Hot enough for you? I’m counting on the heat still being a predominant if subliminal influence this first week of August. As I often do this time of year, I find myself reaching for science fiction for my reading matter. Whether I get to the beach or not, I find SF and fantasy somehow cooling, even if demanding at times. Surely there are those of you who will shake your heads and wonder why I would waste my time with nonsense like this, and so, as a life-long apologist, you might say, for the field of imaginative literature, I will try to explain.
In one name, there is Robert Silverberg, a very successful writer of the stuff and yet fairly invisible to the mainstream reading public. He has written nearly 100 books; mostly under his own name but well over a dozen under pseudonyms (Alexander Blade, Calvin Knox, etc.), and as of the late 1960s and early ’70s, the one man probably more responsible for fixing science fiction firmly into the foundations of the very best of, say, post-post modern American literature. I last wrote of him here two years ago, I think, and quoted the novel of his I had been reading at the time, Hot Sky at Midnight, and for very similar reasons: I was inspired by summer heat, turned to science fiction (a joy of many youthful summers), and asked myself, ‘What will not waste my time?’ The answer is, very quickly, Silverberg.
Looking around my shelf (the stuff not in storage), I see that I have four of his books. Here is Roma Eterna, a series of novellas and novelettes originally published in magazines like Asimov’s that are a kind of outline of history of a fictional Roman Empire that never fell. The book spans 2000 years and comprises ten stories, a series of narratives that taken together form a record of an alternate history. One, among several remarkable aspects of this timeline, is a pivotal non-event: the Hebrews never leave Egypt. No Moses, no Diaspora, no Jesus, no Christianity. To say the resulting history is interesting says nothing; it is quietly profound. Mohammed is there, right where he should be, as Mahmud, but not for long. He is a minor irritant to the Romans and is dealt with by a gay, ex-patriot Hero of the Empire in a story by that title.
I have here his best-selling, award-winning first volume of a fantasy series, Lord Valentine’s Castle, which I have not read due to my resistance to epic fantasy of this sort. Of what sort? There is no sort of anything as sophisticated and consistently literate as Silverberg’s fiction (think Roth, Bellow, Updike, and Burgess — I’m sure Burgess must have read him and loved him); and so I keep it, and I may start it today by setting aside this Julian Barnes novel, Arthur & George. It’s far too hot for 19th-century England right now.
Next to Valentine is the space opera Star of Gypsies, in which the King of Rom, that is, the Gypsies, pilots a galactic quest to return all children of Rom to their home star. If this does not sound ostensibly like deliciously rotten pulp, I don’t know what does; but this character, this character...
“We Rom have always loved gold. In the old days our women used to festoon themselves with gaudy masses of gold coins, threading them on golden chains and letting them dangle down over their lovely, jiggling bosoms like so much braided garlic. You practically needed a hacksaw to get through the gold to their breasts.... And we men — oh, what tricks we played with our gold back there in Hungary and Romania and all those other forgotten places of lost Earth! The roll of gold napoleons wrapped up in a handkerchief and stuffed into your pants to make a bulge, so you’d look like you were hung like an elephant!”
I am looking forward to “traversing mysterious kingdoms and blasted landscapes, braving ghosts and monstrous apparitions” when I begin Kingdoms of the Wall, a highly ambitious looking tome even for Silverberg. I am confident this 1992 novel will see me through the dog days ahead.
In my own SF novel, Empire’s Horizon, I included — with his permission — Silverberg’s name to a list of writers who are remembered thousands of years in the future. Two others are Saint Exupéry and Shakespeare. This may seem a little excessive: Saint Exupéry is there in keeping with the novel’s imagery and atmosphere and Shakespeare and Silverberg for the joy of language.
Why spend this space in what appears to be blatant promotion of a relative? The answer would be in a previous column, in a kind of mission statement: I said something to the effect that I am hardly Mister Friday Night and more of the kind of guy one would ask, “What should I read over the weekend?” And while I have no intention of recommending books on anything like a weekly basis, I think, after this first week of August, I would be remiss if I did not at least point you toward Robert Silverberg.
I will probably read both Lord Valentine’s Castle and Kingdoms before the summer is out; and while I rarely go on single-author binges, here is an August-indicated exception. One need not ration out Silverberg titles to oneself (I do this with Graham Greene, for example), as he has been extremely prolific for decades while sacrificing no quality. My ticker, liver, and/or lungs will give out before Silverberg’s gifts are exhausted.