‘A Long Night’s Vigil At The Temple’ is about a Pope who is led to question the basis of his life’s work and religion. He’s not called the Pope, he’s called the Warder and his post is hereditary in a religion with three principal deities. These were aliens who reputedly saved Earth in its time of crisis then ascended to the stars but will return one day in glory. The religion is now thousands of years old and steeped in ancient traditions. Silverberg’s allegory is not subtle but he is sympathetic to his main character and the moral dilemma he faces. A lesser writer would have had the usual cheap shots at religion.
In ’Thebes Of The Hundred Gates’, the author takes the view, as in many other of his time travel stories, that if temporal relocation is possible at all there will be a few chaps from the future scattered through history. In some yarns, they are practically tripping over each other but, in this one, there are only three involved. As Silverberg’s non-fiction includes several books on archaeology, you can rest assured that the ancient Egyptian setting is authentically rendered but the ending may disappoint.
Alternative history is now a legitimate branch of Science Fiction and one to which Silverberg, with his aforementioned archaeological interests, is clearly drawn. Another yarn set in the past is ‘Looking For The Fountain’, narrated by Francisco de Ortega in old age. He accompanied Don Juan Ponce de Leon on his famous hunt for the fountain, whose benefits were not apparently youth itself but rather youthful vigour for men when bedtime came. The alternative bit is that the Spaniards encounter a tribe of Christian natives keen to free Jerusalem from the yoke of the Mohammedans. The story draws you in nicely but ends, to my mind, weakly. One of the shorter stories here, ‘The Red Blaze Is The Morning’, is actually set in an archaeological dig and is about a revered professional getting older and finding his work more of a struggle than he could ever have dreamed in his youth. He has an interesting liaison with another being, one so strange that he thinks he’s going mad.
Silverberg has done a few yarns set in an Earth conquered by aliens, so superior to us they treat us with absolute contempt. Sometimes they just go about their business and ignore us completely, swatting us like flies if we get in their way. Such is the case with the Spooks in ‘The Way To Spook City’. Early in the 21st century, they took over a large swathe of the USA and set up a border around it that can be crossed with some discomfort. Young men often enter the alien lands as a rite of passage and most return. Tom Demeris did not, so his older brother goes looking for him. There’s a lot of colourful scenery and some intriguing developments before the end.
The story that gives the book its title, ‘Hot Times In Magma City’, concludes the collection. Unusually for an author who often gives us far out stuff it is almost ‘tomorrow fiction’ being concerned with volcanic activity in the Los Angeles area. Our heroes are a bunch of people doing Citizens Service by acting as an emergency response team when there is a new lava eruption. Another writer or Hollywood would have shown the impact of the disaster on a nuclear family of mom, pop and two naughty but adorable children. Silverberg focuses on a bunch of alcoholics, drug addicts, drop-outs and others in recovery trying to get their lives back together with community service. Quite touching and probably the best thing in the book.
Shorter tales include ‘In The Clone Zone’, about the cloning of humans. What type of man would be keen to be cloned and able to order it done? Why a ruthless South American dictator, obviously. Silverberg delivers an interesting twist to the moral issues that cloning may generate. He takes it for granted that once it’s possible to clone men then someone will do it, regardless of international law. We may soon find out. ‘Hunters In The Forest’ is a yarn in which rich time travellers go back to look at dinosaurs and a man chooses between a safe future and one of daring bravery. It’s very clever and expertly done with a great ending. ‘It Comes And Goes’ is a downbeat fantasy about a house that vanishes and reappears mysteriously. A weak story for a writer of Silverberg’s calibre but ‘Playboy’ paid him for it.
As the notes make clear, Silverberg seldom seems to have much fun with his writing but there are exceptions. One such is ‘The Martian Invasion Journal Of Henry James’, in which that famed author is visiting H.G. Wells when the Martians land on Horsell Common. Some exciting adventures follow and the first person narrative, from James’ lost notebook, is expertly done in the style of the time. I also enjoyed ‘The Second Shield’ in which a man whose dreams create real but temporary objects is harassed by a bullying billionaire. This had a clever ending which showed that the author can still do great plots.
Robert Silverberg is the editor of an excellent anthology ‘Worlds Of Wonder’, which features thirteen classic science fiction stories and a long autobiographical introduction in which he tells us how he became a writer. He says that in fiction ‘a dramatic situation is proposed, displayed and resolved. The resolution, by demonstrating a return to the natural harmony of the universe, sends the audience home cleansed and calm – purged, as Aristotle said – of pity and fear. The introduction to ‘Worlds Of Wonder’ is probably the best thing a budding writer could read but Silverberg seems, on occasion, to have forgotten his own advice in later years or perhaps outgrown it. His mature writings are influenced not by pulp fiction authors featured in Science Fiction mags but by the literary greats, particularly Joseph Conrad. A few of these stories seem to me to have weak endings, which means a weak plot. Of course, plot isn’t everything and is considered almost unnecessary in some literary circles. In genre fiction, however, we still like it.
To be fair, I think I was spoiled by the last anthology I read, ‘We Are For The Dark: 1987-90: Volume Seven’, which was awesome. This collection is simply every story he wrote over a five year period. There are bound to be a few damp squibs in the output of any prolific author but there’s enough quality Silverberg here to make it worthwhile. The good stuff is concentrated in the second half of the book, so don’t be put off at the start.
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/