Robert Silverberg's career is replete with transformations, which only befits the relevance of that theme to his work. A recent survey (Bee) explored his development as a writer and his relationship to Galaxy magazine during a crucial period of growth. Here we concentrate on the subsequent years of Silverberg's career.
Since 1980, when Silverberg returned from the latest—though perhaps not the last—of several retirements, he has been at once industrious and commercially successful. He has received appreciation both critical and popular (though in varying tempos not always synchronized with one another nor, for that matter, with the author's own esteem of his contribution's worth). Silverberg's work during this period (which we will refer to, in accordance with recent references [Lalumière, Stableford], as the third phase) has revealed the culmination of a life's refinement of technique, redeploying earlier motifs and preoccupations through highly polished and effective storytelling, and achieving a scale and range impossible in the earlier, more compressed fictions. And yet this same period has been beset by the occasional polemic regarding his commercialism and the "toned down" (Stableford) nature of his work when compared to earlier pieces. It has also been written, in reference to his novels, that "[...]from 1980 Silverberg's books, although broody and superbly professional, have tended to be yarns" (Clute 2, 184). Does this form an accurate appraisal of third-phase Silverberg?
Attempting to establish continuity throughout Silverberg's entire oeuvre either in terms of genre craftsmanship or a literary aesthetic which transcends genre leads to a "conventional—and by now quite boring and useless—critical bind" (Latham 2000). Recently, it has also been acknowledged that Silverberg's career provides "a more interesting story than the notion that commercialism is innately bad for art" (Bee), and yet the aforementioned dichotomy cannot be ignored since his career points in both directions. Consider the following suggestion:
Yet rather than seeing Silverberg's developing genre production as evidence of a growing artistic craftsmanship, it might perhaps be more fruitful to view it as a series of exasperated feints and shrewd adaptations, all driven by the exigencies of a boom-and-bust marketplace. (Latham 2000)
This notion of exasperated feints may be more realistic, though one would do well to qualify it by pointing out that even though market forces played a central role in the earlier phases of Silverberg's career—most notably the first—his engagement with these forces must be the reflection of a deeper struggle. After all, it's not hard to imagine a Silverberg who either consistently engaged with commercialism or one who did not. The former might have written more award-winners and bestsellers, and might have never fallen into self-imposed lapses of silence, but he would have never given us Dying Inside or Lord of Darkness. The latter might have published fewer novels, and created even more boundary-pushing literary explorations of alienation and redemption, but would have likely never established the reader popularity necessary to become canonical within the field, and thereby help shape its future development. Silverberg has treaded both sides of the invisible art-versus-commerce fence, and this cannot be unequivocally attributed to a "boom-and-bust marketplace," but rather to deliberate choice.
Silverberg was awarded the highest honor possible in the SF community in 2004, the Damon Knight Grand Master Award. In a post-award interview, he provides forthright answers to questions pertinent to this discussion. In identifying the differences between his short stories of the 1960s and those of the 1980s, he points out that as he has moved away from the "center of everyday existence" his life has become more "inward and withdrawn" and that his fiction has reflected this transition (Interview). This suggests the opposite of the common notion that his second phase stories were more inwardly-focused and that they became more exploratory of external events during his third phase. The latter claim has been presented explicitly in the case of at least one novel, Lord Valentine's Castle:
That the tone of Lord Valentine's Castle differs radically from his earlier novels, as well as from Conrad, may be seen in his emphasis upon external incident. (Clareson 86).
As we will see this is, at best, a partial assessment.
In the same interview, Silverberg goes on to describe his retirements as "a reflection of my ongoing war with science fiction. A love/hate kind of thing," and then makes the explicit connection with two essentially exclusive ways of thinking about his role as a writer:
I think science fiction is a very important kind of fiction. It's also a branch of popular entertainment, and I've struggled back and forth between my desire to make science fiction into a visionary literature of great emotional and literary intensity, and the publisher's desire to make a lot of money by selling popular entertainment. Every decade or so I've walked out in anger, saying I can't cope with this dichotomy anymore. (Interview)
Taking this at face value, we can say that it is Silverberg's fluctuating perception of the intrinsic possibilities of the genre and, perhaps more significantly, his self-perception as participant in that same genre, that is responsible for the existence of untenable pressure points throughout his career. Retirement may not have always removed the root sources of these pressures, but considering the high quality of Silverberg's output after each return, it has certainly alleviated the symptoms and allowed him to re-align his storytelling voice with his reconsidered vision of himself as a storyteller. We can view each lacuna in his production as a kind of temporary conciliatory exile.
Those Who Can—Critical Ups and Downs
While some critics hailed Silverberg's return to fiction in 1980 as "triumphant" (Chapman 117) and his first new novel as "impressive" and "elegant" (Chapman 118, 119), others were less kind:
[Silverberg] returned to writing with Lord Valentine's Castle (1980), a polished but rather languid heroic fantasy.(Stableford)
This lack of consensus has been prevalent throughout most of his third phase work. The specific evaluation of third phase novels also contradicts their alleged remove from earlier emotional modulations, as reflected by the following:
Almost all of RS's work of the 1980s was in the same relaxed vein: the psychological intensity of his mid-period work was toned down, and much of his sf was evidently pitched towards what RS considered to be the demands of the market.[...] His work of this period has been commercially successful, but the full-length sf often seems rather mechanical [...] (Stableford)
This is questionable at best. The novels Lord of Darkness, Star of Gypsies, Tom O'Bedlam, Gilgamesh the King, Kingdoms of the Wall, At Winter's End and The Alien Years display as much technical virtuosity and passion as anything that came before and are a far cry from mechanical. The disparity of their themes refuses the above interpretation as being "pitched" towards any particular audience at all.
Gilgamesh the King has been described as "a masterwork of fantasy literature" (Lalumière). Valentine Pontifex does more to explicitly address an attempt at redemption in the wake of post-colonial abuses and the "responsibilities of rule" (Chapman 134) than the celebrated Downward to the Earth. The second Majipoor trilogy (Sorcerers of Majipoor, Lord Prestimion and King of Dreams) explores the tragedy and political intrigue of constitutional crisis and civil war—in short, "political intrigue" (Chapman 136)—on a scale far beyond the reach of earlier books. Even lesser works like Hot Sky At Midnight, which has been described as being "told in a tone of searingly bleak pessimism" (Stableford) and offering "scarifying vistas of loss" (Clute 86) can on these very grounds be argued to be direct descendants of the anguish and desperation found in Dying Inside.
Considering the short fiction of this third period, praise has been somewhat more forthcoming and unified than regards the novels. The 1980-1988 stories gathered in Secret Sharers: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One (U.S.) have been described as "self-assured, literate, elegant, precise" (Wolfe 46). But even this assessment is tempered by stating that Silverberg is "a highly professional writer who knows exactly what he's doing—even when he plays it safe." Is this to suggest that he should not explore the themes that most captivate his imagination and present them in literate and elegant stories? Here is another, more lively capsule description of his third phase short fiction:
[...]From that "late" period came the novellas "In Another Country," "The Secret Sharer," "Sailing to Byzantium," came "Hot Sky at Midnight," came "Blindsight," which was one of the brilliant dozen stories done for Playboy, and these are not only at the level of "middle" Silverberg but in some cases [...] perhaps beyond. Unlike so many of us our Grand Master got larger as he went on. (Malzberg 324)
The identification of extraordinary achievement in the case of Silverberg's fiction with novella-length work has been made several times, and Silverberg himself has expressed his fondness of it and its particular suitableness as a form of SF storytelling (Silverberg 2003, 12). Consistent with the above appraisal, and in less exalted fashion: "The best works of this third phase of [Silverberg]'s career are novellas, most notably 'Sailing to Byzantium' (1985), winner of a 1985 Nebula, and 'The Secret Sharer' (1988)" (Stableford). Regarding a collection of 1980s fiction, The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party (1984): it "reveals Silverberg's skill as a storyteller, even when aloof and ironic" (Elkins 10). A legitimate question is how an author whose gifts are often put to best use in the construction of such aloof and ironic stories could ever achieve mainstream popularity, and the answer ties back to the writer's wide range in scope and style, which we'll examine next.
A New Springtime—Scope and Style
Here's a claim that may rile up some and be dismissed entirely by others: Silverberg's third phase work, at all lengths, rivals—and in some ways surpasses&mdashhis second phase's. The classically revered and canonized novels are not diminished by this comparison, for their artistic strengths, historical idiosyncrasies and condensations of the zeitgeist from the era in which they were born remain entirely their own. But in terms of structural scope, sophistication of tone and style, scale of plot, and historiographical complexity and ambition, they do not reach the heights of third phase works. Let's consider some of these major titles.
Lord Valentine's Castle and Majipoor
The Majipoor series consists of seven books and several uncollected stories. Only the latter three novels can be unequivocally defined as a trilogy. Though the first three volumes, Lord Valentine's Castle, Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex are often classed as a trilogy, the first and third form one continuous story as a duology of sorts, while the second provides an en media res interruption in the form of a collection of far-ranging stories.
The world of Majipoor is gargantuan, and its co-inhabitants numerous and richly developed. Humans form the primary political and economic axis of power (established after the colonization and brutal displacement of the native Piurivar or Shapeshifters), and those of highest title make for pivotal characters throughout the series, including the Coronal, the Pontifex, the Lady of the Isle of Sleep, and the King of Dreams. Other races include the wizardish, octopus-like Vroons, the squat, bulging-eyed Hjorts, predominantly bureaucrats, the strong, four-armed Skandars, unmatched at the art of juggling, the Medusa-haired, reptilian Ghayrogs who sleep once a year, the forest brethren, the sea-dragons, the three-eyed Liimen, and the two-headed, single-consciousness Su-Suheris. This partial inventory should provide an idea of the scale of world-building that went into Majipoor. Lord Valentine's Castle has been branded as science fantasy and provides a sophisticated example of planetary romance. Its ability to exist in a world that imperceptibly blends science and fantasy should not be overlooked.
Silverberg has specifically addressed his reasons for writing a direct sequel to Lord Valentine's Castle (Silverberg 1997, 416-419), and with good reason, since he initially stated in no uncertain terms that he never would. An interesting comment emerges regarding the first volume:
The book had two main plot-threads: the struggle of Valentine to regain his throne, and the struggle of the suppressed and outcast Metamorph aborigines of Majipoor to regain their planet. I took the first of those themes through to a resolution; I left the other wholly unresolved.
While on a first reading the second theme may appear non-existent, it is there, and its presence provides a pleasing albeit minor counterpoint to the almost pastoral technique with which the first is handled.
Silverberg has addressed the particular themes which he set out to explore in the sequel, including
the inner workings of the Majipoor monarchy [...], the contradiction inherent in trying to be both a king and a pacifist [...], the implications of the genocidal crime on which the benign and cheerful civilization of Majipoor had been founded.(Silverberg 1997, 418)
While these questions are intrinsically interesting and technically well-integrated into the novel, there is a feeling of weariness and gloomy repetition that make it less fun, less raffish and less light than the original.
The 1982 collection Majipoor Chronicles gathers ten stories—including the excellent "The Desert of Stolen Dreams," which also saw publication in book form—that visit significant events and places in Majipoor, and Silverberg's refined irony can be appreciated in most of these tales. The Mountains of Majipoor (1995) is a shorter novel which could be read as an entertaining standalone work but brings little new to the saga.
The final three books, Sorcerers of Majipoor (1997), Lord Prestimion (1998) and The King of Dreams (2001), forming the Prestimion trilogy, jump back to one thousand years before the time of Lord Valentine. The first book in this Prestimion trilogy deals with an usurpation of power that leads to civil war, and contains the trappings of romantic fantasy (monarchs, sorcerers, swords, bows and arrows, etc) but is deftly handled as political tragedy. The following two volumes explore Prestimion's crowning as Coronal and his transfer of power to Prince Dekkeret, with several telepathic twists to the plot. Considering the length of the Prestimion trilogy, the title character is portrayed in satisfactory manner, as are dozens of supporting players; but it is the extraterrestrial geography, biology, fauna, religion and customs that are the true character in this cycle of novels. Silverberg's descriptive passages and imagined details are nothing short of exuberant, and splendidly reveal an archaic world of mythical splendor.
Lord of Darkness
Silverberg's previous experiences writing non-fiction, a pursuit which proved quite lucrative (Silverberg 1975), made him an ideal candidate for writing historical novels, and it's almost surprising that he hasn't written more. Though he had made use of his knowledge of archaeology with early works like The Mask of Akhnaten (1965) and The Gate of Worlds (1967) no novel demonstrates a finer conflation of historical awareness, an impressive command of language matched by a scale in which its full depth can be ascertained, and maturity as a storyteller than Lord of Darkness (1984).
It is not surprising that the author of The Realm of Prester John (1972, 1996) was well-versed in the history required for this novel, which tells the story of an Elizabethan explorer who sails to Brazil but is betrayed by a fellow seaman and enslaved by the Portuguese in 1589. After eventually escaping he lives with a savage tribe and flees from them too, enduring several tragic events, becoming a captive of the Portuguese once more, and finally returning to his native Essex to tell the tale. The novel is a largely expanded fictionalized account of a real narrative by Andrew Battell, and is impressive on several grounds: the scholarship that imbues the creation of the historical venues, the "vivid and stylized Elizabethan prose" (Chapman, 146), and the complex revisitation of themes from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, now handled with the iconography of early European colonialism. The length of the novel and the wealth of historical detail and African imagery are outside the scope of pre-retirement work, and support the argument that this novel is one of the best Silverberg has penned in his whole career.
Star of Gypsies
This ambitious novel, perhaps Silverberg's ultimate take on the picaresque, is a far-future intrigue involving a gypsy king, Yuakoub, and a power struggle with his illegitimate son Shandor. The gypsy or "Rom" culture is treated with "knowledge and affection" (Chapman 154) and this, as well as the cunning, sly hero, are perhaps the novel's most enduring attributes. The Rom's ability to travel through time and to make use of faster-than-light travel are necessary givens from a plot standpoint but feel flimsy, and the ending doesn't quite achieve a sense of revelation or pathos.
This "centripetal" novel (Elkins 123) is set in a twenty-second century Californian wasteland, and the titular character, a tormented wanderer, is beset by dream visions of extraterrestrials and a beckoning Green World. Tom may be interpreted as the "holy fool" (the echoes to King Lear's Edgar and his disguise as Poor Tom make this plausible) who delivers a "mad song" that leads the fragmentary surviving society towards a "loss of self" (Chapman, 152-153). The dream visions take on a communal nature, which is itself suggestive of an almost telepathic subconscious unity linking human beings which may or may not be tapped into by higher creatures. As the mystical visions gain intensity and profuseness, a group of religionists undergo a climactic and irreversible transformation in San Diego. The extent of this "transformation" is deliberately ambiguous, as is the origin of the visions and the existence of the extraterrestrials: have those who have completed "the Crossing" simply died, or have their spiritual consciousnesses truly journeyed to the promised land of bliss?
In comparing this spectacularly layered and rich work with earlier fiction, we readily ascertain the value of the assessment that one difference is the "presence of ambiguity and duality" (Elkins 135), though it is perhaps not the presence but the intensity of these two characteristics that overwhelmingly set it apart. The mystical experience that lies at the core of the novel is neither identified with human elevation nor with human wish-fulfillment; it simply is, and must be accepted on its own terms or not at all. The use of a realistic mode of storytelling provides the desired effect, namely the unsentimental, non-judgmental depiction of transcendence (or all the symptoms thereof). This is perhaps Silverberg's most slippery and complex novel, for by looking upon the Other with such a fixed, clear gaze, his narrative invites the Other to look upon the readers in equal measure. Silverberg has here managed a rare trick: to eliminate his own thematic trappings and motifs, to get out of the way of his own story so that it is delivered with vitality and arresting force.
Tom O'Bedlam refuses easy categorization within the author's works, even his post-retirement ones, and stands out as a visionary work of literature.
Gilgamesh the King
This historical fantasy novel, which has invited comparison with the work of Robert Graves (Elkins 35), provides a first-person account of the events immortalized in one of the earliest known works of literary fiction, the Epic of Gilgamesh. There is much to admire here from a technical standpoint when considering this book as an island, but the scale of accomplishment is only revealed to be that much larger when it is regarded as part of a vast literary ecosystem. Gilgamesh the King is faithful to its source material but sidesteps any of the overtly modernist or school-bound interpretations and deconstructions of the original epic poem; there is a remarkable sense of reading something new, something that has not been filtered through a critical lens and reconstructed in fictional fashion.
Silverberg has written a number of books on ancient history (Empires in the Dust, Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations, Before the Sphinx, Forgotten by Time, and The Morning of Mankind being a small sampling of his nearly one hundred non-fiction books), and here he fully brings to life ancient Sumer. One of the successes is restraint; he paints mythical splendor in the strokes of naturalism, describing ceremonies and battles with a sure hand. The choice of first-person forcibly immerses us in the ancient world, but it is the vivid, elegant descriptions of what these senses experience that completes the restoration and avoids a sense of formal constraint. The restraint is further carried by Silverberg's choice to naturalize the supernatural, and turning the Sumerian gods into psychological myth amplifies the inner conflicts of the characters. The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is central and illustrates a theme present in much of Silverberg's work but rarely mentioned—compassion. Gilgamesh's almost-Buddhist acceptance of the inevitability of transitory existence by the story's end also places the novel firmly in Silverberg's body of mythic/religious quest. Also, he is a fully realized character, not simply a narrative costume that dresses up the plot. Indeed, the novel has recently been called "one of Silverberg's most accomplished (and strangely intimate) works" (Lalumière), despite earlier dismissals.
James Gunn's deep insight that "Gilgamesh's concerns are those of science fiction," already recounted in previous discussions of this novel (Chapman 149), should be quoted not only as a source of appeal for Silverberg in his choice of subject matter, but as a source of the appeal for the novel by a modern speculative audience.
At Winter's End and The Queen of Springtime
These two books of a proposed trilogy that never came to be present a world as richly conceived, layered, vast in scope and genuine in emotion as any Silverberg has created; it is with good reason that the author himself has written of the protagonist Hresh that he is "perhaps my favorite among all my created characters" (Silverberg 2005, ix). Furthermore, in describing the conclusion of the second book's revised draft, Silverberg notes that in parting with Hresh, "a person whom I had followed from his boyhood to his old age, I found myself deeply moved in a way that came as a major astonishment" (Silverberg 2005, ix). These are indubitably weighty statements, coming from someone who has literally spawned thousands of characters and killed just as many.
At Winter's End (1988), "one of his finest novels" (Chapman 161), is the first of these two books exploring the rebirth of civilization and the dissemination of historical knowledge. It is set 700,000 years in the future and focuses on a group of intelligent simians (The People) and their abandonment of caves and attempts to construct a new society out in the open. The cast of characters is unusually wide, even for Silverberg, and Hresh is indeed a memorable creation, as are many others. This success has been recognized critically: "Mr. Silverberg writes of the People's dangerous quest with sensitivity and quiet authority, and he takes time to make characters out of what could have been stereotypes" (Jonas 1988). Silverberg's depiction of the far-future Earth was received less enthusiastically: "[T]he author's control falters when he turns to furnishing the landscape through which the People move." Readers enjoyed the book and it generally did well with the critics. An apt summary may be found in the description of it possessing "impressive stature" and being "rich in invention, solid in characterization, and memorable in incident" (Chapman 164).
The sequel, The New Springtime (1990), focuses on a three-way struggle between the People of the City of Dawinno, those of the City of Yissou, and an external contender for power, the hjjk, which threatens all of People civilization. The communal nest-song of the hjjk and their doctrine of life has been read as a satire on "collectivist ideals" (Chapman 164) but this seems strained; they provide Silverberg with a dramatic SFnal image that challenges habitual notions of identity and individuality, a theme he would pick up again more directly in The Face of the Waters.
A skillfully-written 2006 story, "A Piece of the Great World," is set in this same universe and makes use of some elements of the outlined third novel while introducing new ideas that enhance the flavor of the exotic.
Kingdoms of the Wall
In this "rather strange, dreamlike epic" (Wolfe 64), the crippled Poilar Crookleg tells the story of his pilgrimage up The Wall, which is part of the enormous mountain range Kosa Saag. The ascent provides not only an account of many "kingdoms" situated at various heights, including one of ice and one of false paradise, but also an opportunity for Poilar to command the group of forty men and women and demonstrate his leadership abilities. What is finally discovered at the heights can be interpreted as an appeal to rationalism and part of Silverberg's ongoing de-inflation of myth, both personal (Elkins, 39-59) and historical.
The central characters are memorably conveyed and the journey is rich. Though some responses have been positive, describing it as "vividly and intensely imagined" (Chapman 167) and in one case going so far as to state that this is "the best novel of this period [...], a deeply affecting and evocative extraterrestrial novel whose subtle and complex structure invites layered readings" (Lalumière), overall reception was lukewarm. Imagery was accused of superseding conceptual content, a critique not unique to this novel: "Silverberg's considerable power of invention is in fine form here [...] but at times it seems that Silverberg is treating invention as its own reward; one looks in vain for ideas to match the power of the images" (Wolfe 65). Also, at least one critic felt that the novel's structure was not optimally designed: "The trouble with Mr. Silverberg's parable is that, for all its length, it ends too soon. I was more interested in learning how the believers deal with the blow to their faith than in following the rather repetitious challenges they must overcome on their way to the summit" (Jonas 1993).
The Alien Years
Silverberg himself has described this as "one of the most successful novels I wrote in the post-'retirement' period" (Silverberg 2004, 505) and it is hard to disagree. This saga of human resistance to enigmatic alien Entities whose ultimate motives remain inscrutable takes a generational approach, zooming in on the Carmichael clan, and is both a tribute to Wells' masterpiece and to the work of Robert Heinlein (Chapman 170). The novel's theme may be seen as ongoing resistance and the will to persevere when confronted with incomprehensible oppression; in existentialist fashion, it is not the outcome of the resistance (the novel makes this clear by ironically having the Entities depart of their own volition after fifty years, not being overthrown) but its spirit that gives meaning.
The characters are a varied bunch, and their responses to the Entities reveal their inner workings. Outside of the Carmichaels, the teenager Khalid Burke is a fantastic depiction of someone who, guided by an acceptance of the will of Allah, is able to overcome terrible familial trauma and stoically resist the enemy. Silverberg's take on the Entities' invasion and the ensuing struggle for human survival are more believable than Wells' and less sensationalistic. His writing, at the apex of fifty years as a professional writer, is also smoother. This is a profound, visionary novel that is significant not only as a response to an SF masterpiece and which offers conceptual refinements and motivational sophistication, but for its profound depiction of human truths and for the time-scale on which its told, which allow such truths to emerge naturally with the passage of the years. When one critic noted that "Despite the considerable pleasures of Silverberg's lucid prose, this story might have been better told at half the length" (Jonas 1998), he may not have fully considered how a shorter novel would have stymied the development of these accretionary insights.
There were other novels during the almost three decades being surveyed. Project Pendulum (1987) is a straightforward but slighter effort, a juvenile novel about two twenty-three-year-old twins who travel backward and forward in time on increasingly longer trips. The Mutant Season (1989), co-written with Karen Haber and based on a 1973 story, is a fast-moving but minor novel of social prejudice and sexuality in a mutant-inhabited twenty-first century. The protagonist of the epistolary Letters from Atlantis (1990), also from the twenty-first-century, travels back in time all the way to mythical Atlantis in the form of a disembodied consciousness, where he inhabits the mind of a prince. To The Land of the Living (1990) brings Gilgamesh back to life, but only in death, in a satirical and quite funny picaresque about his adventures in an afterworld peopled by other famous characters, including fantasy author Robert E. Howard and cannibal Calandola from Lord of Darkness. The Face of the Waters (1991) is a Conradian sea odyssey that traces the journey of Valben Lawler across the oceanic world of Hydros in search of The Face: the identity-dissolving, epiphanic conclusion recasts the perilous journey as religious quest. Hot Sky At Midnight (1994), an uncannily prescient dystopia of ecological disaster, invents vivid characters and spins them in a terrorist plot that explodes with a less-than-satisfying finale. Starborne (1996) is golden-age science fiction redressed in futuristic ennui and follows an interstellar search for habitable worlds that crescendos in communal connection: it is narrated in a controlled, minimalist manner up until the final act. There were also novelistic re-workings of Asimov stories, and a collection of interlinked stories, Roma Eterna (2003), which chronicles events in an alternate world in which the Roman Empire never declined. Though the speculative detail in this latter collection is fascinating, the transitions from piece to piece make it disjointed, and this blemish in continuity prevents it from coming into focus as sharply as one would like.
Silverberg published what will probably be his novelistic coda, appropriately titled The Longest Way Home, in 2002, and there is much to recommend in this shorter piece. Though the planetary-wide strife that sets the plot into motion is as grand in scale as that in any other third-phase work, it remains mostly in the backdrop and the story focuses on young Joseph's arduous journey through unknown lands, his contact with strange beings, and his discovery of a new inner self. Despite characteristically muted and mixed reactions, at least one critic of note found the story redeeming:
If Joseph's lessons in tolerance seem at times a bit too pat, Silverberg succeeds in infusing his story with a sense of urgency. What the greatly changed Joseph might find at the end of his journey, and how he might react, are questions that I came to care deeply about. (Jonas 2002)
Surely the use of "urgency" might appear to contradict numerous other assessments of post-retirement novels, but in light of what we have seen it is fully justified. Silverberg has indeed traveled a long way home with his novels, never losing his trademark emotional complexity.
The King of Dreams—Stately Third Phase
We've seen that in certain ways Silverberg's career from 1980 to the present day not only expands on what has come before, but in several important senses supersedes it. Let me take this further and say that his third phase career is significant enough to rival many other writer's entire careers, in terms both of aesthetic accomplishment and productivity. During this time Silverberg has published twenty-five novels, over one hundred short stories, edited more than twenty anthologies (with several bestsellers), and received all the major awards. Looking at the table of contents of the massive retrospective collection Phases of the Moon (2004), fully one half of its pages is devoted to post-1980 stories.
Out of his entire career's twenty-two nominations and five wins of the Nebula award, six nominations and one win occurred during the third phase. Perhaps in acquiescence to the reality of the increased appeal and accessibility of much of his third phase work, consider the Hugos: out of a total career's four wins, one of which was for most promising new author in 1956, two—that is to say, entirely half—occurred in this post-retirement. The 1999 evaluation that Silverberg's "later career has been misunderstood and undervalued" (Chapman 172) is possibly one of the most accurate.
Another major sign of Silverberg's development as a writer has been the increased credibility in his treatment of women. Several prominent examples are Carabella in Lord Valentine's Castle, the feminine characters in At Winter's End, Edith in The Ugly Little Boy, Starborne's telepathic Noelle, Gioia in "Sailing to Byzantium," and the disembodied female Vox of "The Secret Sharer."
I'd like to present an additional argument for Silverberg's excellence of achievement during this third phase, which I have not seen before: he has demonstrated a mastery of craft not only through works that explore classical literary themes and easily rate as his best short-length work ("In Another Country," "Secret Sharer," and "Sailing to Byzantium" to name only three) but has paid homage to other writers by donning their fictional personas and writing under these guises. Surely, this can only be achieved by a master craftsman. Three explicit examples are the 1989 "The Asenion Solution," part of a tribute collection dedicated to Isaac Asimov; the 1996 tale "The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James," which provides the titular Jamesian eye-witness account of events from H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds; and the 1997 story "Call Me Titan," a tribute to Roger Zelazny.
Silverberg's novel-length expansions of three classic Asimov stories also provide not only indisputable evidence of technical facility but of sensitivity and respect towards the work of his peers; in two of the three (The Positronic Man and The Ugly Little Boy) he successfully adds and enhances the psychological dimensions of the characters and fleshes out the worlds without significantly altering the themes of the originals, resulting in the longer versions being perceived as "considerable achievements" (Chapman 161).
Silverberg's extraordinary maturation as a writer during his post-retirement has perhaps also enabled something previously far-fetched: the codification of his notions regarding the nature of narrative. These ruminations were published consecutively in a series of three editorials in the April/May, June and July 2004 issues of Asimov's Science Fiction and collectively titled "Toward a Theory of Story." Silverberg, ingeniously abetted by inspired historical and literary examples, proceeds to construct the definition of a kind of proto-plot that subsumes all fiction and thus represents universal human appeal. He then argues for the origination of this proto-plot in ancient ritual and structurally identifies the conflict and transformation inherent in all fiction with the annual cycle of the seasons and the periodicity of primordial agriculture.
This theory, while eloquently presented, feels limited. For example, consider the ironic reversal that one can distill from applying it to much of Silverberg's own fiction: if stories temporarily alleviate reader's existential fears about the inherent unknowable-ness of the universe by presenting a rationalist sequence of causal conflict-resolutions, some of Silverberg's best pieces have presented conflict-resolutions that lead only to deeper questions and enforce a direct confrontation of these fears. It could be argued that such an investigation is still guided rationality, and therefore continues to provide relief from "the great terrifying mysteries of the universe." However, this leads to thorny categorical overlaps between psychological and theoretical analysis. While an artist's works may seem, a posteriori, to functionally fulfill Silverberg's terms of analysis, the immediate effect of their encounters can be quite removed from such a release. The theoretical framework remains intriguing and speaks volumes for the years of considered thought that must have surely permitted its erection. It is also fun to speculate as to what kind of correlation could be formally established between the idea of seasonal cycles as the root of conflict in fiction and Silverberg's notions on civilization's replenishment through mega-seasonal mutation, as evidenced in his stories about the People.
And here is one final piece of textual—or perhaps in this case quasi-textual—evidence, which attests to the complexity and meticulousness evident in Silverberg's method of constructing a novel. In 2005 the novel The Queen of Springtime was republished in a new edition (Silverberg 2005) and the introduction provides some detail about the "vagaries of the publishing world" that precluded the acceptance of the proposed outline for the third and concluding installment in this "immense unfinished epic." More importantly, perhaps, it alludes to the fact that this final book in the series was one which had been in the mind of the author "virtually from the outset of the project." At the end of the book we are treated to a rare glimpse of fictional creation in process through the inclusion of the outline for the unwritten "The Summer of Homecoming."
Several things leap at us from this outline. The scale is, once again, much larger than anything available in the previous phases, and yet the front stage in the new book was to have been held by the "complex and stormy" love affair of the two protagonists. This is a direct appeal to Silverberg's earlier "romanticism" (Chapman 172), and though the handling would have surely been third phase, it serves as a reminder of the continuity in Silverberg's career. The outline also contains explicit historiographical highlights, with statements such as, "By this time, those members of the People who led the Coming Forth from the cocoon—Koshmar, Torlyri, Harruel, Hresh, Taniane, Salaman—have become virtual mythical figures, each surrounded by an accretion of apocryphal fables" and "Among the educated classes, there is a pervasive feeling that the popular historical myths somehow distort the reality of the past" (Silverberg 2005, 359-368).
Significant attention is also paid to the planning of the political systems and loyalties, and the nature of technological progress and societal rebirth. Psychological currents are also mapped out. Finally, there is a description of the theme that was to emerge at the end: "There is, therefore, no neat conclusion to the epic. The nature of a dynamic civilization is that there never can be." Other Silverberg works have contained the vision of a kind of cosmic-scale Darwinian evolution leading to cycles and rebirths of civilizations, but have never perhaps had the weight of such an epic story backing that vision.
There is little doubt that Silverberg will continue to produce short fiction, however sporadically, just as it is almost certain that he has written his last novel at the age of sixty-seven. His enormous outpouring of short fiction is being assembled into handsome, definitive volumes of Collected Stories. The first three of a projected eight have already been published. The final volume is to be titled Hot Times in Magma City (Silverberg 2008), after another strong third-phase novella. Silverberg's outline for the unwritten third book in his chronicle of the People includes the dictum: "Once you stop being born, you begin to die." This is clearly not only a philosophical point of view that emerges from Silverberg's fiction, but a reality embodied by his career. When Silverberg returned to fiction in 1980 with the Vancian homage (Elkins 36) Lord Valentine's Castle and was accused of commercialism, a tempting response might have been that this rebirth, forgiving the simplification, was preferable to death. Silverberg's stories and novels during his post-retirement have created a generous catalog of potential rebirths for any reader that pursues their unique and rewarding challenges.
Tom, like the medieval Tom O'Bedlam, can't decipher the meaning of the images plaguing his mind. Much like the wondering and mad Tom of the medieval ballad, the Tom O'Bedlam of 2103 doesn't know what to make of the images that keep cluttering his mind. To preserve the last shred of his sanity and keep these never-ending wonders a secret, he feigns insanity. But then a probTom, like the medieval Tom O'Bedlam, can't decipher the meaning of the images plaguing his mind. Much like the wondering and mad Tom of the medieval ballad, the Tom O'Bedlam of 2103 doesn't know what to make of the images that keep cluttering his mind. To preserve the last shred of his sanity and keep these never-ending wonders a secret, he feigns insanity. But then a probe that has traveled over four light years away transmits the very pictures that have been haunting Tom's dreams. In this post-industrial world on the verge of a total collapse, Tom has become humanity's spokesperson to the distant planet that may be his world's salvation....more
Paperback, 303 pages
Published December 3rd 2005 by Olmstead Press (first published 1985)