Book Review: The Best of Robert Silverberg

This is a 1976 publication I found in a used book store.  I picked it up because I hadn’t read any Silverberg for a long time, and he’s one of the best science fiction short story writers ever. His collection “Phases of the Moon,” published in 2004, which I read several years ago, is much more comprehensive, as it adds many of his wonderful post-1976 stories, but this book gave me a decent Silverberg fix nonetheless.

Silverberg’s progress as a short story writer is clearly seen in this anthology.  The stories are chronologically presented, and they move forward from the first, which is merely so-so, to the next few which are pretty good, to the next few which are very good, to the timeless classic award winners at the end.  He went on afterwards to win many more awards.

The book begins to pick up serious momentum with the novella “Hawksbill Station,” one of the few stories in the collection I hadn’t read before.  It concerns political prisoners, all men, thrown back in time to the bleak, featureless Paleozoic era and their slow degradation and descent into insanity, isolated as they are from the rest of humanity by billions of years.  Unbeknownst to them, the latest prisoner sent back is a spy analyzing their condition with a view to returning them to the future for therapy and rehabilitation.  After that is the dark, nasty award-winning short story “Passengers,” about incorporeal aliens who possess humans and use their bodies for pleasure.

“Nightwings” is a hauntingly beautiful tale of a far future Earth in danger of alien invasion, another award-winner, atmospheric and poetic.  “Good News From the Vatican,” the last story in the book, is a light, funny account of the election of the first robot pope of the Catholic church.

The story before the last, though, “Sundance,” I have always considered one of my all-time favorite stories.  It’s about a man of Native American background on a far planet who appears to be a part of a team exterminating the native life forms to prepare the way for human colonization.  He discovers that the creatures are sentient and begins to identify with them because his Sioux ancestors were also exterminated far back in American history.  But then his colleagues inform him that they were never exterminating the indigenous creatures, that it was all a delusion of his, and that he was undergoing therapy and psychic reconstruction for his anger and resentment about the past.  All this is evocative enough, but in the midst of this gripping story, Silverberg experiments with technique to great effect.  He switches between present and past tense; he shifts from second to third to first person and back again.  In the hands of a lesser writer it all could have been a dazzling distraction, but the amazing thing about this story is that it works flawlessly; it adds depth and nuance and cadence to the prose.

It was great fun revisiting Silverberg.  He started off as a hack writer of mediocre stories to the pulp magazines.  Amazingly prolific, he turned out so many stories so fast that some magazines had multiple efforts of his under various pseudonyms.  Very few of those stories were ever reprinted, however, and as Silverberg’s career progressed, he went through various stages of growth, sometimes backing off from fiction and concentrating on non-fiction, then returning to the field for another prolific surge, each time with deeper and more powerful works.  Finally, by the late sixties and on into the seventies, he became one of the best in the field.

I have read and enjoyed some of his novels, particularly “Dying Inside,” a devastating, tragic, moody, thoughtful story of a telepath slowly losing his powers, but I was always more drawn to his short fiction.  He has a gift of language that lends itself well to the short form.  Anyone interested in the science fiction field would do well to seek out some of his works.

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