Robert Silverberg,
The Collected Stories, Vol. 2: To the Dark Star, 1962-69
(Subterranean Press, 2007)

Robert Silverberg is a gifted short-story writer. He knows it. And he isn't the least bit shy about trumpeting the fact.

The introductions to the 21 tales assembled in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. 2: To the Dark Star, 1962-69 contain some wonderful behind-the-scenes insights into Silverberg's rise to the upper echelons of the science-fiction field.

After a prolific but artistically unambitious start to his professional writing career in the mid-1950s, Silverberg withdrew from the SF scene and concentrated on writing for other markets. It was his friend Frederik Pohl, who was editing Galaxy Magazine at the time, who lured Silverberg back to the genre with a promise to buy anything Silverberg produced so long as the author pushed himself to "write it with all [his] heart." This challenge allowed Silverberg the freedom to truly stretch his artistic muscles, and in so doing to become a critical component of science fiction's reinvigoration in the mid- to late-1960s.

I find it interesting to compare the tone of the 21 story introductions contained in this volume to that of Jack Williamson's autobiography Wonder's Child, which I reviewed some time ago. About Wonder's Child I wrote, "Although seldom particularly confident of his own skills, Williamson never doubted that writing science fiction was what he was meant to do." Silverberg, by contrast, is supremely confident of his own skills and his introductions, while illuminating, contain so little humility that the self-congratulatory air becomes tiresome after a while. His attempt to claim a chunk of the credit for Harlan Ellison's landmark SF anthology Dangerous Visions struck me as particularly arrogant.

But, stepping beyond the window dressing of the introductions to the core of this collection -- the fiction itself -- there's no question that The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. 2 is comprised of some first-class science fiction. From the book's opener, "To See the Invisible Man," which was inspired by a passage in a Jorge Luis Borges story, through more well-known pieces including "To the Dark Star" and "Ishmael in Love," and on to the collection's final tale "We Know Who We Are," this is fiction that consistently challenges the reader to consider unusual concepts through the actions of well-wrought characters in intriguing future scenarios.

And so we're invited to sympathize with the plight of a hyper-intelligent dolphin who has fallen head over fins in love with a human woman ("Ishmael in Love"). We are taken inside the erratic mind of a machine charged with ministering to mentally unstable humans ("Going Down Smooth"). We are transported deep into the past, to a prison camp for political dissidents with no hope of parole ("Hawksbill Station"). We are introduced to a man attempting to work through his personal demons by communicating his Native American spirituality to a potentially sentient alien species ("Sundance").

This last story is of particular interest because both it and "Passengers" were nominated for the Science Fiction Writers of America's Best Short Story award for1969. Silverberg withdrew "Sundance" from the competition because he felt that "the more accessible 'Passengers' had a better chance of winning the award. ... And that was how I came to win a Nebula with my second-best story of 1969."

I have long been a fan of "Passengers" and was pleased to read it yet again, and to discover that it holds up exceptionally well after nearly 40 years. This was my first experience of "Sundance" and, while I can see how it is the more artistically daring of the two pieces, I prefer "Passengers" as a story. The characters in "Passengers" are wonderfully constructed, with astounding depth given the mere dozen pages over which their story unfolds. There is a dynamic ebb and flow to the tale, and the theme of love fighting long odds has a universality that lifts the story beyond the boundaries of the science fiction genre.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. 2: To the Dark Star, 1962-69 is an intriguing snapshot of a vibrant era in science fiction, a portrait of one of the period's most important and enduring writers. The fiction shows Silverberg to be a wonderfully accomplished wordsmith; his introductions paint a somewhat less flattering picture while managing to contextualize the stories in an illuminating manner. A very worthwhile read for anyone interested in high quality SF. Just focus on the fiction and forgive the surplus of self-flattery.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

8 December 2007

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