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Robert Silverberg: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted December 9, 2001, with later edits

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Born in Brooklyn, New York, and currently residing in the San Francisco area. With the exception of Isaac Asimov, he is perhaps the most prolific author ever to be associated with the SF genre. He has published upwards of one hundred novels, along with countless short stories, and edited numerous reprint and original anthologies, as well as contributing over seventy non-fiction books devoted to wide-ranging interests. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction lists no fewer than twenty-four pseudonyms he has used either for solo work or collaborative efforts, most of them used early in his career from the mid-50s to the early '60s.

Affectionately known as Silverbob to both his friends and fans alike, he began writing (or at least selling) during his college years at Columbia University. His first short story appeared in 1954 (The SF Encyclopedia says it was "Gorgon Planet," but fantasticfiction.com lists it as "The Silent Colony"). His first novel came the following year (both sources identify it as Revolt on Alpha C). 1956 was his break-out year, as he was awarded a Hugo as Most Promising New Author at that year's Worldcon. He began to produce work in an almost assembly-line like pace, which is what prompted the use of so many pseudonyms. Perhaps what is most amazing is that even his earliest work was quite polished, exhibiting few of the derivative faults of most newcomers to the genre. True, many of his plots and themes were easily recognizable, but his literary stylings, along with his encyclopedic knowledge of history, sociology, and psychology, cast these themes in a new perspective. It is possible to argue that Silverberg is one of the most intelligent and well-rounded individuals in SF.

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There have been several of his early novels recently reprinted by either I-Books or Pulpless Press, including Master of Life and Death, Invaders From Earth, To Open the Sky, and To Live Again, and there is another - Shadow on the Stars - printed by FoxAcre Press, which is operated by SF author Roger MacBride Allen.

Of course, considering the enormous amount of SF he has produced, there is probably much that I have not read that was not up to the quality of the works most often mentioned when the name Silverberg comes up. During the period of 1957-59, he wrote over two hundred short stories and eleven novels. He claims that most were written just well enough to sell. I will not claim to be an authority on his work and I am also not going into much detail with any of his books, saving that for later when I hopefully will have the opportunity to re-read many of them along with finding others I have yet to experience. I have probably read less than 10% of his genre output, but of that I have to say there is no one that compares with him for consistently solid work. I cannot think of many of his novels (aside from his late career Majipoor sequels) that repeat themes and scenarios, other than his frequent use of time travel as a device, along with the alienation from their surroundings which is the pitfall of many of his protagonists.

There have been several lulls during his SF career, but to date he has always returned to the genre with renewed vigor and exciting ideas. The first such of these periods came in the early '60s, as the magazine market began to shrink. During this interval he produced many non-fiction pieces, the majority dealing with his pet fields of archeology and pre-history. In the late '60s, he produced some solid and well-researched non-fiction work, most notably The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado (1967) and Mound Builders of Ancient America (1968), along with the more recent The Realm of Prester John.

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His return to the genre also came in '67, and it proved to be his most fertile SF period. It began with the publication of Thorns, a highly-stylized and clinical look at psychic vampirism, along with the novella "Hawksbill Station," which he expanded to novel-length the following year. This story depicted the perils encountered by political prisoners from the 21st Century who are exiled, via time travel, to the desolate pre-Cambrian period of our planet's development. A current title listed at amazon.com is Hawksbill Times 2, with no descriptive information, but it is possible it is a combined edition of the original short story and the expanded novel. Quickly following these were many other highly regarded novels, such as The Masks of Time (1968), The Man in the Maze (1969), and Nightwings (1969). Like Hawksbill Station before it, Nightwings had also originated as a novella-length work, the shorter version having been honored with a Hugo.

Continuing on with this imaginatively rich period, 1969 also saw the release of the clever time-paradox tale Up the Line. Religious imagery was utilized in Downward to the Earth and Tower of Glass, both from 1970. A Time of Changes (1971) [reviewed here], is the only one of his novels to win a major American award, in this instance a Nebula. It was an interesting stylistic experiment concerning an alien civilization in which the concept of selfhood, even the use of the word " I " is taboo. All power rests with the tribe collectively, no one person important enough to think as an individual. Into this world comes the disruption of an Earth explorer ship, and the life of the narrator, Kinnal Darival, is forever changed into one of self-awareness and freedom. The World Inside (1971) originated as a series of short stories, later adapted into a novel, of a vastly overpopulated Earth wherein almost the entire population live out their lives inside huge skyscrapers, never experiencing anything of the natural world outside. In The Book of Skulls (1971) four college students vie for a chance at immortality, fully realizing only two will be granted the boon at the expense of the death of the others. In my opinion, Silverberg's best book to date is 1972's Dying Inside, which depicts the psychological depression suffered by a telepath as he experiences the gradual loss of his talent. A similar theme was explored from a different perspective in The Stochastic Man (1975), wherein a man becomes aware of his increasing ability to foresee the future.

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Silverberg's SF career came to another seeming end following Shadrach in the Furnace (1976), which relates the tale of a physician in the personal service to a future dictator. Perhaps it was sheer fatigue from such a feverish writing pace, or possibly disenchantment with the SF marketplace, but he did not write (or at least did not publish) in the genre for another four years. I seem to recall reading of his stated intention of retiring from writing. As I said in my Hugo-Nebula Awards Rant, Silverberg has been nominated for those awards more times (38) than any other author. Four years in a row (1970-73) he had novels on the final ballots for both awards, with '73 seeing both The Book of Skulls and Dying Inside on both ballots! And yet only A Time of Changes won an award, and he's won only five others for shorter works. And to top it off, at that time, as is now still the case, much of his work did not remain in print for long, and this must have been frustrating for such a creative personality.

It is fortunate for us that he did not stick with that resolve to retire however, and in 1980 he again released a novel. Lord Valentine's Castle, a colorful saga of a large, yet metal-poor planet, was a well-received blend of science fiction and fantasy, and he has followed it with several sequels, both novels and short stories. They include the collection The Majipoor Chronicles (1982), and the novels Valentine Pontifex (1983), The Mountains of Majipoor (1995), Sorcerers of Majipoor (1997), and Lord Prestimion (1999). Another recent novel, which he says is the last he will write of Majipoor, is The King of Dreams (2001). One of the few of his later novels not involving Majipoor is The Alien Years (1998), the majority of which I read when it was serialized in Science Fiction Age magazine. Another work from this period that I have read and enjoyed, was the novella "Another Country," published in a combined edition with the story which inspired it, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's classic "Vintage Season," one of my all-time favorite stories. It has also recently been reprinted, along with other stories, in the collection In Another Country.

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Along with his return to SF, Silverberg also continued his production of mainstream novels and non-fiction work, the most successful being the historical novels Lord of Darkness (1983) and Gilgamesh the King (1984). The latter would be sequeled with the Hugo-winning novella, "Gilgamesh in the Outback," in 1986. Neanderthals (1987) was yet another of his many books relating to archeology and anthropology which he began in the early '60s. He has also been very active behind the scenes in SF, having started his own fanzine, Spaceship, in 1949. He made lasting friendships with many other writers early in his career, and has served one term as president of the SFWA (1967-68). He began editing original anthologies with the Alpha series (eight volumes, 1960-64, and again 1974-76), following that with his New Dimensions series (twelve volumes, 1972-81). He has also edited three volumes of the Universe series, formerly produced by the late Terry Carr. In addition, he has edited many reprint anthologies, most notably two volumes chosen by the membership of the SFWA, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970), and the Fantasy Hall of Fame (1998).

I would suspect that we have not seen the last of Silverberg's SF. He may have tired of the genre at different times over the years, but his apparent passion for the field is still quite evident. I, for one, look forward to many more new adventures from this writer, and if there is any justice in this world, he will soon be known as a Grand Master of SF. [Somebody was paying attention. Silverberg was honored by the SFWA in 2004 with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. He deserves it.]

Since this article was originally uploaded there have been quite a few of Silverberg's older titles reissued by various publishers, so I have now linked them and added them to the Books at Amazon page. Two new novels, The Longest Way Home and Roma Eterna, have also been released. The latter is an alternate history projecting that the Roman Empire did not fall. I haven't read it, but I believe it consists of a lot of previously written shorter works.

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UPDATE! Silverberg's latest book is a short one, more novella length than novel, but I enjoyed it. My review of The Last Song of Orpheus is equally short, but positive.

"He remains one of the most imaginative and versatile writers ever to have been involved with sf. His productivity has seemed almost superhuman, and his abrupt metamorphosis from a writer of standardized pulp fiction into a prose artist was an accomplishment unparalleled within the field." [Brian Stableford, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction]


Related Links:
The Quasi-Official Silverberg Home Page
Another interview at strangehorizons.com
Silverberg's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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January 15, 1935
Brooklyn, New York


3 Hugos
5 Nebulas
SF Hall of Fame (1999)
SFWA Grand Master (2004)