Temporal Turmoil: The Time Travel Stories of Robert Silverberg

By Rob LathamMarch 23, 2019

Temporal Turmoil: The Time Travel Stories of Robert Silverberg

Time and Time Again by Robert Silverberg

THE LONG AND VARIED career of Robert Silverberg can almost be viewed as a microcosm of the SF genre’s development over the past six decades. Starting out in the world of fandom, Silverberg edited a popular zine in the early 1950s, then turned to professional writing during the SF boom of the mid-’50s, producing hundreds of stories — under his own name and numerous pseudonyms — for the pulp and digest magazines of that time. Most of this material was clearly apprentice work, though estimable enough to earn him a 1956 Hugo Award for Most Promising New Author. When the boom went bust in the late ’50s, and most of the magazine markets folded or retrenched, Silverberg, like many of the decade’s authors, moved on to other literary endeavors — mostly young adult nonfiction and soft-core pornography, two disparate fields in which he produced well over 100 titles during the early 1960s.

The mid-1960s 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). When the serial novel with quest-fantasy elements became popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Silverberg emerged from a brief hiatus with his Majipoor series. For two decades thereafter, he continued to publish steadily, producing roughly one book per year, up until his retirement from novel-writing in the mid-2000s. His work during this period often reflected, even while complicating, contemporary trends, such as an emphasis on mythic intertexts (e.g., 1984’s Gilgamesh the King), evolutionary speculation (e.g., 1988’s At Winter’s End), and religious allegory (e.g., 1992’s Kingdoms of the Wall).

But throughout his career, Silverberg returned obsessively to one of the genre’s key motifs — time travel — upon which he spun elaborate and strikingly original variations. During his New Wave heyday, when he was one of the preeminent American SF writers, he produced six novels dealing centrally with themes of temporal transit or displacement — The Time Hoppers (1967), Hawksbill Station (1968), The Masks of Time (1968), Up the Line (1969), Son of Man (1971), and The Stochastic Man (1975) — his treatment of the topic ranging from straightforward adventure stories to heady philosophical disquisitions. The new collection Time and Time Again: Sixteen Trips in Time (Three Rooms Press, 2018), which gathers 16 stories published between 1956 and 2007, provides a robust — and very welcome — conspectus of Silverberg’s short fiction on the subject. (This is the third book Silverberg has edited for Three Rooms Press, all thematically organized, following 2016’s This Way to the End Times, an anthology of apocalyptic fiction, and 2017’s First Person Singularities, a collection of the author’s most innovative first-person narratives.)

As this collection makes abundantly clear, Silverberg is a master of virtually every subgenre of the time travel story, his mastery increasing as his career developed and he became confident enough to depart from ready formulas. Take, for example, the “time loop” narrative, in which a character becomes stuck in a recursive temporal coil, doomed to repeat the same cycle of events. The first story in Time and Time Again, “Absolutely Inflexible” (1956), is a clever but unambitious treatment, in which a bureaucrat whose job involves exiling time-travelers to the moon winds up, by some technological sleight-of-hand, confronting and banishing himself. By contrast with this tale’s easy ironies, the later “Many Mansions” (1973) — written during the zenith of Silverberg’s New Wave renaissance — is a delirious, multiply forking mind-fuck of a story, which begins with a fairly standard premise (traveling into the past to have sex with and/or kill an ancestor) but quickly morphs into a puzzle box of circular paradoxes impossible to resolve into linear coherence. In his introduction to the story, Silverberg reveals that he modeled his approach on Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” (1969), “in which a narrative situation is dissected and refracted in an almost Cubist fashion.” The result is brilliantly metafictional, the time-loop story as cut-up farce.

Another New Wave–era story, “Breckenridge and the Continuum” (1973), is an even more wildly experimental variant. Silverberg’s inspiration this time was structuralist theory, in particular the mythological schemas of Claude Lévi-Strauss, which are applied to the experiences of the eponymous stockbroker as he shifts back and forth between a mundane present of business meetings and cocktail parties and a chimerical far future, where he has become a nomadic bard dispensing garbled versions of classic myths. As he travels over the blighted landscape, Breckinridge develops “structural hypotheses” to account for his predicament, “the outlines of a master myth” of cyclical degeneration and rebirth. Here, the time loop functions as a potent metaphor for midlife crisis, loss of faith, and striving for renewal — a theme Silverberg suggests was central to his own life at the time. Having just moved to California,

[e]verything was still an experiment for me […] so it was not surprising that my fiction would take an experimental turn […] The early 1970s were, as you may have heard, 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.

The ethos of the California counterculture hovers over several of these stories, none more so than the haunting (and significantly titled) “Trips,” from 1974. While narratively similar, this is not a time-loop tale but rather one of parallel time-tracks, “alternative universe[s]” — as the author explains — that “tak[e] the voyager sidewise in time to other possible contemporary worlds.” The sojourner here is a San Francisco hipster on the run from a marriage grown stale, tracking his familiar partner through unfamiliar worlds — worlds that “have undergone a slight shift along the spectrum of events” and in which it might be possible to re-experience “that jolting gift of novelty which his Elizabeth can never again offer him.” With its psychedelic scene-shifting, its restless eroticism, and its deliquescent sense of personal identity — not to mention its portentous epigraph by Carlos Castaneda — this is at once a classic example of counterculture fiction and a brilliant satire of countercultural mores, of a lifestyle driven by an urgent, almost pathological quest for change. The passages narrated in the second person implicate the reader uneasily in the amorphous yearnings of the rather feckless protagonist: “It’s all trips, this universe. What else is there? There isn’t anything but trips. Just trips. So here you are, friend. New frameworks! New patterns! New!”

Silverberg always had a somewhat distanced, ironic appreciation for the experimental impulses of the 1960s, even as he pursued them himself, at least in his fiction. His most overtly countercultural novel, Son of Man, propels a 20th-century man into an unhinged far future where the endless possibilities of self-invention available to its denizens subject his philosophical and sexual certitudes to a hallucinatory, mind-expanding deconstruction. As Silverberg comments in his introduction to “Dancers in the Time-Flux” (1983), a story set in the same universe as Son of Man, his goal was “to reproduce in prose form some of the visionary aspects of life in that heady era [the 1960s] and pass off the result as a portrait of the far, far future.” The novel is a phantasmagoric masterpiece, but the story is a more mundane affair, a rather plodding sequel that attempts to recapture the unearthly radicalism of the counterculture but only manages to show that sometimes, even if you have a time machine, you can’t get there from here. (“Dancers” is the only sequel in Time and Time Again, though the volume also contains the novella that seeded Silverberg’s 1968 novel Hawksbill Station, about a penal colony in the primordial past where the political prisoners of a future dystopia are temporally exiled.)

Another key theme of “Trips” is the brittle contingency of intimate relationships, as revealed by alternative timelines in which lovers never met, or just missed meeting, or met in some ambivalent or rancorous way. “Jennifer’s Lover” (1982), in which a man loses his wife to an incestuous, time-tripping descendant, and “The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve” (1982), whose protagonist seeks to eliminate an erotic rival by temporally out-maneuvering him, are entertaining if lightweight variants on the theme, but “Needle in the Timestack” (1983) is considerably more substantial and affecting. The plot is similar to “Bell-Shaped Curve” — a loving couple finds their marriage under siege at the hands of a jilted ex who, by traveling to and selectively editing the past, hopes to “phase” their relationship out of existence — but the treatment is much richer and more satisfying. “Needle” is both a thoughtfully worked-out SF scenario — as Silverberg extrapolates the psychological nuances of having one’s memories involuntarily reordered — and a compelling human story, as the couple struggle to hold on to an emotional bond that is being retroactively erased out from under them. Stories like this — and “Trips” and “Breckenridge” — display Silverberg’s admirable ability to take a hallowed SF premise in provocative new directions.

Most of the remaining stories can be grouped into two other subgenres of the time travel narrative: tales of “time tourism,” in which voyagers leisurely sample different epochs of history, and tales of anachronism, in which a person or artifact from the past or future arrives and disrupts the present day. In the latter category, the most effective example is “What We Learned from this Morning’s Newspaper” (1972), wherein neighbors on a suburban block are first puzzled, then excited, and finally undone by the bizarre appearance on their doorsteps of next week’s newspaper. Their scheme to game the stock market based on this lucky preview of future prices is undermined by an “entropic creep” that blurs out the paper’s pages and, eventually, everyday life itself. “Gianni” (1982) is a more predictable, though quite funny, story in which an 18th-century composer, time-slipped into near-future Los Angeles, decides to join a pop band.

Silverberg’s classic treatment of time tourism is his 1969 novel Up the Line, where guides ferry paying customers into the past, nimbly dodging paradoxes and the multiplying versions of their future selves. The weakest effort in the collection fits into this category — “Hunters in the Forest” (1991), a pedestrian tale (despite the clever final twist) of sportsmen stalking dinosaurs — but so too does the strongest: the gorgeously elegiac, Nebula-winning novella Sailing to Byzantium (1985). Set in a decadent far future, where simulacra of historical metropolises are built and then demolished for the pleasure of jaded immortals, the story focuses on the geographic and erotic wanderings of a 20th-century man inexplicably awakened there. This is a New Wave story in the filmic sense: the narrative has the mesmerizing pace and dreamlike intensity of Alain Resnais or Michelangelo Antonioni, and the characters are straight out of La Dolce Vita: a languidly beautiful jet set, “wandering with the wind, moving from city to city as the whim took them,” alternately bemused and irritated by the protagonist’s archaic stabs of conscience and angsty self-questioning.

In Up the Line, Silverberg featured ancient Byzantium — a seemingly timeless city, in which the Roman Empire survived for a millennium after its demise in the West — as the main site of touristic jaunts, reconstructing the city’s famous events and monuments via meticulous historical research. (Silverberg has written some important works of history that remain classic studies of their topics — e.g., The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado [1967] and The Realm of Prester John [1972].) But the city of Sailing to Byzantium is, as its allusive title suggests, closer to the beguiling Empyrean of Yeats, a promise of ageless beauty and wonder that Silverberg, at the end, translates into pure science fiction: “[I]t isn’t necessary to be mortal […] [W]e can allow ourselves to be gathered into the artifice of eternity, […] we can be transformed, […] we can move beyond the flesh” — quite literally. It is a moving and unforgettable story.

But it is a well-known — indeed, as noted, a highly celebrated — work, and one that I had read before. The real revelation of the book, for me, was its capstone, the most recently published tale, “Against the Current” (2007). One of the most prolific authors in SF history, who at the height of his powers could generate a million words of publishable prose annually, Silverberg has, during the last two decades, produced only around two dozen stories. He frankly admits that he is financially comfortable and creatively content with his career, but “even an aging writer who feels he has said just about all he wants to say […] still does occasionally feel the irresistible pull of a story that demands to be written.” The idea for “Against the Current,” he says, just popped into his head and wouldn’t let go until he set it down on paper. As readers, we can only be grateful, because the story is astonishingly good — polished, ingenious, and heartbreaking.

The premise is simple: a Bay Area used-car dealer, after experiencing a sudden bout of dizziness, decides to leave work early; as he drives from his Oakland lot to his San Francisco home, it slowly dawns on him that he is moving steadily into his own past. Architectural landmarks shift and disappear, newspaper headlines scroll backward, years melt away in hours, yet he still seems to be traveling at normal pace from event to event. His wife, after a time, is no longer (or not yet?) his wife, not even someone he can identify or locate. He does track down his college roommate, a Berkeley hippie who listens goggle-eyed to his incredible story, while the protagonist gapes at an era reborn:

It all was like a movie set, a careful, loving reconstruction of [the 1960s] […] He had lost Jenny, he had lost his nice condominium, he had lost his car dealership, but other things that he thought were lost, like this Day-Glo tie-dyed world of his youth, were coming back to him. Only they weren’t coming for long, he knew. One by one they would present themselves, tantalizing flashes of a returning past, and then they’d go streaming onward, lost to him like everything else, lost for a second and terribly final time.

The affective charge is a kind of reverse nostalgia, literally restoring the past and then consigning it to oblivion. Silverberg makes no attempt to explain — to rationalize in science-fictional terms — this temporal turnabout; like his protagonist, he just goes with the flow. The tale reminds me a bit of John Cheever’s classic 1964 story “The Swimmer,” a similarly arresting mix of surrealism and mundanity, wherein the protagonist bleakly regresses through a palimpsest of past selves. But whereas Cheever’s hero was oblivious, in denial, Silverberg’s is serenely accepting, having “entered some realm beyond all possibility of surprise.” At the end (in a deliberate Gatsby-esque echo evoked by the story’s title), he seems prepared to “just go endlessly onward […] a perpetual journey backward, backward, ever backward.” “Against the Current” was published in a SF magazine, but it is, as Silverberg acknowledges, an “out-of-genre” story — one that could, I think, have fit comfortably into the pages of Harper’s or The New Yorker.

This leads me to my final point — Silverberg’s scandalous lack of crossover success in the literary mainstream. Other New Wave–era writers — J. G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany — have enjoyed such success (in Dick’s case, posthumously): they are, in essence, now viewed as major contemporary novelists who happen to deploy the themes and forms of science fiction. Yet Silverberg was (and is) at least their equal, and novels like Dying Inside (1972), The Book of Skulls, and The Stochastic Man are so ideationally and emotionally rich that there is no reason that discerning non-genre readers shouldn’t warmly embrace them. Happily, most of the author’s major novels are available cheaply on Kindle, as is a nine-volume compendium of his “Collected Stories,” with illuminating headnotes. In the meantime, Time and Time Again serves as a solid and engaging introduction.


Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor. His most recent book is Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (Bloomsbury, 2017).

LARB Contributor

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).


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