What I’m Reading: Robert Silverberg – To the Dark Star: The Collected Stories Volume 2

In To Be Continued, the first volume of Robert Silverberg’s Collected Stories, not every story was good, but each one was interesting – due to no small part to the introductory note by Silverberg himself prefixed to each story: Taken together, those notes provided a fascinating account of what it was like to be an American Science Fiction writer in the 1950s. The second volume, which is titled To the Dark Star and covers the period from 1962 to 1969, again has those introductions, but they are for the most part more limited in scope – they still are interesting to read, but as contributions to a biography of Silverberg rather than as giving an overview over the state of Science Fiction literature in the United States at the time (although that aspect has not completely vanished, it just has receded into the background). On the plus side, the stories they are introducing are significantly better at this stage in Silverberg’s writing career, and the reader starts to get an idea of why Silverberg is not only considered one of the most prolific but also one of the best SF authors.

To the Dark Star (eBook): The Collected Stories Volume 2The quality still varies a bit, as it will in almost any collection, but it does so at a consistenly high level. Many of the stories come across as somewhat gimmicky (a problem with a large amount of short form Science Fiction), because they are either too much streamlined towards their punchline or based on just a single idea and not moving beyond that. The best ones, though, have a richness of invention and a narrative momentum that makes them linger in the reader’s mind for a long while after having read them, as if they were not quite containable in the story form. In that light, it is probably not an accident that two of my favourite stories in this collection, “A Happy Day in 2382” and “Hawksbill Station” later became part of or were expanded into a novel.

One reason why the introductions are not quite as informative about the period in general might be that the stories themselves are – there is a pronounced shift in both subject and form here, away from adventure tales on far-away planets towards an exploration of the conditio humana by means of speculative narratives whose formal and technical range widens as it subject matter deepens. Some stories that I particularly enjoyed and that showcase this development are “Passengers”, “Going Down Smooth” and “Sundance” all of which show Silverberg experimenting with form and language as he explores extreme and alien mindstates. You really can tell that the Sixties have arrived and that suddenly a lot of things became possible that weren’t before, and I think some of the enjoyment Silverberg seems to have had in trying out new themes and techniques and in pushing boundaries transmits itself to the reader.

But something else also becomes  more noticeable in this volume than it was in the previous one, and that is Silverberg’s somewhat problematic attitude towards females. I would not go quite so far as to call him mysogynistic as I’ve seen some do, but it is hard to ignore the quite sharp contrast between the generally politically advanced and liberal tone of these stories and the way they portray women as weak, passive and mere victims. This seems a weird residue from the conservative Fifties that persists in the midst of a body of work that in all other respects breathes the spirit of the progressive Sixties.

How much one feels bothered by this will of course depends on one’s own sensibilities. I for one found it occasionally quite grating – not even that much in and of itself but because it clashes so dissonantly with the otherwise enlightened attitudes – but overall just a minor flaw in an oeuvre that despite this puzzling inconsistency remains among the most impressive in the genre.

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2 comments

  1. Ooh, this looks fun. I read a few of Silverberg’s novels when I was in my early teens – ransacking my dad’s stash of classic science fiction in the attic – but I haven’t picked up any of his books for years. I certainly haven’t tried any of his short stories, but maybe I should give them a go!

  2. Pretty much everyone – including the author himself – agress that he wrote his best work in the period from the late sixties to middle seventies, so if you’re thinking about giving his Collected Stories a go, volumes three or four which cover that period would probably be a good place to start. He did write some very awful stuff in his day, but his best (Dying Inside, Book of Skulls and a couple of others) are really excellent.

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