Man in the Maze: A Conversation with Robert Silverberg
By Rob LathamSeptember 18, 2020
The mid-’60s paperback boom, coinciding with the advent of the New Wave, lured the author back into the genre full-time, and soon he was producing some of the most ambitious SF of the period — novels like Thorns (1967) and The Book of Skulls (1972), stories like “Sundance” (1969) and “Born with the Dead” (1974) — as well as editing a major anthology series, New Dimensions (1971–’81). Silverberg’s SF of the period came to define the stylistic and speculative energy of the American New Wave, with the author taking traditional SF themes and radically reimagining them, sometimes by bringing them into conversation with classics of “mainstream” literature. Downward to the Earth (1970), for example, spliced a Darwinian tale of planetary exploration with a rigorous interrogation of colonialism à la Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), while Dying Inside (1972) is the story of a Jewish everyman out of Bellow or Roth, with the twist that this protagonist is a telepath whose mental powers are waning as he enters middle age. Told with grace and poignancy, Dying Inside is perhaps Silverberg’s single finest novel.
When the serial novel with quest fantasy elements came to predominate in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Silverberg emerged from a brief retirement with the “Majipoor” trilogy (1980–’83), an exuberant planetary romance that eventually extended to eight engaging volumes. During the 1980s and ’90s, he continued to publish steadily, producing roughly one book per year, up until his final retirement from novel writing after the publication of Roma Eterna in 2003. His work during this period often reflected, even while complicating, contemporary trends, such as an emphasis on mythic intertexts (e.g., Gilgamesh the King ), evolutionary speculation (e.g., At Winter’s End ), and religious allegory (e.g., Kingdoms of the Wall ). Over the years, Silverberg has received four Hugos and five Nebula Awards, and in 2004, acknowledging his major contributions to the field, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him its 21st “Grand Master.”
ROB LATHAM: You began your career in the mid-’50s, which was a boom time for science fiction. In 1957 alone, 23 different SF magazines were published in the United States, some long-lasting titles, some more ephemeral, and you wrote for most of them. It was a really dynamic market, with the old pulps tottering and a host of new digests cropping up. Today, the SF magazines are basically a vestigial market, so current fans have no real sense of what a thriving magazine culture is like. Can you describe what it was like negotiating this lively scene, as a budding writer but also as a fan? I’m particularly interested in how individual titles managed to carve out niches for themselves in such a crowded and bustling marketplace.
ROBERT SILVERBERG: The editors of the day were in perpetual need of material, though of course the top three — John Campbell at Astounding, Horace Gold at Galaxy, and Anthony Boucher at F&SF — maintained very high standards. Even so, all three were not only willing but eager to see material from a promising newcomer like me, and to work with me until I reached their standards. (By the time I was 21, I had sold stories to all three.) There just weren’t enough professional-level writers to supply such a suddenly huge market — in the 1940s, there had been only seven or eight magazines, and by 1953 there were dozens, but though many new writers had emerged (Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, James Blish, etc.), there still weren’t enough.
The lesser magazines had to make do with lesser stories, but their editors solved the problem in different ways: Amazing, Fantastic, and the two William Hamling magazines, Imagination and Imaginative Tales, used a stable of regular writers who supplied a quota of stories each month that were purchased sight unseen, so long as the writers observed the policy guidelines of those magazines. Others, like Infinity, If, and Fantastic Universe, depended on what came in, rather than commissioning work in advance, but anything that had just missed the demanding top-three editors was relatively easy to sell to them. Further down the pay scale, as for example the various Robert Lowndes magazines, it was easier yet, though Lowndes not only read submissions carefully but commissioned stories from favorite writers at special rates (Isaac Asimov, for example; later on, me).
It was very much a seller’s market, and a prolific, precociously capable writer like me was able to sell just about everything he wrote as fast as he could write it, though of course at the top level one had to be prepared for the occasional rejection (for which salvage markets stood ready). Somehow, with 20 or 30 magazines coming out at once, they all managed to be profitable, until the collapse of the main distributor in 1958 killed most of them practically overnight. I could not have asked for a better time to start my career.
The four staff-written magazines specialized in fast-paced adventure stories. Their readers were chiefly teenage boys. The various second-tier magazines like If and Infinity, making do with rejects from the top three, were not greatly different in tone from those three, and had much the same readership. A host of evanescent titles like Saturn and Orbit (a magazine, not the Damon Knight anthology) came and went in half a dozen issues or so, without ever making a lasting mark, but they did buy stories while they were with us.
As you say, from fairly early in your career, you were able to produce publishable copy quickly and efficiently. During the mid-to-late ’50s, you were publishing close to a million words of SF annually, which is a stunning amount. A lot of your ’50s output was produced to order: you had contracts with several magazine editors that specified monthly wordage for a set fee. You’ve described much of your work during this period as “utilitarian prose […] churned out by the yard,” and you’ve written about how, when you attended the Milford Writers’ Conference in 1956, some older authors there upbraided you for essentially wasting your talents on slick product. Can you describe the sorts of pressures writers were under at the time, especially someone who, like you, was trying to make a career in SF, as opposed to simply moonlighting in the field, as so many others did?
Since I was particularly prolific and capable of meeting the demands of various markets from high to low, selling better than a story a week in those early years, I was under no particular economic pressure — right out of college, I was earning at the Heinlein and Asimov level. Except for Philip K. Dick and, for a time, Robert Sheckley, most of the other SF writers of the day were unable to produce any notable volume of material, and although the pay level of the magazines (book publication was not yet much of a factor) was quite good in terms of the purchasing power of the dollar in those days, one could not live comfortably selling one or two stories a month, as most of them did. Right out of college I had a handsome five-room apartment on one of Manhattan’s best residential streets, went to Europe in 1957, etc.
The older writers did not exactly “upbraid” me for my willingness to write quickie space opera, but they did tease me in a fairly affectionate way. The most useful criticism I got came from Lester del Rey, who pointed out that, although I was selling everything I wrote and making a good living at it, there was no long-term value in writing pulp stories that would never be reprinted in anthologies or story collections — all I would get would be the initial sale. I took that to heart and began concentrating on more ambitious stories for the better magazines. What neither Lester nor I nor anyone else foresaw was that in the age of the internet even those early pulp stories would be reprinted again and again and continue to bring in income, just as my stories for Astounding and Galaxy were doing. He was, though, fundamentally right, within the context of the times, that even if money was my primary concern, I would ultimately make more by aiming high rather than by churning out reams of “utilitarian” prose.
As you mentioned, SF’s boom years went bust in the late ’50s, when the collapse of a major distributor led to a massive contraction in the magazine market. By the early ’60s, only a handful of titles had survived the winnowing. A lot of writers, yourself included, departed the field during that period, moving on to greener pastures. In your case, this included penning over 100 pseudonymous works of erotica while also researching and writing a series of superb works of popular history. Given your success in these other markets, what eventually lured you back into the genre? And when you returned to SF, what impelled you to undertake more ambitious and aesthetically challenging projects?
Not only had most of the 1950s magazines disappeared, but those with the most editorial flexibility (Infinity, the Lowndes magazines, Fantastic Universe) were among the first to go in the great collapse at the end of the decade. Of the three top editors, Anthony Boucher of F&SF had retired, John Campbell of Astounding had grown increasingly rigid ideologically, and Horace Gold had retreated from the initial brilliance of Galaxy toward a sort of frivolity and shallowness that forced most of his writers to avoid any kind of emotional force. So, there was no artistic challenge left in magazine science fiction, and there wasn’t much money left in it either; nor had the great expansion of paperback science fiction begun yet. I had grown accustomed to my life as a freelance writer and had no desire to seek conventional employment in the outside world, so I turned to two wholly different fields of writing, the pseudonymous paperbacks, Simenon-plus-eroticism, that I could churn out with great rapidity, and the more demanding works of popular nonfiction that grew out of my longtime interests in archaeology, ancient history, and geography. For four or five years I ignored science fiction almost completely, now and then doing a short story at some editor’s urging, but basically staying outside the field.
A number of factors brought me back. One was the advent of a host of enlightened paperback publishers (Avon, Ballantine, Dell, and others) that were willing to let SF writers get away from the space-opera formulas and which paid quite well for the novels they bought. Another was Frederik Pohl’s taking over of the editorship of Galaxy. Pohl and I were good friends, and he knew what my real capacities as a writer were and had frequently urged me to exploit them, but, since I was selling everything I could write by arrangement with the book publishers, I disliked the uncertainties of writing speculatively for magazines. Pohl took the uncertainty out by offering to buy, sight unseen, whatever fiction I wanted to write for him, with the proviso that the first time I gave him a story that he didn’t want to publish, the deal would end. This led to “To See the Invisible Man” (1963), to the Blue Fire series [eventually published in book form as To Open the Sky (1967)], to “Hawksbill Station” (1967), and to many another story that I could not have written in the earlier, restrictive magazine era, and which I would not have written had Pohl not opened the door for me.
Then, too, I was now in my 30s, with far more experience of life than I had had at the precocious beginning of my career, and the fiction that I wrote from 1963 on reflected that, both in depth of characterization and in complexity of style and narrative technique. The fact that I could now write whatever I pleased and that I did not have to write, so to speak, with one arm tied behind my back was irresistible, and I launched into the decade of science-fiction writing that produced my most important work.
Your work from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s is usually classified as belonging to the New Wave, a loosely knit movement that brought to the field a more complex literary sensibility and a penchant for downbeat themes. And this movement inspired a fierce backlash among Old Guard writers and fans, who lambasted the New Wave as arty garbage. Were you drawn into these debates and controversies at the time? What, if anything, did the New Wave contribute to your own sense of what SF could be?
I was sympathetic to the New Wave movement, such as it was (it was a far less coherent movement than it may seem in hindsight), because I enjoyed the new freedom that was inherent in writing SF with the full range of my technical skills. But I was never formally linked to such self-proclaimed factions as the New Worlds group in London or the Milford group in the United States. I was in London in 1965 as the New Wave there was taking shape, and I paid a weekend visit to Milford in 1966 during the New Wave ferment in the US, but neither time was I very deeply involved. I was writing my own books — Thorns (1967), The Masks of Time (1968), The Man in the Maze (1969), Son of Man (1971) — and in them I took advantage of the new freedom that SF publishers were granting the writers, but I didn’t regard myself as being on the front line of the battle. On the other hand, I did defend some of the New Wave writers against Old Guard friends of mine like Lester del Rey (and I did agree with the Old Guard people that some of the new stuff was, indeed, arty garbage).
But I didn’t need the New Wave to tell me that science fiction could be more than pulp-magazine fiction. I already had H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley and other mainstream venturers into the mode to tell me that. The big benefit I drew from the New Wave excitement, brief though it was, was the willingness of commercial publishers to allow a certain new degree of experiment in what I wrote. Most of what I wrote between 1968 and 1973, the heart of my oeuvre, would have been unsalable a decade earlier.
Most New Wave authors, especially in the United States — writers like Samuel R. Delany or Thomas M. Disch or Roger Zelazny — were new to the field in the mid-’60s; they had no real roots in the pulp tradition. Indeed, the New Wave marked a kind of generation gap in the genre, with many younger writers having greater affinities with the burgeoning counterculture than with the subcultures of SF. You were unusual since you had been a successful SF writer in the ’50s who was returning to the scene. Yet a lot of your work in the ’60s and ’70s had a strong countercultural flavor, animated by themes of renewal and rebirth: stories like “Trips” and “Sundance,” novels like Son of Man. Can you say a bit about how the “’60,” broadly construed, impacted SF, and your work in particular?
We are all products of the Zeitgeist. Those were revolutionary years, for good or ill, and I could not help but reflect the mood of the era in what I wrote.
During this same period, you relocated from New York to the Bay Area. And it seems to me that your SF of the ’70s has a strong California flavor, with occasional whiffs of New Age mysticism and druggy psychedelia. Yet there’s always a cool ironic distance in how this material is handled. You’ve written that the early ’70s were “a pretty freaky time in Western culture, especially in California, and when I wasn’t writing I was investigating a lot of odd corners of intellectual life.” Can you tell us about these researches and how they informed your SF? And I wonder if you would describe yourself, in any significant way, as a “California writer”?
I think I know what a “New York” writer is, but I’m not sure what a “California writer” might be. My own experiences in the very liberated California of the early 1970s certainly had their impact on my writing (and, eventually, on my giving up writing altogether for nearly five years), but there is no way they could not have been. As for the “cool, ironic distance” of which you speak, that has always been the way I have approached the world since my childhood — it is central to my nature — and of necessity my writing would reflect that.
After a decade of exceptionally strong work, which won a number of major awards, you retired again from the field in the mid-’70s. You have spoken angrily about how your most ambitious work was not finding a wide readership and how depressing it was to be told, by major SF editors, that “there was no room in commercial publishing for such books as Dying Inside and Son of Man.” Yet just a few years later, you returned to the field with your biggest and most exuberant book to date, Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), which inaugurated a new phase of steady and popular work. Can you say more about why you left SF a second time and what drew you back into the field?
I left SF in 1974 for much the same reason that I had a decade and a half earlier — the narrowing of editorial policies following the collapse of the New Wave had made the work seem stultifying and tiresome, and I no longer had any interest in writing to the sort of formulas that the triumph, on the one hand, of Star Trek (and a little later Star Wars) and, on the other hand, of Tolkien, had brought to the field. There was the additional factor that I was now in my 40s, had been working hard for two decades, and found the act of writing itself exhausting and unfulfilling.
What brought me back was something as basic as financial need — I found myself confronting an expensive divorce that threatened the economic freedom I had built up over many years. I dealt with that with Lord Valentine’s Castle, and once that was behind me I discovered that the book publishers of the 1980s were offering a kind of artistic freedom that did not quite equal that of the New Wave period but was unrestrictive enough, coupled with quite remarkable financial benefits, and that was hard to resist. Hence such late novels as The Face of the Waters (1991) and Hot Sky at Midnight (1994), and such novellas as Sailing to Byzantium (1985), The Secret Sharer (1987), and We Are for the Dark (1988), which I think represented some of my best work. Eventually, as I entered my 70s, that late wave of creative energy ebbed and I retreated from writing altogether, this time permanently.
Over the course of your long career, you have written just about every kind of SF, but you have also been drawn, again and again, to a handful of key themes, longstanding topics that you’ve embraced and made your own. The most obvious of these is time travel. Many of your most ambitious novels — Hawksbill Station (1968), The Masks of Time (1968), Up the Line (1969) — deal with this theme, and you’ve recently released a collection of your short stories on the topic, Time and Time Again (2018). Much of your time-travel fiction involves a return to or a recreation of the past, often involving meticulously detailed historical settings. I know you’re a history buff and have, as mentioned, written a number of works of popular history, and I wonder if your interest in time travel is connected in any way with your fascination for historical process.
I’ve been a student of history longer than I’ve been a reader of science fiction, and that’s saying quite a lot. When I was a small boy, I was given Hendrik Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind (1921), and a little later H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920), and I read them both many times. When I began traveling to far-off lands, which has been a preoccupation of mine since I finished college, I made a point of seeing the sites I had been reading about — Canterbury Cathedral, Stonehenge, Notre-Dame, and on and on to the Pyramids and Hagia Sophia and the Colosseum and everything else I could reach, and of course that sense of historical process that my readings and my travels have given me enabled me to push my vision forward into the future. The distant past and the distant future have equal romantic appeal for me, and that has informed my fiction.
Another key theme that animates some of your best work is immortality, or the desperate search for it. My favorite of your novels, The Book of Skulls (1971), is about a group of friends on a competitive quest for eternal life, and my favorite of your stories, “Born with the Dead” (1974), depicts a world where humans coexist with reanimated beings. Much of your SF on this topic has a mythic quality — indeed, one of your finest later novels, Gilgamesh the King (1984), is a narrative retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh that powerfully captures the urge to confront and transcend death. Do you think there’s something about SF that lends itself to dealing, in a resolutely secular fashion, with the transcendental impulses that characterize religion and myth?
Again, I’m afraid I have no good answer. Not dying interests me as a fictional theme because not dying interests me in general. But I have nothing much to say about SF as myth that I haven’t said in my stories themselves.
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.
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