A Time of Changes
by Robert Silverberg
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Winner of the Nebula Award for 1971, Robert Silverberg's A Time of Changes is science fiction, but in several ways it reads as fantasy. Set on the planet Borthan, with most of the action taking place on the northern continent of Velada Borthan, it is a first person account of a man rebelling against the cultural and religious mores of his society. The origins for the strictures of the Covenant are not fully explained, probably because Kinnall Darival only has folklore to guide him. He tells the legend of the gods who first dwelled on Borthan, before humans came, of how they became aware of their nature and their powers (immortality, great strength, flight) when two of them drank the waters of a natural spring. The first human who encountered them and heard their story also drank that water, but all that happened to him was his mind was opened to the thoughts of his fellow humans. His reaction to that was to direct his thoughts toward the others that he himself was now a god and would henceforth rule them all. This resulted in fear and anxiety, as well as a few deaths from heart attacks. When the Borthan gods brought the dead back to life and restored others to full health, they decreed that no one should be allowed to broadcast their inner desires to others. The Covenant forbids thoughts of selfishness, of sharing one's thoughts, even of uttering the blasphemous words I, Me, or Mine. Anyone guilty of such is branded a "self-barer" and is ostracized.
That of course is just a fable. The origins of the Covenant probably derived from whatever societal pressures and persecutions the colonists had experienced on their home planet, something from which they wished to divorce themselves. They didn't come from Earth, at least not directly. They know of Earth as the birthplace of mankind, but little of its history, since millennia had passed since all the colonies had been established. Kinnall's story is written in a bare cabin in the Burnt Lowlands, a desolate area in the middle of the continent. We slowly learn how he came to be there, from his noble birth as second son to the Septarch of Salla, through his flight from his native land after his brother ascends to the Septarchy, to years of brutish labor after he is rejected by other relatives, to his eventual settling in the southern province of Manneran. It is there he encounters Schweiz, a trader from Earth, for whom it is sometimes difficult to refrain from using those first person pronouns. Schweiz is also in possession of a drug obtained from the southern continent of Sumara Borthan, which supposedly enables people to merge their consciousness together, to truly open oneself to another, to experience true communion. In other words, to defy the laws of the Covenant.
This is a well-written story, full of beautifully descriptive passages of the lands of Borthan, of its people, cities, and landscapes. Intricate world-building, perceptive insights on human nature, even when the society is distinctly different from our own. It is, however, not without its inconsistencies. It begins with the sentence, "I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself," but then is followed by "That statement is so strange to me that it screams in my eyes." He says he doesn't know who might eventually read his tale, but he had to assume it would be someone else on Borthan, to whom the first person singular pronouns would be blasphemous. If he truly wanted his countrymen to read it, he should have started off in a different manner, then gradually shift to the other pronouns after explaining his reasoning. Besides, at the time he began writing he had already been in the habit of using the first person pronouns, so his first sentence should not have come as a shock to him. To his readers, yes, but not to him. Borthan society did acknowledge the necessity of at least limited self-expression, just not in public with anyone. Each person was bonded to two others in childhood. Kinnall's bond-brother was Noim, his bond-sister Halum. Halum had another girl pledged to her as bond-sister, as did Noim, and all were from different families and provinces. It was allowed that bond-siblings could express themselves more freely, even though the first person pronouns were still proscribed. Another avenue for a person to unburden themselves was through a priest class known as drainers, similar to Catholic confession. Such sessions were supposed to be bound by secrecy, but Kinnall later learns that is not always the case.
It's an interesting thought experiment, but it might have been more challenging for the author to describe that society from the perspective of someone who honored the Covenant rather than someone who wished to defy it. Selfishness and self-centeredness are at the root of a lot of humanity's problems. It pits one man against the other, child against parent, husband against wife, siblings against each other (even bond-siblings). The drug Schweiz and Kinnall take works well for them, and it seems to work for Kinnall and several others, but the result is different when he persuades Noim to join him. Noim warns him to never suggest it to Halum, but Kinnall doesn't listen. The result of that encounter is tragic, but Kinnall still believes it is his life's mission to spread the word, and the drug, to as many others as possible. It's hard to say if I would be tempted to take the drug. I would think everyone hopes for at least one person they can be open with, but would it work for society at large? I'm skeptical, mainly because there have been times I've opened myself to people I cared for, whom I thought cared for me, only to be rebuffed when what I had to say made them uncomfortable. Are we doomed to be locked in our own heads, unable to share our deepest feelings? If your answer to that is negative, I'm happy for you. I think I'd rather keep my demons to myself. They're scary enough, not sure I want to know what haunts others. If you feel differently, maybe this book would interest you. In spite of my negative comments, I'd still recommend it, if only for Silverberg's fluid prose and the challenging concept.
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