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The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg,…

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Three: Something Wild…

by Robert Silverberg

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With this third volume of Robert Silverberg’s Collected Stories, spanning the years from 1969 to 1972, we finally get to the really good stuff. While there were some excellent stories among his earlier output, the period from ca. the late sixties to mid seventies marks the high point of Silverberg’s Science Fiction witing and sees most of his major works published, among them acknowledged classics like Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls. In fact, I’d argue that this period is much more deserving of the epitheton “Golden Age of Science Fiction” than the fifties to which it is usually applied, because from about the middle of the sixties onwards Science Fiction stopped (for the most part, at least) to naively and unknowingly project the present into the future: instead, the genre became self-aware when authors found out that they had something meaningful to say beyond pulp adventures and and began to use the future to consciously examine the present.

Robert Silverberg is a prime example of this, as can be seen in this collection – where the first two volumes were a rather mixed bag, there is not a single weak story in Something Wild Is Loose, his writing did not just flourish, it soared during this period. The reader can watch him here exploring new territories in form as well as content, treating subjects that would have been off limits for Science Fiction a decade ago, and quite often treating them in ways that seem breathtakingly original even today (because, of course. there was the unavoidable backlash… but that will likely be a subject for posts on later volumes). A rather surprising (to me, at least) amount of the stories here concern themselves with explicitely religious themes, and in a manner that is largely, if not sympathetic, then understanding – even a satirical story like “Good News from the Vatican” (about the first ever robot Pope) never ridicules the urge to believe as such, even while it pokes fun at organised religion. I think this might point towards something characteristic of Silverberg as a writer – in all of his work, even when writing satire, he is rarely judgmental but appears above all as an inquisitive mind whose main drive a restless curiosity and who is chiefly interested in exploration, in trying to understand.

And it is this which drives the best stories in this volume, too. There is some difference in quality, but the range extends from “merely” good to utterly brilliant. My favourites are:

“In Entropy’s Jaws” – the twist at the end is pretty much obvious from the start, but I liked the way the story is told on several different time levels simultaneously.
“Going” – a long novella, almost a short novel, in which nothing much happens but that a very old man faces the end of his life. Mostly a character study as well as an exploration of what it means to (literally) have all the time in the world, and it might well be among the best things Silverberg wrote.
“Thomas the Proclaimer” – takes a not exactly SFnal premise (a miracle actually happening for everyone to see) and then uses it for an extended exploration of religion and its significance to the human psyche.
“When We Went to See the End of the World” – a short satirical story about how the end of the world ends up as party entertainment.
“Some Notes on the Pre-Dynastic Epoch” – another short one, this one an elegiac look back on human civilization.
“The Feast of St. Dionysus” – an astronaut returns from Mars and stumbles across a strange cult in the Mojave… or does he? Reads a bit like Malzberg without the nihlism and is very good in creating a weird, hallucinatory atmosphere.
“Many Mansions” – a time travelling story inspired by, of all things, by Robert Coover’s seminal story “The Babysitter.” Probably the story in this volumeI found most entertaining (although it’s also the one that suffers most from Silverberg’s usual issues with the depiction of female characters – it’s strange how he is so progressive in pretty much everything else but appears to be stuck in the 50s in that particular regard).

As in the previous volumes, each story comes with an introduction by the author – in a curious reversal those seem to get less interesting the better the stories themselves become, maybe because they stand better on their own. There are also fewer of them, as many stories in this collection (and often the best ones) are novella-length – it seems Silverberg is best in longer forms when he has some space to spread out in.
  Larou | Jan 10, 2014 |
What was loose in those times were cults and demonstrations and bombers and the certainty of doom from civilization’s effluvia. They were times of change for America, science fiction, and one of its up and coming masters, Robert Silverberg.

As usual with the volumes of this series, the payoff is not just Silverberg’s almost always serviceable, sometimes brilliant, stories, but his notes on his life and work and science fiction. Here he not only speaks of famous science fiction personalities, most especially the many editors he worked with, but his cynicism for the “save-our-disintegrating-society-through-science-fiction” theme anthologies for which some of these stories were composed, his general distaste for some modern science fiction authors (no names are mentioned) who think they must raise awareness about some issue or other. And, though the problems of our time are different than those of the early 1970s, he thinks the “disturbing, fragmented” and forgotten science fiction of that time has something to offer our world that’s not provided in the “bland, comforting, predictable” fantasy novels popular today.

There is a number of famous titles here, many dealing with religious themes:
o “Good News from the Vatican” – an amusing, detailed, and ironical look at the first robot Pope.
o “Thomas the Proclaimer” – When the sun stands still in the sky, it should be proof of a divine miracle and unify the world in faith. But the many viewpoint characters here wonder which god and which faith, and there is no unity in interpreting the Sign.
o “When We Went to See the End of the World” – A flip, ironical, nihilistic tale from Silverberg’s “dangerous midlife years” in which the many ways the world ends simply provide cocktail party fodder and a tool for social one upsmanship.
o “The Feast of St. Dionysius” – When I was 12, I first read this story. I didn’t understand it then. I’m not sure I fully understand it now, but the image of a cult in the California desert in their labyrinthine city has never left me. Into it, a 40 year old astronaut, veteran of a Mars expedition with casualties, wanders.
o “The Mutant Season” – Something of a competent, quickly produced, but nothing special story that unexpectedly, 15 years later, provided the seed for a four novel series written by Silverberg’s wife, Karen Haber.
o “Caught in the Organ Draft” – Perhaps the best example in the collection of a story that still speaks to our time. Though its plot of young people drafted to provide organs for oldsters originally had something of a Vietnam War subtext, it now, in an age of demographic crash where fewer young people support more old people via taxes, serves as a metaphor for a contemporary problem.
o “Many Mansions” – Yet another Silverberg exploration, in bewildering complexity, of the time travel theme, here mixed with a sex and marital farce. Its short, sometimes contradictory, fragments were inspired by Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter”.

The rest of the stories:
o “Something Wild Is Loose” – Straightforward action plot with a small, invisible alien trying to communicate with the humans who have accidentally carried it to Earth.
o “Caliban” – Experimental effort about time travel with a strange story of a burned out telepath who must confront the reality of how time and causality really work.
o “The Reality Trip” – An alien spy on Earth, disguised as a human, must confront his loneliness and failing professional dedication in this sardonic tale.
o “Going” – Novella about a man making the decision to end his life in a world where suicide has become ritualized and the center of a new social movement.
o “Caliban” – Written in 1970, the peak year of production in Silverberg’s career, this has an ugly man from the past (either cloned or brought via time travel) into a world of universally pretty people. Silverberg says he was trying to be humorous – but most readers didn’t agree.
o “Push No More” – Something of a dress rehearsal for Silverberg’s classic novel Dying Inside in that it also features a smart, randy Jewish protagonist with psychic powers in a contemporary setting.
o “The Wind and the Rain” – The opening line, “The planet cleanses itself”, expresses Silverberg’s disdain for environmental extremists and those who think conservationism is to save nature and not man. Silverberg’s notes are the most interesting aspect of a story whose main point of interest is the idea that a fatally polluted Earth might be regarded as sort of an artwork.
o “Some Notes on the Pre-Dynastic Epoch” – Not really so much a story as a poetic expression of Silverberg’s knowledge and love of archaeology. This is one of those archaeologist-from-the-future-looks-at-the-ruins-of-our-world stories – but the archaeologist’s identity is not that certain.
o “What We Learned from This Morning’s Newspaper” – One of those newspapers-from-the-future stories. Once again Silverberg, son of an accountant, shows a knowledge of and interest in the stock market.

This is an essential volume for those interested in Silverberg and a good, if expensive in hardcover, introduction to some of his best work and most productive years ( )
  RandyStafford | Jun 10, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 159606143X, Hardcover)

The world that these stories sprang from was the troubled, bewildering, dangerous, and very exciting world of those weird years when the barriers were down and the future was rushing into the present with the force of a river unleashed. But of course I think these stories speak to our times, too, and that most of them will remain valid as we go staggering onward through the brave new world of the twenty-first century. I am not one of those who believes that all is lost and the end is nigh. Like William Faulkner, I do think we will somehow endure and prevail against increasingly stiff odds.

A great many strange and dizzying things happen to the characters in these sixteen stories, and in the fourteen stories of the 1972-73 volume that will follow. The reader who makes the journey from beginning to end of all thirty stories will be taken on many a curious trip, that I promise -- as was their author during the years when they were being written.
--Robert Silverberg, from the Introduction

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:29 -0400)

A collection of stories that includes "To See the Invisible Man," "Neighbor," "The Sixth Place," "Halfway House," "To the Dark Star," "Going Down Smooth," "Ringing the Changes," and "We Know Who We Are."

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