Book Review: A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

I don’t know how I missed reading this novel back in the early 1970s. I read several of Silverberg’s other novels of that era, the best of which were Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls.  Silverberg was on a roll back then; he was not only amazingly prolific, turning out not only novels but also short stories, novelettes, and novellas, but also practically everything he wrote was of exceptionally high quality. He would often experiment with tense, point of view, and other stylistic flourishes, but he would integrate these innovations so soundly into the text that it seemed there was no other alternative than to write it that way.

A Time of Changes, oddly enough considering its subject matter, is rather conventional in style. A man on a far planet long ago colonized by Earth people reminisces in a journal after undergoing changes in his life brought on by his meeting an Earthman and taking a drug with him that dissolves personality barriers. The catch is that on this world, the sharing of self is despised, so that it is heretical and illegal to commit the sin/crime of self-baring, or exposing your own ego to others. This is manifest even in speech, in which words such as “I” and “me” are among the crassest forms of obscenity.

This is a good book; Silverberg had very clean, meticulous prose in those days – not a word is misplaced. The society and the world in which the narrator lives are presented in precisely the right amount of detail to give the reader a sense of immersion but at the same time keep the story moving forward. And yet… I would not say that this is the best Silverberg novel from that era. For me, that honor still goes to Dying Inside, which profoundly touched and shook me when I first read it.

One difficulty with A Time of Changes is that there is no suspense in it. The narrator makes clear what is ultimately going to happen from the beginning, and in the end, it happens. Okay, fair enough – not all stories need to have heart-pounding suspense. The mood in this one is more thoughtful, and the pacing is slow.

Another difficulty is that in 1971, when it was published, the subject matter of the novel was original, courageous, and cutting-edge, while now it strikes me as somewhat anachronistic. I in no way intend this point as criticism. It’s just that – well, times have changed, and the beginning of the twenty-first century has its own brand of craziness that is not necessarily addressed in this book.

As far as using a hallucinogenic drug for enlightenment or other reasons, it’s a valid theme and one that I have dealt with myself in several stories and novels. It’s hard to tell from Silverberg’s introduction to this new edition whether he actually took psychedelics himself. When I first read the introduction, I thought maybe yes; but then I reread it to double check and now I’m not so sure. The descriptions of experiences with the drug in the novel are nicely written but somewhat generic in the sense that they could apply to several sorts of strange experiences that strain the limits of the psyche.

All of this is neither here nor there as far as appreciation of the novel is concerned.  I don’t think it’s necessary to take psychedelics to write about them any more than I think it’s necessary to visit a country to set it as a background in a story. You just have to do your research. And since Silverberg is dealing with a made-up drug, although modeled on the hallucinogens that were so prevalent when he was writing the book, he can make it do anything he wants.

In conclusion, this is a good novel and well worth reading, although perhaps not the psychic dynamite that it was when it was first published. And even if it’s not Silverberg’s best, it’s better than the best of most other writers.

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