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The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg: Volume Four: Trips: 1972-73 Review

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg: Volume Four: Trips: 1972-73. Robert Silverberg (Subterranean Press 978-1-59606-212-2, $35.00, 416pp, hc) May 2009. [Order from Subterranean Press, PO Box 190106, Burton MI 48519;]

Other Spaces, Other Times: A Life Spent in the Future. Robert Silverberg (Nonstop Press 978-1-933065-12-0, $29.95, 200pp, hc, May 2009. [Order from Nonstop Press, PO Box 981, Peck Slip Station, New York, N.Y. 10272-0981;]

Trips is, according to a note Charles N. Brown gave me, “Bob at his best.” Silverberg, in one of his story notes, agrees: the Nebula-winning “‘Born with the Dead,’ I still think, represents me at the top of my form….” (The story concerns a man who cannot accept that his dead wife prefers the company of her dead friends and refuses to see him; he chases her around the globe until the bizarre but satisfying ending.) This is top-notch Silverberg, having left the pulpy penny-a-word days long behind in favor of more complex and subtle literary work, at times in spite of his editors’ disapproval, and with much greater challenges: “Writing short stories, I decided, had become an impossibly difficult ordeal, and I resolved then and there [1974] to abandon doing them forever….”

This is the fourth volume in a planned eight collecting Silverberg’s short fiction in chronological order, and like earlier volumes, stories are preceded by introductions for context, telling us in dry Silverbergian tones: “In the early part of the 1970s, hard as that may be to believe today, many people living in the Western industrial nations devoted a substantial degree of energy to erotic activity. Historical records indicate that it was a time of vigorous sexual experimentation…” — all this by way of introducing the lead story “In the Group” (written for anthology Eros in Orbit, about the future of sex), concerning the trouble that occurs when group sex is no longer emotionally satisfying for the protagonist, and his chosen girlfriend doesn’t want monogamy. All but two of the stories in this collection were published in original anthologies rather than magazines, giving a sense of the shift in Silverberg’s markets. In the era of the themed anthology, everything was potentially political, and so we have “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV” (for Jack Dann’s Wandering Stars, a Jewish SF anthology), a charming, straightforward narrative in which a green furry alien is possessed by the narrator’s dead friend: “‘There has been an odd transformation, yes,’ Rabbgi Schlomo conceded. ‘But in this age, on this planet, no one can take dybbuks seriously.’” Until the dybbuk starts divulging gossip only the dead friend would have known, and then the community of secular Jews have to take him seriously. The title story “Trips” was written for Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology, edited by Barry N. Malzberg and Edward L. Ferman, “and each story in it was supposed to be the definitive statement of its theme — Isaac Asimov, of course, took robots… I wanted time travel, but I think Philip K. Dick beat me to it, or else I simply opted right away for alternative universes…” The story is a classic set-up, a character journeying through parallel time streams and meeting other versions of himself and his wife — time streams in which the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen, or the sons of Genghis Khan have a worldwide empire, or America never got involved in World War II and the Axis won the war; the twist ending isn’t much of a surprise but is fulfilling. The fragmentary and ruthlessly ambivalent “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” also plays with SF tropes — written for Terry Carr’s Universe, rejected by Carr (“looking crestfallen and dismayed”) and picked up by Bob Hoskins for Infinity. The following quote is from the story, but could perhaps just as easily have been taken from any story introduction in this volume: “Perhaps I spend too much time on other planets and in remote galaxies. It’s an embarrassing addiction, this science fiction…. Perhaps what I really fear is not so much a dizzying multiplicity of futures but rather the absence of futures.” These are stories by, as Silverberg admits, someone deeply exhausted with storytelling, which is ironic given how good many of the stories are. The stories towards the end of the volume in particular are the kind that stick to you; the affectless dead of “Born with the Dead” or the children of “In the House of Double Minds” whose brain hemispheres have been severed in an attempt to create a quasi-religious “oracle” — these are images and ideas that become part of the reader’s mental vocabulary; these are stories that demonstrate Silverberg’s mastery of the genre.

The overall effect of the autobiographical Other Spaces, Other Times: A Life Spent in the Future is a delicate balance between pride and Jewish self-deprecation, between Robert Silverberg the writer, and Bob Silverberg (as he prefers to be known) the person. The book is a compilation of essays (some also included in Trips and other Subterranean Press collections), photos, cover art, an index, and a bibliography — always a daunting task with Silverberg — all printed on high quality paper with several color pages. At a slim 200 pages, it’s a nice-looking book despite a few typos and a photo where the caption is flipped, misidentifying A.J. Budrys as a fan named Charles Harris and vice versa, likely a production mistake. Essays date from the late 1970s through 2008, reprinted from various sources and covering overlapping material: Silverberg’s early years of hackwork, his many collaborations with Randall Garrett, his long friendship with Harlan Ellison, the traumatizing house fire in Silverberg’s New York home in 1968, his move to California in 1972, the origins of individual stories, and much of the social history of the genre. In addition we get bits of writing advice and miscellaneous stories about Xerox machines, how Silverberg incorporated for tax reasons, James Tiptree Jr., the history of Silverberg’s Worldcon attendance, his childhood joy at dissecting frogs, and other topics. Reading the book straight through feels rather like flanking Silverberg at a series of parties, where he recounts some of the same stories, revealing different details each time.

Having grown up on science fiction, Silverberg wanted to be a science fiction writer; he churned out reams of pulpy adventure stories between 19555-1958 under his own name as well as a number of pseudonyms for Amazing, Fantastic, Super Science-Fiction, Imagination, and other magazines. As the pulp markets dried up after the American News Company collapsed in 1958, he turned to nonfiction books for young readers, porn, crime stories, and other markets, with an occasional science fiction story or novel. Throughout, Silverberg maintains an unapologetic tone: writing is a business, and Silverberg is supporting himself in the lifestyle he finds comfortable. But he broods about it as well: “Only the old shame remained to tweak me: I had served science fiction badly in my 1955-8 days, and I wanted to atone” (112), so when Fred Pohl at Galaxy offered him a quiet deal — if Silverberg wrote ambitious stories, Pohl would buy them — it resulted in “To See the Invisible Man” (1963) and a dozen or so others, “this time not as a producer of commodities but as a serious, dedicated artist who turned away from more profitable work to indulge in SF out of love.” Stories and novels started to show up on awards ballots, even winning a few, though commercial success did not always follow. Of 1974 he wrote that his “books were going out of print, my publishers were in no hurry to reissue them, readers seemed baffled and even hostile, critics seemed to be paying no attention. Suddenly I was neither commercially viable nor acclaimed as an artist.” So he retired. Until a back-of-the-envelope sketch in 1978 turned into Lord Valentine’s Castle, first of the popular Majipoor books (“‘maji’ to provide a subliminal hint of the magic that makes the whole place work, and the Hindi-sounding suffix ‘poor’ to remind me that my geographic model was the subcontinent of India blown up to superplanetary size.” (130) Silverberg’s multiple careers, encompassing stories, novels, nonfiction, and anthologies, can be seen as a reflection of how publishing changed over the decades, and this account provides a necessary piece of science fiction’s history, as well as an enjoyable foray into the mind of one of the genre’s statesmen.