Another Robert Silverberg collection of stories from Subterranean Press and the aged author states in his introduction that this will probably be the last. So, shall we begin with beauty?
Although ‘Beauty In The Night’ doesn’t begin with beauty as a woman gives birth to her illegitimate son on the dirty floor of a restaurant storeroom in Salisbury, England. There is even less beauty as the chronicle continues and the boy’s dear old dad turns up to make his life Hell. The backdrop is an alien invasion of Earth by entities who treat us with complete disdain. Silverberg accurately captures the worst aspects of the English underclass which is probably why I found it all a bit depressing. However, it’s very good.
It may be a flaw in this series that Silverberg’s introductions are so interesting that it’s hard to get round to reading the actual stories. In the forewords to ‘Diana Of The Hundred Breasts’ and ‘The Church At Monte Saturno’, he tells us that these were submitted to Alice Turner at ‘Playboy’ magazine and she rejected them both as ‘IRS stories’. Her contention was that Silverberg likes travelling and wrote a tale set somewhere afterwards so he could claim back the expenses off his tax. He denied this because he can claim expenses anyway. She still rejected them because a man going somewhere and seeing something odd wasn’t enough in her book for a strong story. They’re both well-written with interesting characters because Silverberg can do that in his sleep but I kind of agree with her. It’s not his best stuff. The first one, ‘Diana Of The Hundred Breasts’, might have been called ‘The Thing In The Tomb’ as an archaeologist opens an old hole in Ephesus and something emerges, brushing past him invisibly. The second, ‘The Church At Monte Saturno’, is about mosaics in an old Sicilian church that appear and disappear and change. It passes the time and there are nice touches but it won’t blow your mind.
Travel is something of a theme in this book. The author has mentioned in previous volumes that, in his semi-retirement, he only works half a year and spends a lot of time touring. Perhaps that’s why so many of his characters are journeying, too. ‘Travelers’ is about a group of four in the far flung future who can regenerate for longer life and have the means to zip around the galaxy by transmitter beams. On the whim of a young dandy, they go to a dangerous, miserable planet that is seldom visited. The narrator is a world-weary chap of serious mien who finds the fool charming but annoying at times. There’s not a lot of drama in this one but there are many fine descriptions of alien worlds for the reader to enjoy.
The same applies to ‘The Colonel Returns To The Stars’ in which a retired loyal servant of the galaxy-wide Imperium is recruited for one more job, a confrontation with a man who betrayed him long ago. It’s a great read but builds your expectations for a dramatic climax which doesn’t happen.
There’s more journeying in ‘Hanosz Prime Goes To Old Earth’ which was written as part of an unfinished novel and extracted to make a sort of short story. There is some pleasure in the omniscient narration and inventiveness of the background but it’s short on plot.
Another tale set on an ancient version of our homeworld is ‘The True Vintage Of Erzuine Thale’ which was produced for an anthology of stories set on Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’. Silverberg reverts to avid fan mode in the introduction to this one. In the story, he shows his usual command of language and fantastical themes when Puillayne of Ghiusz, owner of vast estates and great treasures is visited by thieves. Puillayne is morose at the prospect of Earth dying and gets through each day by drinking five bottles of wine, which also helps him write great poetry. I presume his magic staves off the hangovers and liver cirrhosis that prevent me from doing this. His greatest treasure is the vintage of the title which he is saving for the last days of mankind when it will inspire him to write his greatest epic. This one had plenty of invention and a neat ending.
Also set in a far-flung future is ‘A Piece Of The Great World’, which uses the background of an unfinished Silverberg trilogy that started with ‘At Winter‘s End‘. Mankind has long since departed Earth but they left behind them six races, secured in cocoons underground against a long ice age. There were machines, insects, sea creatures, reptiles, plants and an ape derived species who called themselves the People. This novella takes place even further into that future when, it seems, only the People and the insect race, hjjks, still survive. Like the Majipoor books, this is a great example of complex world-building but the story was overlong and a bit boring in the middle.
When he is playful with his writing as in ‘Call Me Titan’, Silverberg is very amusing. Typhoeus, son of Gaea and Tartarus, rises from his imprisonment in Mount Etna and goes to Greece to look for those upstart gods who usurped the Titans – Zeus, Apollo and that crowd. He doesn’t find the hated Zeus but learns about the modern world instead. Told in the first person, this is an entertaining romp and a fine tribute to the late Roger Zelazny.
The title story ‘The Millennium Express’ is another yarn where Silverberg has fun with historical characters, real ones in this case. Here Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway celebrating the end of the year 2999 by blowing things up.
‘The Tree That Grew From The Sky’ is actually a comet whose long straight tail looks like a trunk, hence the tree image for primitive types. Kell, though, is a wise man, a Renaissance man. He paints, writes, is an architect and builder and an advisor to the king. He has plotted the course of the comet and knows it will pass his world by. The Alien from another world who sulks in his maze agrees but has a daring plan that will involve the use of his rocketship. Silverberg often says that he aims for an ending that is inevitable but unexpected. You get that here. One of the stronger yarns in this collection.
‘Defenders Of The Frontier’ is a military tale written for an anthology titled ‘Warriors’. Rather than battle, about which the author admits he doesn’t know much, it focuses on other aspects of military life. Cleverly done with a neat conclusion.
‘Smithers And The Ghosts Of Thar’ is a sort of ghost story set in Kipling’s India and written somewhat in the Kipling style, with exclamation marks here and there! It was another enjoyable read but the dreadful secret revealed at the end was old hat stuff.
These are minor works in the author’s long and magnificent career for old men do not have the dynamism and originality of the young. In general, they were written in response to requests from editors to fill up an anthology and get the name of a venerable elder statesman of the genre on the cover. Yet Silverberg’s flawless technique and mastery of language makes reading even the slightest yarn a pleasure and a lesson, too, for anyone interested in writing. I suspect he’s more interested in fine writing than in storytelling, unlike, say, Stephen King who puts story values first. Each to his own. I found parts of this anthology a bit disappointing but that may be because my expectations of Silverberg are set too high.
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/