Book Review: Reflections and Refractions: Thoughts on Science Fiction, Science and Other Matters by Robert Silverberg

Back in the early 1970s when I was intensely interested in reading a lot of science fiction, one of my favorite writers was Robert Silverberg.  His short story “Sundance” is one of my favorite short stories of all time, but he also wrote amazing short stories and novellas like “Passengers”, “Nightwings”, Born With the Dead”, “To See the Invisible Man”, and “Good News From the Vatican”.  Back then one of my all-time favorite novels was “Dying Inside”, a tragic, introspective story about a telepath who was slowly losing his powers.  Silverberg, along with other writers of that era, inspired me with the experimental quality of his work.  He would shift from first, second, and third person points of view, and from past tense to present tense and back.  It was not random, though; there was always a literary reason of it.  That’s what I appreciated:  the thoughtfulness of his prose, the fact that he elevated science fiction to an art form as relevant as any other literary endeavor.

I eventually drifted away from science fiction, both in my reading and my writing, as Silverberg himself, who has publicly retired from writing more than once, also did, and I didn’t come back to it for decades.  I actually stopped writing for a long time – one of the great errors of my life – all that time wasted – but when I came back to it I was drawn again to science fiction and fantasy as a valid technique to focus on concepts that could not be expressed in any other way.

And when I did, there was Robert Silverberg, still writing in spite of his many announced retirements from the game.  You can’t keep a good writer down.  From the mid-70s to the mid-90s, besides his fiction he had been writing regular columns in various science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories and Asimov’s on subjects like science fiction fandom, writing, other writers, science, and diverse other topics.  As far as I know he is still at it, but the book I am reviewing right now was published in 1997, so that’s the extent of his essays I can comment on.

The first section of the book deals with science fiction fandom, and is fascinating as early history of that phenomenon.  It’s not comprehensive by any means, but just Silverberg’s own main impressions.  Like many science fiction writers, he was a fan first and a writer second.  His love for science fiction stories led him to want to write them.  He turned out to have an amazing knack for it, and by the time he was a senior at university was one of the most prolific writers in the field.  His anecdotes of science fiction conventions in the 50s, 60s, and 70s make for some fun reading.  Personally, I bucked the trend as I was a writer first, and got into science fiction as a form of literary expression.  In fact, I attended my first science fiction convention this year in San Diego at the age of 59.  If I had not been living abroad for thirty-five years, though, I am sure I would have attended more conventions.

Next is a section on science, and though I read through it because I hate to skip parts of a book and because I enjoy Silverberg’s style, this section is the least relevant in the book.  The science is obviously long dated, most of the pieces having been written about three decades ago.

The next section, though, on the profession of writing, is timeless.  If anyone knows anything about writing as a profession, it is Silverberg.  He has published hundreds of books, won shelf-loads of awards, and weathered many personal crises and changes in publishing and still continues to produce.  This section is worth the price of the book.  Most of the book’s essays are short, as they were originally composed for magazines with strict word limits, but the first essay on writing is one of the best in the book, a forty-page comprehensive biographical piece called “The Making of a Science Fiction Writer” in which Silverberg delves into his early love for reading which led to writing, his frustrations and rejections when first starting out, his desperate study of writing technique, and his tips for other fledgling writers.  Further essays deal with other relevant aspects of a writer’s craft.

In his career, Silverberg has met almost all of the big names in the science fiction field, and in the next section of essays he shares impressions and stories about science fiction megastars like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, Lester Del Rey, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon, and Philip K. Dick.  This part is just for fun, as he recounts how he met these various literary giants, how their relationships proceeded, and his appraisal of them as individuals and of their work.  And it is indeed great fun.

There follows a section of odds and ends.  Some essays on linguist phenomena are interesting; other essays are dated.  And at the end of the book, Silverberg has some essays about his own life and work, concluding with an analysis of the short story “Sundance”.  As this story is so significant for me, I read this essay with great interest, only to discover at the end that someone had neatly sliced the last page out of the book with a razor.  That’s what I get for ordering used books from Amazon:  as Forest Gump said about life being a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.  I do expect at least a book with the requisite number of pages even if I order it used, but by the time I discovered the error it was too late to complain.  Ah, well.  Things happen.

Anyway, for anyone with an interest in the science fiction field, this book is of interest for its insight into writing, writers, and fandom.  If you don’t want to go through the dated essays on science that are now more curiosities than anything else, read those three sections.

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