Nothing Easier

By John CluteJuly 8, 2014

Nothing Easier

The Book of Silverberg by Robert Silverberg and Various

NOTHING EASIER, you might think. Robert Silverberg has been so central to the writing and presentation of sf over the last 60 years that it seems somehow careless of the rest of us, who have flourished under his sanction (see below) for all that time, not to have somehow curated the man by now. So, nothing easier. The Book of Silverberg: Stories in Honor of Robert Silverberg is exactly what seems to have been called for — an anthology of tales composed specifically to do honor to an author whose personal eminence and huge oeuvre warrant paying attention to. I am going on about this obvious circumstance, however, for a reason: it may be easy and just enough to wish to pay due homage to Silverberg, but it may also prove exceedingly difficult to work out how.

Silverberg may be the most self-contained author in the field, which may be to say nothing more than that he is the most professional writer most of us are ever likely to encounter. But there is of course more than that. His professional omnicompetence can imprison affect like some  kind of black hole, if by affect one includes the quasi-mystical nimbus that allows author and implied author, somehow, to convey some sense that a human teller is responsible for the tale told. ("Silverberg" himself in his nonfiction is readily perceivable as an "artifact" of this enabling kind, full of opinion attached to an elegant but answerable presentation of self; in his fiction, on the other hand, the story told, quite astonishingly, may be all you get. For the teller is nothing more than what is told.) But it is not only that. There is a deeper problem: What does Silverberg mean?

True, there may be a detectable tendency for his tales to climax in transcendental slingshots (which may at times seem more aspirational than achieved), but they do not really permit us to pin Silverberg himself down to cod singularity riffs. But that's about it, as far as BigThinks go; Silverberg is less interested in carrying his characters through traditional conceptual breakthroughs, or in hurling them into asymptotes of novum, or in espousing political solutions, than perhaps any other author of stature in the field. In his personal and/or nonfiction presentations of self, he may be (as I think Gardner Dozois has said) something of a McDuck conservative; but if there is a McDuck agenda in his work, or for that matter any agenda whatsoever, I for one am unable to detect it. In other words, he seems to have nothing new to argue; that is not his job. To repeat: what we are left with is a deep honourable unrelenting dedication to competence, a dedication so intense to the kind of tale that can be told as sf that his best stories and novels seem to be uttered the only way possible, end-running any editor's inbred longing to revise, and stopping where they stop: no paraphrasable there there, no hook: nothing but a  black-hole superba entirely focused on the task at hand, until the next story, which will almost certainly not be a sequel. My perception of Silverberg's oeuvre as a whole — a perception dangerous to proclaim, given the hundreds of texts that should be examined — is that his best stories or novels are in a sense self-consuming: which means no sequels. So how do you honour a competence that has already done the job?

Write something else as good.

But that's not the way this sort of book is done, and maybe that is inevitable. Silverberg has of course written a few series (as opposed to linked stories always intended to become a single text); none of them are his best work. So at least one story published here could be set in the "world" of a series, in this case Majipoor; the planetary romance organon underlying each individual installment is clearly what each individual tale is all about, and is consequently open for other tellers to make their nests within its embrasive architectonic. Sadly, Kage Baker's "In Old Pidruid", which is set in the specific world and period of Lord Valentine's Castle (1980), which is one of her better efforts; as part of the flood of titles she worked on in years just before her premature death, she may not have given it a final polish.

That's about as much luck as we're going to get with stories In the World of. It is immediately followed by a pretty grim example of what can happen when you try to sequelize the monad. Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Voyeuristic Tendencies," a direct sequel to Dying Inside (1972), attempts to Urban Fantasize David Selig, a decade or so after he slingshots with wary triumph into his intransitive self and the book closes tightly into its shining; turns out he's been researching his case — a telepath genetically programmed to lose the fit around the age of 40, and then dying inside — and contacts the young female kick-ass-ish protagonist, also a doomed telepath, in order to obtain some DNA from her. Everything that in Dying Inside is mysterious beyond telling, Rusch feels it is an honour to Silverberg to turn into a franchise. Mike Resnick's "Bad News from the Vatican" modestly chunters through some story threads he feels were extractable from "Good News from the Vatican" (1970). In the rather more ambitious "The Jetsam of Disremembered Mechanics," Caitlín R. Kieran attempts to capture some of the oneiric flow of Nightwings; and comes fairly close — despite its bait-and-switch structure (I would not dare to claim Silverberg never sank to bait-and-switch, but I cannot off-hand remember an instance), and a way-too-explicit last paragraph. 

Things improve. Connie Willis's "Silverberg, Satan, and Me, or Where I got the Idea for My Silverberg Story for This Anthology" cleverly focuses on Silverberg the man; though it does not read anything like a Silverberg story, it honors the man. Elizabeth Bear states that her story, "The Hand is Quicker", derives in some way from "Enter a Soldier: Later: Enter Another" (1989) and Sailing to Byzantium (1985), and it may do so. But it honors Silverberg in what may be, as I suggested, the best way to honor him properly: to write the best story you're capable of. The tale is entirely twenty-first century in its take on perception control, the barcoding of citizens, the savagery of a corporation-dominated world that Disappears anyone who cannot pay: "Emergency services are for taxpayers only."  Nancy Kress's estimable "Eaters," on the other hand, tackles the impossible. As a story in its own right,  it is  strong and coherent and tough; as a sequel to "Sundance" (1969), it seems fatally explicatory. Everything Silverberg allows us to assume about his exploited colony planet in 1969, and everything he significantly does not allow us to fix a single explanation to, is here narrowly pinned down to those topoi of the sf megatext Kress wishes to concern herself with: so the deep conundrums of the original — whether or not the native species is sentient; and to what degree does the dissolution of its protagonist's personality confirm or deny or result from that species sentience (or lack of) — are here decided. The original protagonist, Tom Two Ribbons, has no role in this, having been memory-edited into idiocy. We are left with a typical sf story in which — despite its evident virtues — the summary of its parts is greater than the whole. The book now comes to a climax with James Patrick Kelly's remarkable "The Chimp of the Popes," which unpacks and repacks Silverberg's plays with papacy and hominids and/or robots, most specifically in "The Pope of the Chimps" (1982); and creates a sustainedly complex tale the smoothness of whose telling windows the hard rain within. It seemed to me to be the only story in the book Silverberg might have written himself.

So. A paradox. As an author, Silverberg is inimitable; a master; a magus; a cat that walks alone; beholden to no man or woman born for what he does. He sanctions us to understand what we are capable of understanding. But all the same he is a servant. Everything he writes services the god of form. He is a consigliere. He executes the will of the god. 


John Clute is the author of six volumes of reviews and criticism, and coeditor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. 

LARB Contributor

John Clute is the author of six volumes of reviews and criticism, most recently Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (Beccon Publications, 2011). He coedited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979; 2nd ed. 1993) and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), both of which won Hugo Awards for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year. With David Langford he is currently working on the ongoing third edition of the SF Encyclopedia, online through Orion/Gollancz from October 2011; it won a 2012 Hugo; further information about this project can be found here.


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