Silverberg, Robert. Sailing to Byzantium: Six Novellas.

NY: Open Road Media, 2013.

The advent of electronic publishing sometimes makes it difficult to work out the provenance of a new book. I have the Kindle edition of this one and since Open Road bills itself as a “multimedia content company,” it’s hard to tell whether this anthology of six of Silverberg’s very best longer (but non-novel-length) stories also exists in a three-dimensional format. Be that as it may. . . .

Like many of the greats of science fiction, “Silverbob” started out more than half a century ago writing short stories, mostly for the pulps. He gradually worked his way up to longer works, including a startling number of novels now regarded as classics, but he never got away completely from the longer short form. And some of his best writing appears in works of that length.

I’ll add, for those who don’t know, that a “novella” is shorter than a novel but longer than a novelette — 20,000 to 30,000 words, say — while a “novelette” is shorter than a novella but longer than a short story. At least, that’s how SF writers and their editors usually reckon it. A novella is long enough to allow for more extended development of character and theme than is possible in the highly-focused short-story form, but doesn’t require all the subplots and what-not of a full-dress novel.

This volume brings together six stories that anyone who considers himself a serious science fiction reader, and who is more than thirty years old, certainly ought to have read already. All have been anthologized multiple times and most have won awards — sometimes more than one — but there’s no reason on earth you shouldn’t read and enjoy them again. And if this is indeed your first encounter with Silverberg, I envy you the experience of discovery.

In the title story, a man of our own time (maybe) travels somewhat listlessly in the far future (maybe to the end of time) from one urban simulacrum to another in the company of a never-aging woman as their companions attempt to return to their proper places (sort of). It’s a lovely and very poetic piece of writing and there’s some great imagery. Silverberg also has said that, out of the several million words he has written over a long career, this story probably is his own favorite.

“Thomas the Proclaimer” was a product of the very early ‘70s, when Silverberg was at the peak of his creative energies (so he says himself), and was the culmination, sort of, of a series of longer and shorter pieces he had recently produced that had to do with religion and how it manifests itself in various circumstances. This one is a riff on Joshua’s demand that God make the sun stand still so he could continue to beat up on the Philistines in the daylight. Thomas is a desert rat from Nevada and self-discovered prophet whose charisma builds a huge, worldwide, nondenominational following. And to convince the multitudes that God is real, and that He is personally concerned with mankind, Thomas gets millions of these believers to pray, all at the same time, for an unequivocal sign. And on a particular June 6th, God stops the Earth from rotating for a day and a night. Can’t argue with that, eh? Atheism has instantly ceased to exist, right? If you expect such a clear-cut outcome from a miracle, then you really don’t know much about people. This is a deeply pessimistic, and yet thoroughly realistic, examination of how the human mind deals with the Almighty. Or doesn’t.

“Born with the Dead” is, I think, one of the best things this author has ever done. It was written in 1973 (shortly after the publication of Silverberg’s novel, Dying Inside) and partakes greatly of the strange world of California in the early ‘70s. And while it’s about the dead returning to life, or something like it, it has nothing whatever to do with religion. And no — no zombies. Jorge Klein is a scientist whose beautiful wife, Sybille, the focus of his life, dies long before her time. A process has recently come into vogue, however, by which the deceased can be “rekindled,” brought back to a conscious existence. They’re no longer dead but they aren’t entirely alive, either. They lead a new existence, with different concerns and interests. But Jorge can’t accept the idea that Sybille is out there walking around, sleeping with another (rekindled) man, and has no interest whatever in him. If only he could get her to talk to him for awhile, to explain things to him. In fact, he begins to make a bloody nuisance of himself. And the rekindled can think of only one way of dealing with his stubbornness. This one is guaranteed to give you the willies, and to keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished.

“Homefaring,” Silverberg says, is the result of his “sneaking desire to write the definitive giant-lobster story.” And that’s exactly what it is, in a slightly Kafkaesque sort of way. McCulloch, a scientist, wakes up in the mind and body of a very large crustacean with claws, antennae, a large, flat tail, and multiple legs. He’s living on the dark bottom of an ocean, in a colony of similar creatures, which seem to have a sort of hive intelligence. Where and when is he and what is he doing there? And what happens now? This isn’t one of my favorites, I admit, for all that it’s very well written and will suck you right in.

“We Are for the Dark” is another variation on a religious theme, but this time the Order, a post-Christian organization, holds the monopoly on instantaneous matter-transmission to any point in the galaxy — assuming there’s already a receiver at the destination. This means a centuries-long program of robotic ships traveling at (barely) sub-light speeds that establish receiving stations in one star system after another, after which one can simply step through a Velde gate and be there. (Not a new idea, of course.) This process of colonization is meant to be gradual and controlled, but somewhere out there, previous groups of colonists on far distant worlds are deviating from the program in startling ways. Someone has to take the blame for this, and the Lord Magistrate, whose department actually selects the colonists from among Earth’s starving billions, is on the hot seat. Now he has to go out there (never to return) and find out what’s going on.

I had kind of a hard time with “The Secret Sharer,” I have to admit. Perhaps because Silverberg is a great fan of Joseph Conrad and I’m absolutely not. Both the title and the basic plotline here are taken from Conrad’s short story of the same name (often published with the novella “Heart of Darkness,” which was the basis of Silberberg’s novel, Downward to the Earth), in which a young and uncertain captain, new to both his ship and his crew, rescues a mysterious swimmer one night (who is on the run, so to speak), whom he rescues and hides in his cabin, and later assists to escape. Silverberg follows the original story line closely, with the necessary transfers of setting and so on from the sea to space, and it was nominated for (but didn’t win) both the Hugo and Nebula. But it just doesn’t work for me.

Robert Silverberg is not as much read these days by younger readers as, say, Heinlein, but he certainly deserves to be. His novels often take some effort to understand and fully appreciate, but the six stories presented here would be an excellent place to start.

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Published in: on 9 May 2014 at 4:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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