Rereading Robert Silverberg, 1

I am fortunate that, in my “retirement” (from my day job, that is; I still keep my hand in posting on Locus Online once a day, and maintaining, I have the luxury to sit in my armchair each weekday and do what I always fantasized I might do in my retirement: read my library. Reread my favorite authors, catch up on authors I didn’t get to when their books came out, explore new interests, follow happenchance and synchronicity. I think it’s true that every reader acquires many more books than they ever have time to read, and I’m no exception, but currently I’m in the position to take advantage of the acquisitiveness of my earlier self. Now as I think about what I’d like to read, I am frequently surprised to check my shelves and discover, yes I do have that book!

And if I think of something I don’t find on my shelves — these days anything can be found on the internet. I use AbeBooks, mostly. Yes, it’s sad that the used bookshops I used to explore in the ’70s and ’80s are mostly gone. As in new bookstores, you discover things you weren’t necessarily looking for, wandering through dusty used books shops. Yes, I have plenty of books on my own shelves to keep me busy for years…and frankly, when I do wander through the several used book shops here in the Bay Area (more of them seem to have survived than those in SoCal), it’s rare that I find anything remarkable. My own collection, whether of SF, or books on cosmology and evolution, or religious studies, is better than those at any one of those….

So, in my retirement, these past couple years, I have begun revisiting my favorite science fiction authors, on my blog with posts about Clarke, and Asimov, and Heinlein. Not just to wallow in nostalgia, but to rethink and reconsider these authors in terms of my own “provisional conclusions”, which is to say, to reflect on how science fiction anticipated or explored ideas now being revealed by the latest results and thinking in science and human psychology. I find myself not trusting my reactions to books or stories of even three or four years ago, and needing to reread or revisit foundational texts.

Robert Silverberg played a significant role in my own growth as a reader and as an adult. (Some of this will be recounted in my “ways to buy a book” posts, not yet finished.) Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke and Heinlein were in some sense introductory SF/F authors, to me. But early in this history, long before I’d finished finding all the books by those authors, I happened to pick up a Silverberg collection — it was DIMENSION THIRTEEN — in 1969, off a newsrack in a small-town market, and liking it bought further Silverberg collections, and novels, as I found them, over the next few years. Silverberg was very prolific in those days, with roughly one or two story collections a year, and two or three novels every year (novels were much shorter in those days — typically about 200 pages each). Silverberg was, in two essential ways, far more mature than the ABCH starters: his prose was rich and imaginative in ways those earlier authors’ prose wasn’t; and Silverberg addressed adult themes, e.g. sex and drugs, in a way none of those earlier authors had done…

So now, beginning this past October, I’m rereading the two or three dozen collections of Robert Silverberg stories. I started, just before our October cruise, with BORN WITH THE DEAD, containing the title story, one of Silverberg’s pinnacle stories. Returning from the cruise, at the very end of October, I’ve gone back to revisit (or in a few cases visit for the first time), all the collections, beginning with a reread of DIMENSION THIRTEEN, and then returning to his very first, NEXT STOP THE STARS first published in 1962, and proceeding in chronological order, with GODLING, GO HOME!, TO WORLDS BEYOND, and so on.

Along the way I am acquiring, again through Abebooks, the nine-volume COLLECTED STORIES published over the past decade or so by Subterranean Press. I’d bought the first volume when it came out, but neglected later volumes on the grounds that I already had all the stories in those books, in all the earlier collections by Silverberg I’d acquired over the decades. With my new ambition of revisiting the entirety of Silverberg’s short work (novels will require a separate, likely somewhat limited, ambition), I realized, for one, that many of the stories he published in the 1990s and 2000s had not been collected anywhere else — and two, the detailed introductions to each story, throughout the entire series, was worth the price of acquiring the entire Subterranean set. (As of this writing, I have volumes 7, 8, and 9, and volumes 1 through 4, with the remaining two on order.)

And as of this writing, I’ve finished reading all the collections published up until 1975, i.e. the essential collections UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY, CAPRICORN GAMES, and (read earlier) BORN WITH THE DEAD, and along the way COLLECTED STORIES v4. Given imminent holiday priorities, I’ll not resume, with RS’s 1980s stories following his famous late ’70s ‘retirement’, until sometime in January.

The very short take on the significance of Silverberg’s short fiction is that it reflects, over the decades, in significant ways, the history of science fiction. Its ups, and downs, and refuge into corners; the literary heights it achieved for a while, the reconnaissance it sought as SF became pop culture. Further posts in the series will focus on how various ‘phases’ of Silverberg’s career illustrate this trajectory.

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