Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Robert Silverberg, transcending

i love Robert Silverberg. as a writer, he's many things: a provacateur and a challenger of the status quo, a trippy painter of hallucinations, an enchanter who is able to weave glittering tapestries of beautiful prose, a graceful and dignified Grand Master of speculative fiction, a stylish stylist who changes his style to fit his story, and  an unpredictable wordsmith of the New Wave scifi school who likes to get right up in your face with his bad self. he's mercurial.

it is enjoyable reading the range of criticism concerning his books because to read those critiques is to see two things: (1) how deeply he can get into a protagonist's head and how little interest he has in making his heroes palatable and user-friendly for his audiences; and (2) how he is something of a renaissance man - his books just read so differently from one another - people will dislike them for so many different sorts of reasons, it is like they were all written by different authors. he's a chameleon who has no problem writing about assholes.

but as with all great writers, Silverberg does appear to have an overriding obsession or two that seem to be central to each of his books: a person struggling to change, protagonists struggling to truly understand themselves, characters yearning to transcend. its been said that the brilliance of a writer or director or artist in general can be sometimes defined by their limitations: a brilliant artist will work on one piece their entire career, remaking it over and again, in different permutations with different ramifications; their message may change as they themselves change, but their central themes remain the same. and so it is with Silverberg - a writer whose style may shift according to his whims and his goals, but whose themes will no doubt always be concerned with one great idea: How Do I Move Beyond Myself?



Dying InsideDying Inside is a sterling example of 70s New Wave science fiction. it is about a telepath whose powers are fading. dude is a miserable, depressive asshole who whines endlessly about his life. the end.

wait a sec, maybe that sounds like a bad read to you? well my friend, let me tell you... throw that impression away! this book is superb from beginning to end. it is thought-provoking, often delightful, often hard-edged, completely enjoyable. Silverberg is such a masterful writer and many times i had to stop and reread different passages to better enjoy the beauty of his prose and the intelligence of his ideas. that sharp wit! the story is never monotonous and always resonant.

it is an episodic novel, moving freely from past to present and back again. we meet our not-so-loveable narrator David Selig, his child psychologist, his girlfriends, his sister and the rest of his family, and a fellow telepath. our loser-ish hero makes his marginal living ghost-writing papers for college students, so there are several anecdotes where we see inside a couple students' minds. our hero is an unrepentant jerkoff, so we also get to read his often excruciating views on women and blacks (his thoughts on black empowerment were particularly troubling). we are shown a couple of his essays, one on Kafka and the other on the Electra complex, and they are fairly interesting - as standalones and as commentary on the narrative itself. each chapter is its own separate, challenging, wonderful little experience. my favorite parts include: a dry and rather evil session with our child protagonist as he toys with an overly-literal child psychologist; an exceedingly creepy and effective 'bad trip' (i think we can safely assume that telepathy does not improve LSD); and best of all, a brilliant flashback to our lonely telepath's youth, as he relaxes in a field, moving through the perspectives of a bee, a fish, two kids getting laid in a forest, and a surprisingly spiritual old farmer.

of particular interest is the the novel's other telepath - the confident, capable, cheerfully guilt-free Nyquist. the chapters about the relationship between the two are illuminating in illustrating how Selig's main problem is not so much his telepathy but his fear of openness, of genuine human connection. Selig's problems do not come from his gifts, but rather from his own neuroses. and so the narrative is basically an accounting of how Selig grows to understand his own issues and then tries to move past them.

in his many other fantasy & scifi novels, Silverberg has proven himself a visionary master of often hallucinatory prose. his ideas can be sublimely poetic, so ambiguous as to be almost intangible, so far-reaching that they can be a real challenge to digest. one of the really fun things about Dying Inside is seeing how Silverberg harnesses his talents for what is basically the prosaic, diary-like musings of a not-that-special guy with some very special powers. Dying Inside is bursting with creativity - as if the author is illustrating how stories can be told in ways that are new, fresh, effervescent. Selig is mordant, jumpy, neurotic, and highly sexual, by turns cynical and empathetic, and... hilarious! his narration is often a real treat and the free-flowing, occasionally stream-of-conscious thoughts have a chatty, relaxed, loose-limbed kind of appeal that makes the novel smooth yet tangy going down. and it's not just the distinctive, nakedly honest narrative voice that makes this novel so appealing; many chapters practically overflow with playful, jazzy approaches to style and structure, and there are plenty of sophisticated insights delivered both broadly and in deadpan. Silverberg's generous imagination busts the seams of the narrative; the result is a refreshing tonic.



Downward to the Earthgentle elephant things in the jungle; furry man-shaped things in the mist. our hero, former colonial station chief, returns to this strange planet much changed. the planet itself has changed: its residents no longer considered mere "animals", beasts of burden to be used as humans see fit... they are "people". a surprisingly liberal future-Earth now recognizes these beings as sentient, as does our hero. he returns to this place, full of regret for past actions, craving understanding and redemption, yearning for the intangible. he will seek to provide recompense and he will know change, a great and terrible change.
this marvellous classic gets everything right: a beautifully detailed yet still mysterious world... a flawed protagonist striving to accomplish ambiguous yet still understandable goals... intriguing mysteries and a strange quest... aliens that feel genuinely alien... and a powerful idea running through it all: to truly understand others is to truly understand yourself; one cannot be accomplished without the other.
there are shades of Heart of Darkness here (even including a character named "Kurtz"), except turned inside-out: the darkness within man made almost inconsequential; darkness made light. i was also reminded of tales of colonial India (even including an alien character named "Srin'gahar"), the misdeeds and the culture clash and the ugliness and the beauty. i was also reminded of Sherri S. Tepper's Grass, a book published many years after this one that takes one of this novel's central ideas and runs with it, in a much more horrific direction.

as always, Silverberg writes about the need to understand ourselves and the yearning to transcend who we are or who we are supposed to be. physical travel that parallels inner change. and such is Downward to the Earth.



The Face of the Watersthe world is an ocean; humanity has come and cannot go. humanity lives on a chain of artificial islands and is perhaps now doomed, due to typical human stupidity & cupidity. where to flee? to an uncharted place on this uncharted planet; to The Face of the Waters. to find death or transcendence, or both?

our hero is a doctor, alienated from his tiny society and alienated from himself. he yearns for something, something more, something else... Earth? connection to his fellows? a deeper meaning for his life or something to explain the meaning of the life he has lived thus far? he yearns and breaks himself upon the wheel of that yearning. broken and then remade? he is a classic Silverberg protagonist.

this is less of a science fantasy adventure and more of an extended & dreamlike existential crisis. mournful and hopeful in equal measures. the central character is multi-faceted and drawn with depth and clarity... the author's self-portrait?



The Book of Skulls (SF Masterworks, #23)i have a soft spot for this one. it is a thoughtful tale of college students on a road trip slash quest slash metaphysical odyssey, their destination a secret to immortality. the only problem with obtaining this secret is that major bummer, The Grim Reaper. one of the group has to be sacrificed (i.e. murdered) and another must die by his own hand. the cast of 4 are stereotypes: the studly poor guy, the studly rich guy, the queer, the jew. although on friendly terms, they are decidedly not a group of close lifelong mates. i was absorbed by Book of Skulls' depiction of how social inclusion & exclusion, ability to dominate, class background, and various other differences all cause the characters to continually shift allegiances.

the characters felt both on-target much of the time and, at other times, oddly alien - too sharply differentiated from each other, if that makes sense. i saw much that was familiar as far as the lifestyle and behavior of these guys' lives goes, but found no one that i specifically connected to in terms of actual characterization. but still, there is something about reading the story of college guys thinking they know it all, while also trying to figure things out about themselves, while in college thinking i knew it all, while also trying to figure things out about myself, that made it an intriguing and enjoyable and often really thrilling experience.



Valentine finds himself outside the city of Pidruid one afternoon, completely bereft of memory, as the city makes ready for the arrival of Lord Valentine - one of the four great Powers of the mega-world of Majipoor. what's a man to do in such a situation? why, join a traveling band of jugglers, of course. travel a lot, meets lots of new people and see lots of new things, have a bunch of trippy dreams, and eventually reclaim a fabulous destiny.

Lord Valentine's Castle (Majipoor 1)i first read this sometime in junior high. it is an often dense novel and certainly a surreal one at times, but there is a purity to it that, upon rereading it recently, made me realize i must have been able to fully grasp it when first reading it age 14 or so. it became one of my favorite things.

although Lord Valentine's Castle is about Finding Your True Self and What Makes A Good Leader, i found the novel was also concerned with two other things: World Building and Silverberg's Vision of a (Semi) Perfect World.

haters of world building need to give this novel a pass. but for those who appreciate the intensely detailed visions of otherworlds created by various scifi and fantasy authors, this is the book for you. "intensely detailed" is a good phrase for this but it should be qualified. not intensely detailed like George RR Martin (you won't always know what color sash a person is wearing and if it matches their brocade jacket) but intensely detailed in that we visit so many different places across the grand world of Majipoor and they are all so beautifully described and so well-differentiated from each other. at times i was reminded of how easily Jack Vance rolls out cities & countries & worlds, one after the other, with such style and skill that he makes world-building look like a lark. however Silverberg does not have Vance's economy of language or spartan stylishness. this is world building in the classic sense in that the reader gets to enjoy sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph of gorgeous description. boring for some; entrancing for me. reading this really made me feel like a romantic (also in the classic sense of the word) young nerd again. the language is beautiful and Majipoor really came alive.

this is also in many ways a near-perfect world. it does not know war or famine or cruel leaders or reality tv. its species and races live in relative harmony. personalities are either sunny & open or, if not, at least genuinely amusing in their grouchiness or arrogance. cold-eyed justice and professional emotional support are both given by far off dream-senders, so no need for pesky police or helpful therapists to get up in your face - they'll see you in your dreams, whether you've been good or bad or inbetween. Majipoor is a liberal, generous, and usually cheerful society. its people respect the natural wonders of the world and various preserves are specifically set aside for keeping those wonders sacrosanct. reading Lord Valentine's Castle made me realize that this was all the author's version of his own ideal world. good for you, Silverberg. your dreams are wonderful and i would like to live in them, please.

Silverberg established himself as a sometimes challenging and often provacative author of New Wave Science Fiction. Lord Valentine's Castle was a step in an entirely different direction: epic science fantasy. but such a curious version of an epic! writing that makes you slow down and enjoy things instead of rushing forward to the next conflict. a narrative that is full of dreams and dream battles and dream epiphanies. characters who are mainly undramatic and often trying to do right. an emphasis on the environment as a precious thing. turning the other cheek and not automatically drawing your sword when someone gets in your way. and writing that is charming and sometimes eerie and brightened by a lacquer of pleasantly vivid psychedelia. splendid writing. splendid author!

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