With this third volume of Robert Silverberg’s Collected Stories (you can find my posts on the previous volumes here and here), spanning the years from 1969 to 1972, we finally get to the really good stuff. While there were some excellent stories among his earlier output, the period from ca. the late sixties to mid seventies marks the high point of Silverberg’s Science Fiction witing and sees most of his major works published, among them acknowledged classics like Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls. In fact, I’d argue that this period is much more deserving of the epitheton “Golden Age of Science Fiction” than the fifties to which it is usually applied, because from about the middle of the sixties onwards Science Fiction stopped (for the most part, at least) to naively and unknowingly project the present into the future: instead, the genre became self-aware when authors found out that they had something meaningful to say beyond pulp adventures and and began to use the future to consciously examine the present.
Robert Silverberg is a prime example of this, as can be seen in this collection – where the first two volumes were a rather mixed bag, there is not a single weak story in Something Wild Is Loose, his writing did not just flourish, it soared during this period. The reader can watch him here exploring new territories in form as well as content, treating subjects that would have been off limits for Science Fiction a decade ago, and quite often treating them in ways that seem breathtakingly original even today (because, of course. there was the unavoidable backlash… but that will likely be a subject for posts on later volumes). A rather surprising (to me, at least) amount of the stories here concern themselves with explicitely religious themes, and in a manner that is largely, if not sympathetic, then understanding – even a satirical story like “Good News from the Vatican” (about the first ever robot Pope) never ridicules the urge to believe as such, even while it pokes fun at organised religion. I think this might point towards something characteristic of Silverberg as a writer – in all of his work, even when writing satire, he is rarely judgmental but appears above all as an inquisitive mind whose main drive a restless curiosity and who is chiefly interested in exploration, in trying to understand.
And it is this which drives the best stories in this volume, too. There is some difference in quality, but the range extends from “merely” good to utterly brilliant. My favourites are:
“In Entropy’s Jaws” – the twist at the end is pretty much obvious from the start, but I liked the way the story is told on several different time levels simultaneously.
“Going” – a long novella, almost a short novel, in which nothing much happens but that a very old man faces the end of his life. Mostly a character study as well as an exploration of what it means to (literally) have all the time in the world, and it might well be among the best things Silverberg wrote.
“Thomas the Proclaimer” – takes a not exactly SFnal premise (a miracle actually happening for everyone to see) and then uses it for an extended exploration of religion and its significance to the human psyche.
“When We Went to See the End of the World” – a short satirical story about how the end of the world ends up as party entertainment.
“Some Notes on the Pre-Dynastic Epoch” – another short one, this one an elegiac look back on human civilization.
“The Feast of St. Dionysus” – an astronaut returns from Mars and stumbles across a strange cult in the Mojave… or does he? Reads a bit like Malzberg without the nihlism and is very good in creating a weird, hallucinatory atmosphere.
“Many Mansions” – a time travelling story inspired by, of all things, by Robert Coover’s seminal story “The Babysitter.” Probably the story in this volumeI found most entertaining (although it’s also the one that suffers most from Silverberg’s usual issues with the depiction of female characters – it’s strange how he is so progressive in pretty much everything else but appears to be stuck in the 50s in that particular regard).
As in the previous volumes, each story comes with an introduction by the author – in a curious reversal those seem to get less interesting the better the stories themselves become, maybe because they stand better on their own. There are also fewer of them, as many stories in this collection (and often the best ones) are novella-length – it seems Silverberg is best in longer forms when he has some space to spread out in.