Robert Silverberg is one of the most influential, prolific and award-winning science fiction writers, with his work from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies standing out as one of the best decades of writing in the genre. Silverberg's career demonstrates the complexity of the relationship between science fiction writers and commercial markets. Like every SF writer, Silverberg wrote for specific markets, editors and word rates; the romantic notion of authors as geniuses working independently of markets and commercial pressures is especially inaccurate in the production of science fiction. Much of this study focuses on how Silverberg progressed from being a prolific minor writer to the best SF writer of his time largely through his relationship with Galaxy magazine from the early sixties through the mid-seventies.
Robert Silverberg's career began in the 1950s when he was one of SF's boy wonders, publishing his first story in 1954 while still in college and winning the Hugo for most promising new writer two years later. Silverberg's first stories highlight the multifaceted relationship he developed with SF markets. He wrote "Road to Nightfall" in 1954—
But despite the example of "Road to Nightfall," Silverberg's early career does not fit the storyline of the independent genius who rebels against commercial pressures. Silverberg accommodated his writing to the demands of editors and enjoyed great success. Although his bibliographer credits him with 550 fiction sales, Silverberg suspects the total is closer to 750 (Phases 13). He sometimes had more than one story appearing in the same magazine under pseudonyms such as Robert Randall (with Randall Garrett), Ivor Jorgenson, David Osborne and Calvin M. Knox. Although he published in the stronger magazines of the time such as Galaxy and Astounding, many stories appeared in the second-tier magazines such as Fantastic Universe, Amazing Stories, Fantastic, Imagination, Infinity and Science Fiction Adventures. Silverberg was a veritable factory, producing a story a day Monday through Thursday, then on Friday visiting the various editors and selling the stories (Phases 55). The problem with this productivity is that he cranked out fiction based on pulp formulas rather than crafting unique work. Some of the writing overcame these limitations—
Silverberg points out that "I have never made any secret of the fact that my primary (though not only) concern as a writer in the 1950s was to earn money. I was out of college and on my own in the adult world; I had an apartment to furnish, rent to pay, and all sorts of other new real-world expenses to meet" (Phases 85). Silverberg started writing when many pulp magazines were still extant, giving him access to a range of markets. He managed to make a good living, eventually buying "a magnificent mansion" (Phases 83) in NYC in the early sixties.
Silverberg developed a reputation as a talented, prolific writer who could produce work according to an editor's specifications. He could write stories based on cover paintings or at particular lengths—
It should be pointed out that even when Silverberg was mass-producing his early work, his stories are generally among the best in the magazines. He produced professional-quality work more quickly than most writers.
In the late fifties and early sixties, science fiction magazines were hit by distribution problems and many went out of business. That reduced the number of markets and made it difficult for Silverberg to survive (Phases 85). The markets also became more cautious and demanded predictable work. Since he wanted to maintain his high standard of living and grew disgusted with the artistic limitations of the SF magazines, Silverberg started writing erotica and books on science (Phases 83).
What drew Silverberg back to writing SF was Frederick Pohl, the editor of Galaxy and Worlds of If. Pohl believed that Silverberg had the talent to be one of the best writers in the field and "agreed to buy any story I cared to send him—
The first story produced under the arrangement was the superb tale "To See the Invisible Man", which Pohl published in one of Galaxy's companion magazines Worlds of Tomorrow (April 1963). The story—
The deal with Pohl encouraged Silverberg to write about more complex themes and utilize more sophisticated narrative strategies. He began to take pride in his work and to plan and revise (Phases 101). He wrote the stories "The Pain Peddlers" (1963), "Neighbors" (1964) and "The Sixth Palace" (1965) for Pohl, all of which display more craftsmanship than his earlier work. The five stories of the "To Open the Sky" series, which were published in Galaxy in '65 and '66, demonstrate the improvement. The episodic stories chart the rise of the Vesper religion on Earth. As the traditional religions lose their appeal, the Vespers become the dominant faith on Earth, promising immortality through bodily regeneration, development of ESP and opening the galaxy to humanity. The stories show a concern with psionics, death, exploration and spirituality. They don't have the depth of character development of the stories from a couple of years later, but they are effective.
"Hawksbill Station" (August 1967) was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula, and, according to Silverberg, dramatically improved his reputation as a writer (Best 99). Galaxy featured the story on the cover and profusely illustrated it, which indicates Silverberg's growing importance as a writer. "Hawksbill Station" depicts a future in which the government uses a time machine to exile political dissidents in the Cambrian period.
The tale is written in the lyrical prose style that readers now associate with Silverberg, not the pedestrian prose of the fifties. In "Hawksbill", Silverberg develops his unique voice, writing, instead of a standard adventure yarn, a tale only he could have produced.
The novella depicts well-rounded characters, a gallery of aging and mentally deteriorating left-wing dissidents: Marxists, Trotskyites and Anarchists who endlessly debate ideology. Silverberg provides a realistic portrayal of leftists: I attended graduate school with a similar menagerie of leftists, and they do indeed argue and debate ideology ad nauseam.
The eccentric, bizarre prisoners include the sexually-disturbed Ned Altman, who has not seen a woman since entering prison eight years ago and is sexually frustrated enough to have homosexual relationships with several prisoners, even resorting to rape. Eventually, he tries to build a woman out of dust and garbage.
The most impressive aspect of the novella is Silverberg's evocation of the Cambrian, the first period in which multicellular organisms more complex than sponges or medusoids evolved, well before the dinosaurs, when trilobites and other arthropods teemed in the oceans. Most land areas in contrast were badlands and deserts devoid even of plants and insects. The bleak rocks and the empty, lifeless landscape around the prisoners symbolize their bitter experiences and mental states.
"The World Inside" series was published in the early seventies, with one of the stories garnering a Hugo nomination. The series focuses on overpopulation, which was a major theme in the SF of the sixties and early seventies. Environmentalists predicted apocalyptic doom for the earth because of overpopulation and scarcity of resources. This scare has proven overwrought since improved technology has caused many raw materials to become more abundant despite increased population. Improved agricultural techniques and fertilizers have made it possible to grow more food than environmentalists predicted and free markets have proven resilient and flexible. John Brunner and Harry Harrison both wrote dystopias about overpopulation, The Sheep Look Up and Make Room! Make Room!, that were superseded by later events.
Silverberg's overpopulated future presents an interesting, unusual take on these issues because he depicts a civilization that "solves" problems of overpopulation, but only by creating a society that destroys many human freedoms. Most humans live in Urbmons, vast vertical buildings containing hundreds of thousands of residents. By putting its citizens in Urbmons, this future society can house everyone and create space to grow food.
An individualist would find life within the buildings miserable. People live on top of one another with limited space, so no conflict is tolerated and conformity is rigidly enforced. People are thrown down the chute if they deviate from the norm. Since this society has developed ways to deal with overpopulation, no birth control is practiced and it's considered "bless-worthy" to have many children.
In these stories Silverberg takes advantage of the post-Dangerous Visions freedom to explore erotic subjects. Nightwalking is common; men walk from apartment to apartment to have sex with women; it's considered unbless-worthy to refuse to have sex with anyone. Jealousy and possessiveness can get a person thrown down the chute. This future world exemplifies free love gone amuck.
Most of the protagonists are nonconformists struggling to live in this confining society. The protagonists in "The Throwbacks" are a married couple that has unbless-worthy feelings of jealousy and competition. They're throwbacks to the pre-Urbmon belief system of jealousy and monogamy. This point is interesting because despite the free love and Silverberg's lack of prudishness, he seems to favor heterosexual monogamous relationships and depicts promiscuous sex as ultimately boring and less satisfying than sex combined with love. The series is reminiscent of Brave New World in that it demonstrates that free love and casual drug use can be empty hedonism rather than liberation.
The series concludes with a weaker, dated story. The protagonist is a musician who uses trendy sixties slang, gets drugs from a "groove dispenser" and "trips" on a powerful drug, the multiplexer, which seems to be a heavy dose of acid. Much of the story revolves around the trip and how he enters a communion with all the minds in the Urbmon. As we will see, achieving a telepathic union, whether through drugs or other means, is an important theme in Silverberg's work.
The Nightwings series consists of "Nightwings" (September 1968 Galaxy)—
The Watcher's pilgrimage, and the redemption offered Earth, demonstrate the importance of spirituality in Silverberg's work: he portrays here, as in a number of other stories, characters undergoing a religious metamorphosis, which can be either destructive or redemptive, depending on the character's inner state at the time of the metamorphosis. In "To Jorslem", the aged Watcher is shed of his sins and returns to his youth, whereas his vain and selfish companion Olmayne is destroyed.
The contrast between isolation and communion concerns most of the characters. In the first tale, the Watcher's equipment connects him to the stars and allows him to transcend his personal limitations. In the later stories, the star stone, a religious device given to pilgrims, connects him to the "Will"—
The two serials, A Time of Changes (which won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo) and Downward to Earth, also depict religious themes and the attempt to transcend individual limitations. Silverberg takes spiritualism and religion seriously as intellectual questions worth thinking about rather than stressing a particular dogma.
Downward to Earth (serialized in Galaxy from November 1969 through March 1970) revolves around a pilgrimage by the former administrator of the colony world Belzagor. Gunderson is an imperialist administrator who in his tour of duty did not treat the intelligent natives on the planet, the nildoror (elephant-like aliens) and sulidoror (bipedal aliens), as his equals. He condescended to them and tried to educate them in Earth's music and culture. He is a colonial administrator who—
I was initially skeptical about Silverberg's portrayal of the nildoror because they physically resemble elephants, and that resemblance seems unlikely since they are an alien species with a different evolutionary history. But Silverberg justifies that similarity through the idea that certain life shapes are common throughout the universe, for example, the bipedal humanoid shape, a torpedo fish shape or a general elephant shape.
The nildoror do not have hands, just trunks that are less flexible than an opposable thumb at building things, so their culture emphasizes spirituality and inner development over technology. Their culture and religion make them interesting characters, especially as Gunderson explores their mysteries.
Gunderson undergoes striking changes. When he returns to the planet, he begins to embrace the strange by dancing with the nildoror and thus taking part in their religious rites, demonstrating that he is now open to their culture and way of being. He maintains his interest in Belzagor spirituality even though he sees characters that have experienced horrible metamorphoses because of alien parasites. He encounters Kurtz (an allusion to Heart of Darkness), who has undergone a metamorphosis into a monster after the alien rebirth rite. Kurtz committed terrible sins against the aliens and his degenerative metamorphosis reflects his corrupt spirit.
Despite Kurtz's degenerative metamorphosis, Gunderson's desire to seek redemption for his sins is strong enough for him to continue on his pilgrimage. The nildoror rebirth rite—
A Time of Changes (serialized in Galaxy in 1971), which won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo, depicts a future colony world, Borthan, which has a taboo against self-expression. The people on this world are ruled by a covenant, which requires that their private affairs remain private, creating a taboo that extends even into grammar; the Borthans use "one" in sentences because they consider "I" or "me" obscene. As a consequence, little love exists between parent and child, or wife and husband. Individuals cannot trust one another, and most interactions—
The protagonist, Kinnall, meets the Earthman Schweiz, who convinces him to take a drug that enables two people to open themselves to one another in a communion of minds. Again, as in "The World Outside," Silverberg uses the motif of a drug that creates a telepathic rapport. Like the protagonist of Downward to Earth, Kinnall turns himself into a prophet. Kinnall violates the selfbaring taboo with many people, creating a mingled consciousness with dozens of characters (similar to the group mind the Watcher establishes with the other members of his guild in "To Jorslem").
Schweiz teaches Kinnall to say "I love you," which is difficult for him because it uses the vulgar word "I," involves selfbaring emotions and destroys his solitude. Taking the drug and committing the sacrilege of self-baring is a crucible that Kinnall endures to metamorphize into a person capable of love and communion.
The drug's communion of minds is usually positive although it tragically drives Kinnall's bond-sister, the only woman he ever loved, to suicide. Although Time of Changes concludes with Kinnall's arrest, it still offers hope. The novel is Kinnall's autobiography, and he believes that it will be passed around from person to person and liberate his society from its emotional isolation.
This novel is well-written enough, with a strong enough narrative voice to remind me of the intense, well-rounded characters of Gene Wolfe. The novel also possesses a powerful emotional intensity and is unflinching in its examination of themes.
Tower of Glass (1970, nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo) is a tale of hubris and tragedy. Krug is an industrialist whose company creates and markets androids of varying levels of competence and intelligence. The androids are living, vat-grown creatures, constructed from modified human DNA, that humans treat like robotic slaves rather than living beings. Despite their treatment, the androids have free will, creativity and emotions. Since Krug is their maker, the androids worship him as the earthly manifestation of God.
Krug is unaware of the androids' worship and finds their awe disturbing. He has made a fortune off building androids and thinks of them as mere machines.
Krug is obsessed with a message aliens have sent humanity from a distant civilization 300 light years away and utilizes android labor to build a tachyon tower to respond. Since tachyons are particles that travel faster than the speed of light, they will enable Krug to communicate with the aliens in real time. The tower is a vast structure; the largest in human history, and, like the Tower of Babel, signifies human hubris or pride. Krug wants to communicate with nonhuman intelligence and is willing to spend part of his vast fortune to build the tower and an interstellar space ship. The irony is that he lives among a nonhuman intelligence, the androids, that he refuses to recognize.
The androids are split into two factions: one, a religious group led by Thor Watchman that worships Krug and thinks he will liberate them when they are "worthy", and the political group—
The story is inundated with mythic elements. Krug's son Manuel descends into the android underworld like the traditional hero of myth and witnesses the misery of their lives. He then tries to use that knowledge to save them, but unlike Christ—
When Krug finds out about the android religion and admits he has no intention of liberating them, the androids rebel in an orgy of rape and murder, destroying the society that created and enslaved them. The story depicts a failed religious redemption as mankind and Krug pay a harsh price for their hubris and willingness to use other intelligent beings. It also demonstrates that the SF marketplace was more open to darker tales in the sixties and seventies than it was in the late fifties.
Many of Silverberg's themes of the previous decade converge in Dying Inside (Galaxy 72; nominated for Nebula and Hugo), another dark, pessimistic tale, which depicts the life of David Selig, a telepath in his early 40s who feels his power failing and is traumatized to lose the only thing that makes him unique. Selig is an alienated and isolated man whose telepathy connects him with the minds of others. His power is limited to receiving the thoughts of others; he can't control other people's minds or send his own thoughts.
Selig is a failed superman whose powers have not even enabled him to establish a conventionally successful life; instead, he ekes out an income writing term papers for students at Columbia. Although Selig complains his powers make him a freak, he encounters another telepath, Nyquist, who manages to become successful and well-adjusted despite or even because of his powers. Selig might have become maladjusted regardless of whether he had powers.
The novel explores the themes of drugs and mysticism. Selig's girlfriend takes acid, and he suffers a bad trip through his telepathic rapport with her. Because of Selig's inner weakness and limitations, he is incapable of a positive spiritual change like the Watcher and Gunderson; instead he suffers a negative alteration like Kurtz. At the End, he loses his telepathic ability and is alienated and spiritually impoverished.
The story uses many motifs of science fiction's New Wave, especially the concept of entropy when it portrays the internal death of Selig's telepathy. It even includes an essay Selig writes on entropy. His powers slowly deteriorate and wind down, becoming inconsistent, less powerful and finally dying, like entropy working its way through the universe.
Dying Inside demonstrates Silverberg's technical virtuosity. It contains three-dimensional characters, well-developed themes and some interesting metafictional techniques. The point of view repeatedly shifts from third person to first person as a way to indicate flashbacks and delve deeper into Selig's mind. Selig writes letters to various public figures, reminiscent of Bellow's Herzog. The novel builds meaning and significance from a variety of literary allusions. In one unusual scene, the protagonist directly addresses the reader and takes him/her on a tour of his apartment. Instead of the metafictional technique breaking the fictional dream, it works so flawlessly the reader can read straight through without being distracted. The point of view shifts function just as effectively, making the characters' mindset easier to understand without distracting the reader from the narrative flow.
A careful examination of Silverberg's career can tell us a great deal about the role of the author in science fiction. The rise in Silverberg's reputation is indicated by his name being prominently displayed on the cover of magazines, the art illustrating his work and the numerous award nominations. His response to commercial pressures, accommodating or resisting at times until he discovered his own voice, remains more complicated and interesting than the romantic myth of the writer as an independent genius free of external pressures. It'salso a more interesting story than the notion that commercialism is innately bad for art. The SF marketplace provided Silverberg with a variety of places to sell his work and to develop his potential as a writer, while the higher-quality SF magazines, especially Galaxy, provided him with a forum to pursue his thematic interests, allowing him to create work that stresses the difficulty of human communication and demonstrates the dehumanizing effect of emotional isolation.