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.
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.
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.
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.