.” Elsewhere in the book such a dormitory is described as shared by thirty-one couples (which, it is further explained, is eight more than it was meant to hold). The carelessness in the reference to “a dozen couples” lies simply in the failure to think about the implications of a number, since the possibility of almost half the couples having intercourse at the same daytime moment is, even in the supersexed urbmon atmosphere, exceedingly remote.

  13. William Morris, News from Nowhere (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1890), p. 140.

  14. Societies have attached spiritual value to a high level of procreation, for example in obedience to the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, but that is not the same thing as bending every effort to achieve the greatest possible number of births among the entire population. It has been suggested to me that nineteenth-century Mormon society might be a precedent for insistence on maximum fertility.

Ian Stewart (review date 7 July 1990)

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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 original Nightfall, written by Isaac Asimov and published in Astounding in 1941, has suspended its readers' disbelief so effectively that it has topped more than one poll as the best SF short story of all time. Now Asimov and Robert Silverberg have expanded it into a novel. Hubris often begets nemesis; expanded timescales can leave the reader with an uncomfortably long period in which to ponder the tale's internal logic. The temptation to look, 50 years on, for flaws, is irresistible. So is the temptation to compare rewrite with original for cultural influences.

Irresistible temptations, by definition, cannot be resisted.

The remarkable appeal of Nightfall (1941) can be traced in part to its being science fiction: a story about science in the making and the scientists who make it, rather than about technological gimmicks. The scene is the planet Lagash, blessed with six suns, and upon which at least one sun never sets. The inhabitants never experience darkness; in consequence lack of light drives them mad. A group of astronomers, using the newly discovered law of gravitation, is led to postulate the existence of an unknown “nonluminous planetary body” whose orbit eclipses the red star Beta once every 2049 years, when it is alone in the sky … and an eclipse is on the way. Coincidentally, the Book of Revelations of The Cult, a bunch of religious fanatics, tells of strange things called “stars” appearing in the sky every two thousand years, and fire destroying the world. The fanatics are right, of course; and the maddened citizens set fire to their cities in a desperate bid to obtain light.

In Nightfall (1990) Lagash has become Kalgash (I have no idea why) and Beta is now Dovim. The story has three phases: well before the eclipse, the immediate events surrounding it, and the aftermath. The initial build-up is handled well, the background is filled in quite convincingly, and again the feeling of science in action propels the story along very effectively. In 1941 all the scientists were male, of course, and for once the traditional female SF role of scantily-clad victim went unrepresented. By 1990 there is a major female character, the archaeologist Siferra 89, who discovers—by accident—the layered remains of some seven to nine ancient cities, each separated from the next by a layer of ash, neatly spaced 2000 years apart. The Cult—now the Apostles of Flame—continues to play a key role, provoking the scientists' anger at its irrationality, especially when it dawns on them that the Apostles are right.

The eclipse itself has moments of high drama, but the slower pace of the novel and the tendency of characters to explain to each other things that the reader has already witnessed three pages earlier tends to dull the dramatic edge. Disbelief, given more time to grow, does so. Since every home possesses a “god-light” for use in darkened rooms, and the eclipse only lasts 12 hours, one begins to wonder why the scientists make so little effort to convince their government to take action. It would not have been hard to get everyone to stay home and wait it out. The blame for governmental indifference is laid at the door of the sceptical journalist Theremon; but is this really convincing? (Mind you, Mrs Thatcher's disregard of mad cow disease does cast doubt upon how much sense a government would actually exhibit if told the end of the world was at hand …)

Despite the blurb's promises, the aftermath is the most disappointing part of the book: a run-of-the-mill post-disaster scenario in which random protagonists wander around ineffectually, encountering entirely predictable and unconvincingly portrayed scenes of violence, insanity or squalor. Only because they tend to bump fortuitously into each other at crucial moments do any of them survive to participate in the final dénouement. The Apostles, so central to the build-up, disappear from view for so long that one wonders whether the authors have forgotten about them, until they suddenly emerge with a master-plan. I do not want to spoil the ending by telling you what it is, but for me the final twist wasn't very convincing. And poor Siferra 89, imported in the first part to even the scientific gender balance for the affirmative-action 1990s, ends up in part three doing little more than providing some love interest for Theremon. Apart from a gratuitous gunpoint striptease.

It is possible to go back to old ideas and breathe new life. Asimov did it well with Prelude to Foundation.Nightfall (1990) is readable, and not lacking in appeal to fans of the original. But it could have been done so much better. Nightfall (1941) ends with one of the most chilling final sentences in SF: “The long night had come again.” Nightfall (1990) ends with the journalist getting the girl.

Tom Easton (review date August 1993)

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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 went up the mountain, all the way to the distant summit of Kosa Saag, and met those gods. They gave him such gifts as fire, and every year since then the people have selected forty of their best and brightest to retrace that holy ascension and return with more gifts. Unfortunately, it has been a long, long time since anyone returned in his or her right mind.

As Robert Silverberg's Kingdoms of the Wall begins, narrator Pollar Crookleg is relating how he and his best friend, the physically weak, inquisitive Traiben, swore as children to reach the summit. As the time when the Forty of their age-group will be chosen nears, that seems a silly vow, but they are indeed selected and sent off with banners and hooplah. What's more, Silverberg indicates that the chosen Forty are chosen not because they are some sort of elite but because they are those the community can do without—troublemakers, intellectuals who might rock the boat, leaders who might lead in untraditional directions. Perhaps Kosa Saag is only an excuse, a way to make exile look like an honor.

Are there parallels in our own world? Think of the exigencies of making a living, which distract from the drives to lead or achieve or create. Pick some kid with a way of asking awkward questions, make him or her valedictorian, graduate him or her summa cum laude from some good college, give him or her a good job, a spouse, a house, and some kids, and watch him or her settle into stasis.

Do the climbers settle into stasis? Watch as Poilar and the Forty he leads go up the mountain. At first the ascent is easy. There are signs that their people once lived higher on the slopes than they do now, but the hazards are few and manageable. They progress. They find that the Wall they know is only a foothill, and the peak rises and rises and rises above them, with no summit ever in sight. They find settlements of monsters, previous climbers who fell prey to the snares beside the way or gave up and built homes and had families. Stasis indeed. The ordinary, set high in the world, at best only thinly disguised by the trappings of success.

It becomes very clear that very few persevere all the way to the summit. And those who do go mad.

Why? That's not a question I can answer without giving away far too much. So far, Silverberg is being very clever about criticizing our society, saying that it has fallen, that it casts out its best, its truest strivers, that it so arranges things that those strivers are best rewarded when they cease to strive and become complacent, when they fall into sycophancy, when they succumb to routine. He is also hinting that those who persevere despite all the pressures upon them to conform do not find the satisfaction they crave. In fact, if they ever reach the goal of their quest, they are crashingly disillusioned.

The tale moves right along, propelled by sex and monsters and precarious situations. It holds the interest, and ultimately it satisfies. Yet the analogies are a little obvious—less so than in a Pilgrim's Progress but still blatant enough to make the reader grimace at the periodical feel of Silverberg's thumb in his ribs.

Joseph M. Dudley (essay date Winter 1994)

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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 (after losing its status as a phallic symbol with the emergence of the God-is-Dead movement) had come to symbolize to readers not only their own “expanding consciousness” and “the meaning of god, and of man's search for god” (43), but also “a recognition of the subjective ‘reality’ of religious experience to the individual human being” (44).

While contemporary movements such as cyberpunk1 bear witness to how this “subjective reality” has evolved into the present by “removing [the infinite] from its exalted place in the heavens … and squeezing it into the interface between human mind and computer technology” (Voller 20), the books to which Merril refers still communicate much information about how humankind searches for divine elements, both within itself and in the whole of the physical universe. Two works of the period, Philip Jose Farmer's Night of Light (1966) and Robert Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (1970), exemplify this search, signifying a clean break with a view of the universe “governed by an inevitable linear progression onward and upward” in which “[humanity is] assured that a better life on a better world await[s]” (Clareson, “History” 14-15). Also, both of these novels represent a sub-branch of the American New Wave2 (expressed in this country through “a concern with [radical] politics and [alternate] lifestyles” [Scholes and Rabkin 88]), which was itself in turn a development of the postmodern era which began in 1945 with the explosion of the atomic bomb. Thus it characterized itself socially via its “extended deterrence for permanent international alliances” (Kurth 31) and artistically for its recognition that “all relationships are ambiguous, and there is no single ‘story’ and no single ‘meaning’ that can be derived [from it]” (Bank 228).

Farmer’s novel (appearing first as an F&SF novella in 1957, then later gleaning a Nebula nomination when it appeared in novel length) concerns “dualism, the split between immortality and rebirth, the universality of religious truth expressed through the images of [the protagonist's] sin of pride not through humility or degradation, but through the self-aggrandizement of creation” (Brizzi 25). In the same vein, Silverberg's novel (first serialized in Galaxy in 1969) is described as a “several layered work full of symbolism, anti-imperialism, and antiethnocentrism” (De Bolt and Pfeiffer 273) which “employ[s] the motif of contact between human and alien to explore the themes of redemption and transcendence” (Clareson, Silverberg 50). Additionally, given the fact that both works are set on distant worlds with their own peculiar sociopolitical systems and physical laws, each novel answers J. G. Ballard's 1962 call for “more meta-biological and meta-chemical concepts, private time-systems, synthetic psychologies and space-times, [and] more of the remote, sombre half-worlds one glimpses in the paintings of schizophrenics” (Lundwall 232) through the development of plots which intentionally break with relentless “binary systems and their historic connections to the linear thought of modernism, with its causes and effects, direct correspondence with ‘life,’ certainty about what is ‘real,’ and its intellectual, social and artistic investment in ‘truth,’ ‘sources,’ and ‘meaning’” (Bank 228).

As a direct effect of inhabiting universes in which conventional theories of time and space have been abandoned, the characters of both novels are thus left free to focus on the various epistemological doubles which are summarily created and discarded during the religious “quest.” However, in order for these doubles to simultaneously come into and go out of existence, the protagonists (already displaced in physical space by their attempts to locate a higher plane of existence) must personally interact with their surroundings in such a way that both character and environment are ultimately transformed. Therefore, both Farmer's John Carmody and Silverberg's Edmund Gundersen, besides being “concerned with the nature and significance of ‘miracles’ and ‘divine manifestations,’” are also engaged by “the ethical and theological conflicts posed by diverse manifestations in a universe no longer conceived of as uniform in its ‘realities’” (Merril 44). In this respect, each character then represents a fragmented personality existing within a decidedly “Other” (Foucault, Order 326) space which at once demands and facilitates constant transformation. Thus the break with—and total disregard for—the idea of humanity's off-world “manifest destiny” (which appeared in such novels as Louis P. Gratacap's The Certainty of a Future Life on Mars [1903], Mark Wicks's To Mars Via the Moon [1911], and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men [1930]) highlights a postmodernist vision in which multitudinous levels of discourse may be engendered by a single concept. As Michel Foucault observes, “displacements and transformations … show that the history of a concept is not wholly and entirely that of its progressive refinement, its continuously increasing rationality, its abstraction gradient, but that of its various fields of constitution and validity, that of its successive rules of use, that of the many theoretical contexts in which it developed and matured” (Archaeology 4).

Joe De Bolt and John R. Pfeiffer have criticized the far-future alien world of Night of Light for societal structures appearing “unrealistically too similar to the present” (200). However, Roger C. Schlobin notes that the novel is characterized “by the mixture of the real and the unreal, the mystical and the mundane” (259), and Farmer specialist Mary T. Brizzi observes that the planet Kareen “is the perfect setting for a novel [concerning] the reality of dreams,” a place where “[m]en and women turn into statues, trees, satyrs, and other mythological monsters” (30). Indeed, Kareen (known colloquially as Dante's Joy) is a world well acquainted with bizarre physical and mental displacements due to a periodic solar aberration. For example, as the Night of Light approaches, protagonist John Carmody chases after the skin of his dead wife's face when it appears in the air and is borne away on the wind (Farmer 1). Later he is drenched in blood as it erupts from a mirror in Mrs. Kri's boarding house (Farmer 22), an incident which, perhaps intentionally, recalls the final moments of Antonin Artaud's surrealist drama, The Spurt of Blood.

Clareson notes of Silverberg's Downward to the Earth that it is “a story concerned with ‘inner space’ as much as ‘outer space’” (Downward 592), a quality which becomes immediately apparent when the reader learns protagonist Edmund Gundersen has lost the “prime decade of his life” to Belzagor (known to Earthmen as Holman's World) while learning there “things about himself that he had not really wanted to know” (Silverberg 7). The mystery which has drawn him back eight years after Earth's relinquishment of the planet is ostensibly the relationship between the elephantine nildoror and the baboon-like sulidoror. To understand this relationship, Gundersen admits to a nildor “many-born” that his soul has been “captured” by the planet and asks permission to travel into the sulidor mist country, where nildoror go to experience the rite of rebirth (Silverberg 42).

With the exceptions of Schlobin and Brizzi, what the critics cited above fail to acknowledge is that the settings of the novels—the planets Kareen and Belzagor—are not merely one-dimensional backgrounds for the machinations of the characters but rather fully realized, four-dimensional locales (possessing, if we invoke Einstein, three dimensions of space and one of time) in which reside “a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another” (Foucault “Other Spaces” 23). Yet, that these two “synthetic space-times” (the doubling and transforming natures of which are hinted at by the fact that both possess alternate names) are at once the locus of vital theological beliefs and radical religious activities is a factor which imbues each with heterotopic power to make the imagined real by “juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (25). Significantly for both novels, the surroundings which then claw and gnaw at Carmody and Gundersen are

neither substanceless void[s] to be filled by cognitive intuition nor repositor[ies] of physical forms to be phenomenologically described in all [their] resplendent variability. [They represent] another [kind of] space … [an] actually lived and socially created spatiality, concrete and abstract at the same time, the habitus of social practices. [As heterotopias, they are spaces] rarely seen [in their most true and complete form,] for [they have, by general consensus,] been obscured by a bifocal vision that traditionally views space as either a mental construct or a physical form. (Soja 17-18)

That Gundersen, at the beginning of Silverberg's novel, is returning to a space previously vacated signals not only that he has undergone some form of uncompleted transformation here, but that it was indeed radical enough to make life without its completion impossible to endure. Early on, a peculiarly spatial aspect of this transformation is revealed: during his tenure as sector chief, Gundersen once drank raw serpent venom (a sacred element in the rebirth ceremony [Silverberg 111]) with fellow officers and a few delinquent nildoror, in effect performing a blasphemous parody of the parent ritual. The hallucinogenic venom caused Gundersen's body to transform for a short time into that of one of the elephantine aliens, an experience which displaced him in the spaces he sought to occupy—Holman's World in general, more specifically the Serpent Station. Furthermore, this displacement and its accompanying psychological effects were attested to by the fact that three days later Gundersen applied for and received a transfer to another part of the planet, never returning to that particular post again (Silverberg 34-36).

Unlike Gundersen, Farmer's John Carmody is shown early in the novel to be the agent of others' transformations. He is both a criminal and a murderer, having violated previously occupied spaces by stealing the treasured Staronif of the planet Tulgey (Farmer 95) and then killing his wife because she was pregnant with another man's child (Farmer 31)—an act which has caused his own displacement in space, as he is in hiding on the planet and cannot hope to safely leave it. However, from within the space he now occupies, Carmody witnesses transformations which he has not initiated, but which have come about due to the solar aberration causing the Night of Light. Thus he sees a satyr (who before the Night began was a Catholic monk) having sex with the simulacrum of his deceased wife (Farmer 35) and a Catholic priest who believes he is atoning for others' sins by letting himself be consumed in hellfire (Farmer 38). Later, Carmody is himself trapped by a “spatial” manifestation of the Night when the gaping mouth of a bronze statue closes around his finger (Farmer 55).

But it is Carmody's murder of the god Yess which affirms his self-appointed role as agent of transformation within the quasi-religious festival of the Night:

Carmody squeezed the trigger. Yess and the chair on which he sat slid backward from the impact of the stream of exploding bullets. Flesh and blood rose in little spurts, collected into tiny balls, drifted around him, and fell down in a shower on him. His head flew apart. His arms rose upward and over, and his legs kicked up. The motion carried him over backward, and he fell with a crash. …

[Carmody's] heart was beating savagely; his hands shook. This was the culmination of his career, his masterpiece. He liked to think of himself as an artist, a great artist in crime, if not the greatest. … No one could surpass him now. Who else had murdered a god? (Farmer 51-52)

Carmody's sociopathic act, which Brizzi observes is designed “to aggrandize himself, [while] at the same time finding redemption for himself” (28), serves to identify him as a god-figure in a doubled capacity. First, through his demonstration of machismo he has shown himself to be powerful enough to indeed destroy a god; second (and more importantly), now that the god's seat of power is empty, Carmody, having already demonstrated his god-like ability, is the logical choice to fill it.

However, he is soon displaced from this role when he is given the opportunity of becoming one of the seven Lovers of the planet's mythical goddess Boonta, thereby becoming one of the corporate Fathers of either her Dark son Algul or a new incarnation of the recently murdered Son of Light, Yess (Farmer 58, 60). His choice to become a Father of Yess indicates the multiple levels on which his character is now operating: through his decision, he becomes the ultimate “artist,” a supra-agent of transformation who is able to direct the course of an entire planet's morality (as evidenced by the death of the would-be Fathers of Algul when he rejects them [Farmer 63]). Paradoxically, he is at the same time losing this very ability, becoming less an agent and more an object of transformation when he cuts off his own finger to free himself from the statue (Farmer 62). His new status as a transformed “object” is further reflected in his concern for the simulacrum of his wife when it accompanies him and the other Fathers of Yess as they approach the temple (Farmer 64).

Gundersen is also witness to multiple transformations, the most striking of which have happened to Earthmen, who, like himself, have been “captured” by the mystery of Belzagor. Inside an abandoned Company station, he finds an emaciated couple who have become hosts for the spores of a parasitic jungle plant (Silverberg 87). At Shangri-la Falls he meets a past lover, Seena, who has not only learned to survive on but also to love the strange planet, surrounding herself with its exotic plant and animal life and even “wearing” an amoeba-like creature which survives by metabolizing her perspiration (Silverberg 96). Seena tells him of a mutual acquaintance, Gio' Salamone, who fell prey to a crystalline parasite and became “all cubes and prisms” with “outcroppings of the most beautiful iridescent minerals breaking through his skin” (Silverberg 99).

The most radical transformation which Gundersen witnesses, however, is that of ex-Company officer Jeff Kurtz, who—feeling remorse for his actions during Earth's imperialistic rule of the planet—has attempted redemption by undergoing the rebirth ceremony: “It was as if everything had been heated in a crucible and allowed to melt and run. Kurtz's fine high-bridged nose was now a rubbery smear, so snoutlike that Gundersen was jolted by its resemblance to a sulidor's. His wide mouth now had slack, pendulous lips that drooped open, revealing toothless gums. His chin sloped backward in pithecanthropoid style. Kurtz's cheekbones were flat and broad, wholly altering the planes of his face” (Silverberg 114). Once the officer who led the diabolical rituals at the serpent station, Kurtz can now only echo Conrad's Heart of Darkness as he witnesses visions of a personal “horror” (Silverberg 115). Gundersen, however, by observing Kurtz in his monstrously reborn condition, is now able to completely relinquish Seena and to verbalize the reason for his own quest: to experience for himself the mysteries of rebirth (Silverberg 112) and thus complete the transformation initiated when he drank the venom Kurtz offered and ate malidar meat with the sulidoror (Silverberg 46).

Although De Bolt and Pfeiffer see the two-part structure of Night of Light as “[t]wo John Carmody stories. … unartfully tacked together” (200),3 it is notable that Carmody's most significant transformation occurs within the gap which these critics identify. At the end of the first part Carmody has not completely relinquished either the role of “a great artist in crime” or his prisoner status on Kareen. As the second part opens twenty-seven years later on Earth, he has now (Apostle Paul-like) been “[scattered] through time and [pinioned] at the [very] centre and duration of things” (Foucault Order 331), having aspired to the religious order of his home planet (itself having experienced transformation) and thus appearing now as a Catholic priest, husband, and expectant father (Farmer 87-89). Further evidence of Carmody's agent-to-object transformation follows immediately: Carmody's superior, Cardinal Faskins, orders him to return to Kareen to dissuade his “god-son” Yess from keeping the entire population awake during the Night, thereby creating a unified community of followers to proselytize off-planet (Farmer 92). Before Carmody departs, his wife and unborn child are brutally murdered by a survivor of his criminal past, Mrs. Fratt, who seeks revenge for the death of her son and the loss of her own sight (Farmer 80). Once on Kareen, Carmody is continually threatened, both by Mrs. Fratt (Farmer 110) and by the Algulist sect seeking to depose Yess (Farmer 141).

But even though Carmody is now a transformed Other, it is his prior “spatial” condition as agent of transformations on Kareen which continues to transform the alien world and ultimately threaten the displacement of his own religion. Yess, now Other himself in terms of his familial relationship to Carmody, explains how this state of affairs has come about when the two meet in the temple: “As you can see Father … I am half-terrestrial, truly your son. And that, by the way, is one of our arguments about the universality of Boontism. Once restricted to the planet, Boontism is destined to spread throughout the universe. Its destiny became manifest the moment I was conceived by an extra-Kareenan mother and Father” (Farmer 131).

However, the existence of a “half-Terrestrial” god on Kareen has caused radical transformation to the religion itself, the nature of which even Yess is unaware. Until this point in Kareenan history, only one of the twin gods has existed in human form during a cycle, with the possibility of a power shift occurring only during the Night of Light (Farmer 20). Now, even though Carmody, Yess, and the other Fathers survive the siege on the temple, the potentialities inherent in Yess' plans for an extra-Kareenan mission also serve as an impetus to the seven wicked Fathers; during the Night an infant Algul has been born (Farmer 150). Thus the novel ends with plans for the spread of Boontism temporarily displaced and the cultural history of the planet violently shattered and forcefully reconfigured. With the (re)birth of the (br)other—and the freedom from marginalization which this birth affords Algul's followers—Kareen is thrust into an ideological war between Good and Evil, the Algulists appearing to have the upper hand as Yess is driven from the temple (Farmer 151).

In Silverberg's novel, Gundersen's experience of rebirth transforms him into “a transparent man through whom the light of the great sun at the core of the universe passes without resistance” (168), while in the process revealing the answer to his original question: that “nildor and sulidor are not two separate species but merely forms of the same creature, no more different than caterpillar and butterfly” (171). Gundersen's transformation, unlike the one which ends Farmer's novel, reveals the nature of an environment which has remained relatively constant (its displacement having occurred before the novel begins) through a complete transformation of the protagonist. Like Carmody in the second part of Night of Light, Gundersen is now Other; Otherness in this work, however, represents a state of totally realized potential freed from the natural foibles of the human condition. Thus Gundersen is able to assume the role of savior as he returns to Shangri-la Falls to lead Kurtz through a new rebirth, while simultaneously giving the remaining human population of the planet a commandment to “love one another” (Silverberg 178) as a first step toward living in harmony with the alien world they've chosen to call home.

As these two novels demonstrate, science fiction in the late sixties and early seventies was in a unique position to reexamine man's age-old “religious functions” with eyes opened to “a new importance, a new incisiveness and perhaps most of all, a new element of compassion [and] depth” (Merril 44). In reflecting back on the period, it is appropriate that these elements should appear in the genre, for the New Wave branch of SF was itself in the midst of transformations as turbulent as the postmodern society which produced it (witness, for example, the experimentalism of the British SF magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock and the American SF community's concern with sex roles and alternate realities alongside such events as the war in Vietnam and the Kent State shootings).

That current SF criticism should turn once more to consideration of these works is both appropriate and desirable, for—in an age when some physicists believe the “fabric” of space-time itself to consist of an interlinking series of “quantum loops” (Bartusiak 66, 67)—each work becomes a spatially located “archaeological site” wherein we may discern not only the value systems which lay at the heart of the works themselves, but indeed the truth of the value systems upon which we as readers and critics currently operate. This is so because, in addition to becoming “archaeological sites,” the works serve as self-reflexive epistemological “mirrors” which allow us to not only be here and there, but indeed to be at both points simultaneously. Furthermore, through this convergence of past with present the mirror is shattered—and our gaze fractured—allowing us to perceive at once the unity and duplicity of mind and body, self and other, eros and thanatos, and indeed even time and space.

Thus we can, by collecting together these fragments of past and present (reflected in SF as well as in the more pervasive sociological and critical atmospheres in which it developed and continues to develop), forecast a future wherein the shattered epistemological mirror—and our fractured gaze—may once again become whole; thus we are empowered to reconstruct the deconstructed promise of science fiction for a new age. Indeed, in the sphere of social philosophy Foucault has already foreseen this event, for he observed as early as 1971 that the “knowledge of [humanity], unlike the sciences of nature, is always linked, even in its vaguest form, to ethics or politics; more fundamentally, [however,] modern thought is advancing towards that region where man's Other must become the Same as himself” (Order 328). And lest we forget the less-than-marginal roles which women play in Farmer's and Silverberg's universes (i.e. the goddess Boonta and the toughened survivor Seena)—and as gender critic Alice A. Jardine suggests (86)—herself as well.


  1. Although SF scholars are in general agreement that first wave cyberpunk (initiated by William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer) is for all intents over, the 1992 publication of Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi indicates that the second wave may now be preparing to once more reexamine the “religious functions” of humanity and its off-world search for transcendence.

  2. The British New Wave during this period was mainly composed of a group of writers “who had lost faith in the future” and who believed they were living “in a world growing [ever] more irrational, more absurd” (Clareson, “History” 14); as a reflection of this belief their writing, á la J. G. Ballard's The Crystal World (1966), consistently reflected “a general sense of defeat [and] a wish to turn away from … hard realities” (Lundwall 233).

  3. De Bolt and Pfeiffer refer to Farmer's series of John Carmody stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which, besides the novella version of “The Night of Light” (1957), include “Attitudes” (1953), “Father” (1955), “A Few Miles” (1960), and “Prometheus” (1961). These stories were subsequently collected by Jim Baen and published by Tor Books in 1981 under the title Father to the Stars.

Works Cited

Bank, Rosemarie. “Self as Other.” Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama. Ed. June Schlueter, Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickenson UP, 1989.

Bartusiak, Marcia. “Loops of Space.” Discover 14 (Apr. 1993): 60-68.

Brizzi, Mary T. Philip Jose Farmer. Starmont Reader's Guide 3. Mercer Island: Starmont, 1980.

Clareson, Thomas D. “Downward to the Earth.Survey of Science Fiction Literature Ed. Frank N. Magill, 5 vols. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1979. Vol. 2.

———. Robert Silverberg. Starmont Reader's Guide 18. Mercer Island: Starmont, 1983.

———. “Toward a History of Science Fiction.” In Tymn 3-18.

De Bolt, Joe and John R. Pfeiffer. “The Modern Period: 1938–1980.” Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction. Ed. Neil Barron, 2nd ed. New York: Bowker, 1981.

Farmer, Philip Jose. Night of Light. 1966. New York: Berkley-Medallion, 1983.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986): 22-27.

———. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon-Random House, 1972.

———. The Order of Things. World of Man Series, 1971. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1973.

Jardine, Alice A. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kurth, James. “The Post-Modern State: Is America a Nation?” Current 348 (December 1992): 26-33.

Lundwall, Sam J. Science Fiction: What It's All About. Trans. Sam J. Lundwall, 1969. New York: Ace-Charter, 1971.

Merril, Judith. “Books.” Fantasy & Science Fiction, 32 (May 1967): 43-48.

Schlobin. Roger C. “Masterpieces of Modern Fantasy: An Annotated Core List.” In Tymn 246-90.

Scholes, Robert, and Eric S. Rabkin. Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision. New York: Oxford, 1977.

Silverberg, Robert. Downward to the Earth. New York: NAL-Signet, 1969, 1971.

Soja, Edward W. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso-New Left Books, 1989.

Tymn, Marshall B., ed. The Science Fiction Reference Book. Mercer Island: Starmont, 1981.

Voller, Jack G. “Neuromanticism: Cyperspace and the Sublime.” Extrapolation 34 (Spring 1993): 18-29.

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

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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 Prester John to the Emperor of Byzantium were circulating throughout Europe, supposedly written by an enormously powerful Christian king deep in Asia. These rumors and reports of a mysterious king in the East, which included descriptions of his fabulous wealth and dominions, came at a time when the Crusader outposts throughout the Levant were under extreme pressure from Muslim armies, and the notion that Prester John wished to visit Jerusalem and would assist the Crusaders' military campaigns was received with great enthusiasm. A 13th-century chronicle records a date of 1165 for the letter.

It was, of course, a fabrication, but the letter was soon translated from Latin into French, English, even Hebrew, Russian, and Serbian, and many other languages. In 1177, Pope Alexander III drafted a letter to Prester John and dispatched his personal physician, Philip, who had told him so much of Prester John, to deliver it. Nothing further is told of Philip, nor is a response from Prester John recorded.

After the disastrous Fifth Crusade ended in 1221, reports reached Europe of a new conqueror of the Muslims arising in Asia, coming to save Christendom, whom Jacques of Vitry, Bishop of Acre called “King David of India.” These reports were accurate in only one point, namely, that the Mongols had begun to win major victories against Muslim armies as early as the middle of the 12th century.

Although Genghis Khan was not the Prester John Europe sought, Pope Innocent IV sent two embassies to the Mongols in 1245, Ascelin of Lombardy and John of Plano Carpini. Friar John traveled to Karakorum and later wrote a history of the Mongols on the basis of his detailed observations, but there was no alliance forthcoming against the Saracens, and the Mongol armies would in the course of the 13th century sweep across Eurasia, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, and as far West as Poland and Hungary, in addition to conquering China, India, and Southeast Asia.

Prester John figured as a minor Asian king subdued by the Mongols in the Travels of Marco Polo (1254–1324), who served Kublai Khan and brought firsthand accounts of the wealth of the Orient to Europe. The comparative accuracy of Marco Polo's asides on the mysterious ruler pale next to the much more prominent treatment in the fantastical 14th-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville. In the early 17th century, Samuel Purchas considered Mandeville one of the great Asian travelers, but charlatan and raconteur might serve more accurately to describe him in light of subsequent research.

In later versions of the letter, other fancies and embellishments began to appear in the text, including the mythology of St. Thomas, the struggle between the lion and the unicorn, and the story of the Amazons. After the introduction of printing, the dissemination of the letter of Prester John became even wider.

The second branch of the legend of Prester John dates to the very early 14th century, when the Italian geographer Carignano prepared an account based on interviews with envoys from Ethiopia to Spain, and apparently identified Ethiopia as the domain of Prester John. Over the next three centuries, commercial, religious, and military contacts between Europe and the Christian kings of Ethiopia increased, in particular after the middle of the 15th century, when two developments occurred simultaneously. At the same time that Henry the Navigator encouraged systematic efforts by Portuguese explorers to find a route around Africa and thereby gain access to the Asian spice trade (previously controlled by the Venetians), Zar'a Yakob came to power in Ethiopia and expanded his realm, in the process forcing the conversion of tributary peoples to Christianity.

Within a decade of the discovery of the southern end of Africa by Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama successfully reached India in 1498 and returned with a cargo of spices. As the Portuguese engaged in military ventures along the Indian Ocean littoral to safeguard their new route, direct exchanges between Portugal and Ethiopia flourished, with a Portuguese party spending many months with the Ethiopian court in the early 1520s. The apparent wealth of the Ethiopian kings seemed to assure the Portuguese that they had in fact found Prester John:

However, beginning in 1527, the Muslim Ahmed Gran waged a brutal war against the Ethiopian crown. The rebels were assisted by Turkish soldiers with firearms, and over the next 15 years most of the country was looted. In 1541, a contingent of 450 armed Portuguese soldiers arrived to aid the Ethiopian king, and even though more than half the Portuguese died in battle, the Ethiopians prevailed, defeating the superior numbers commanded by Ahmed Gran in 1543, but contacts between Ethiopia and Portugal lapsed for nearly 40 years.

The climate of religious intolerance in Europe toward the close of the 16th century shifted the emphasis of relations with Ethiopia, and when ties were resumed, there was a concerted effort to convert Ethiopia to Catholicism. A Jesuit missionary, Pero Paez, exploited the troubled succession and became very influential with the king Susenyos, winning that monarch's submission to the Pope in 1622. Neither the Ethiopian King nor Paez' successor, Alfonso Mendes, had reckoned with the strong popular tradition of Ethiopian Christianity, and clergy and populace alike refused to accept the changes in liturgy or in allegiance. The Jesuit attempts to convert Ethiopia to Catholicism ended in a disastrous civil war, whereupon the convert Susenyos abdicated in favor of his son Fasiladas in 1632.

The expulsion of the Jesuits that ensued marked the end of enduring European contacts with Ethiopia until the late 18th century, and also marked the end of the idea of Prester John as a driving force in European policies and explorations. Nevertheless, the African Prester John did continue to cast a very long shadow indeed: in 1910, John Buchan, later Lord Tweedsmuir, published Prester John, an H. Rider Haggard type novel set in South Africa, with Prester John an aspiring African leader in possession of a string of red rubies, thus joining the African legend of the Venda necklace with the European legend of Prester John.

One of the Portuguese Jesuits who left Ethiopia after Fasiladas began attacking Catholicism was Manoel de Almeida, who subsequently compiled a history of Ethiopia. Not by any means the first to debunk the myth of Prester John, he nonetheless begins his history with a discussion of the name Prester John, and includes an analysis of possible Amharic equivalents that earlier writers had claimed corresponded to it. Almeida concluded that there was no basis for this identification. The process of demythologization continued until the 19th century when, assembling evidence from the hundreds of manuscript editions, German scholar Friedrich Zarncke prepared definitive studies of the textual development of the original letter of Prester John.

Silverberg's book [The Realm of Prester John] is in fact a historical biography of the notion of Prester John as he existed in the minds of Europeans, an idea “sooner believ'd, than consider'd.” Two of Silverberg's modern predecessors are Elaine Sanceau, author of The Land of Prester John: A Chronicle of Portuguese Exploration (1944), and Vsevolod Slessarev, whose account is entitled Prester John: The Letter and the Legend (1959).

With The Realm of Prester John, Silverberg has gathered evidence from a broad spectrum of sources, and in addition to tracing the different varieties of Prester Johns to their origins, he delivers a portrait of the intellectual changes occurring in Europe. “Within the structure of the developing quest for Prester John it is possible to trace the outlines of the evolution of the scientific era. We begin with rumor and hyperbole; we end with Jesuits poring over the subtleties of Ethiopian philology.”

Prolific science-fiction and fantasy author Robert Silverberg has also written a number of historical studies, including The Great Wall of China (1965), The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado (1967), and Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of A Myth (1968). This welcome reissue of Silverberg's book, originally published in 1972, will allow a wider audience to follow the intricacies of the legends of Prester John as they developed from the 12th through the 17th centuries.

Readers interested in this topic should also not neglect the insightful “Postscript of Prester John,” by another science-fiction notable, Avram Davidson, collected in Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends (1993). This essay, itself a marvel of erudition and wit, pursues some of the lines of inquiry detailed by Silverberg, and traces the subsequent career of the idea of Prester John through the middle 1970s, including the end of the Ethiopian monarchy with the overthrow of Haile-Selassie in 1974.

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

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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, Silverberg's essays have touched upon a wide range of subjects from science and society to science-fiction movies, from the writer's life to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and from the legendary science-fiction editors of the 1950s to the Oakland Fire of 1992.

Reflections and Refractions collects the most notable of these columns published through early 1996, along with other miscellaneous essays and introductions. In his foreword, “Pontifications,” Silverberg discusses his belief that the world and the universe are “intensely interesting places full of wonders and miracles, and that one way we can bring ourselves close to an appreciation, if not an understanding, is through reading science fiction.”

Silverberg is, of course, aware that not all that is published under the name of science-fiction lives up to that possibility. He writes, “I know how the finest s-f can pry open the walls of the universe for an intelligent and inquisitive reader, for it has done that for me since I was 10 or 11 years old, and it angers me to see writers and editors and publishers refusing even to make the attempt. In my own best fiction I have tried to achieve for other readers what H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance and A. E. van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon and 50 other wonderful writers achieved for me ever since the time I first stumbled, wide- eyed and awe-struck, into the world of science fiction. And in many of the essays in this book I try, perhaps with the same naive idealism … to advocate the creation of more science fiction of that high kind and to urge the spurning of the drab simple-minded stuff that leads us away from the real exaltation that an intense encounter with the fabric of space and time can provide.”

Several essays look back to the importance of Silverberg's early interest in reading. A column on “The Books of Childhood” discusses reassembling books that Silverberg knew as a “dedicated user” of the Brooklyn Public Library, “an enterprise born not simply of nostalgia but from deep curiosity about the narrative material” that shaped him as a writer. He notes two by Padraic Colum, The Children of Odin and The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, and “The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, the Modern Library edition … the first 271 pages of this 1293-page volume are given over, of course to the two Alice novels, which show signs of having been read and read and read. But the trail of fingerprints and eye-tracks indicates that I went right on to the next two novels, Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, books that no one else I know has ever mentioned reading.”

He writes that he was, however, curiously disappointed when he examined a 1942 issue of Planet Comics. “I couldn't seem to recognize, in the crudely drawn pages of the issues I saw, the particular splendors that had illuminated my mind nearly half a century before. Perhaps the ink had faded; or perhaps I was looking at the wrong issue.”

Silverberg comments on Walter de la Mare's The Three Mulla-Mulgars. “It's a wonderful book, and I say so not merely because I see it through the eyes of the child who loved it: I reread it yet again a few months ago and was as profoundly moved by its beauty and mystery as I had been when I was nine.” He notes that his own novel Kingdoms of the Wall drew upon his recollections of having read the book, while Lord of Darkness is an imaginary autobiography of Andrew Battell, a historical person who appeared in de la Mare's novel. “So be it. No writer invents everything from scratch; our imaginations are billion-piece mosaics fashioned from everything we have ever experienced, including all that we have ever read.”

Silverberg's first story appeared in 1954, and his activity as a fan predated that by several years. A lengthy section entitled “Colleagues” assembles memoirs of a wide range of personalities. In one, Silverberg recalls how, at the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia in 1953, he and a young fan from Cleveland, Ohio, named Harlan Ellison rented a hotel suite and allowed other fans to sleep on couches, chairs, or on the floor, for a few dollars, creating their own “convention within a convention.”

In his profile of the influential Donald Wollheim, Silverberg traces how Wollheim was responsible for bringing out paperback editions of A. Merritt and H. P. Lovecraft in the 1940s and edited the first anthology of original science-fiction stories, The Girl With the Hungry Eyes (1947). Wollheim's Ace Books first published J. R. R. Tolkien in paperback. When he was unable to get reprint rights to The Lord of the Rings, Wollheim brought out an unauthorized edition, acting on the fact that the hardcover edition had not been properly copyrighted. Silverberg also discusses how Wollheim influenced his own career as a writer. Other editors he remembers are John W. Campbell, Anthony Boucher, and Horace L. Gold, of Galaxy.

In an introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975), a collection of stories by James Tiptree, Jr., Silverberg dismissed suggestions that the mysterious author of the stories was female, and made a number of now famous speculations about the personality of Tiptree. In late 1976, it became known that “James Tiptree, Jr.” was the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon. Tiptree/Sheldon had never claimed to be male, but the knowledge of politics, machinery, and the military contained in her stories, and the male voice of her work gave few indications that Tiptree was anything other than what “he” seemed. Silverberg writes:

Well, I certainly looked silly, didn't I! But—contrary to my good friend John Clute's assertion—I felt very little “discomfiture,” only surprise, and some degree of intellectual excitement. For what the Tiptree affair had done was to bring into focus the whole issue of whether such things as “masculine” and “feminine” fiction existed.

Silverberg had published several of the Tiptree stories in his New Dimensions anthologies. He looks at their correspondence, noting that he misread some of Sheldon's statements, and considers the question of gender stereotypes in literature.

In this section, there are also recollections of Asimov, Heinlein, Roger Zelazny, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Vance, Jack Williamson, Philip K. Dick, and Lester del Rey. Silverberg credits del Rey with having changed how Silverberg looked on the profession of writing, at a time when, in his early 20s, Silverberg was cranking out stories for magazines.

Reflections and Refractions presents an entertaining and lively volume of short essays from an acknowledged master in the field.


Silverberg, Robert (Vol. 7)