Master of Life and Death by Robert Silverberg
Future Grand Master Robert Silverberg’s fifth sci-fi novel, Master of Life and Death, was originally released as one-half of one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (D-237, for all you collectors out there), back to back with James White’s The Secret Visitors. Published in 1957, this was one of “only” three novels that Silverberg would release that year (the others were The Dawning Light and The Shrouded Planet), a fairly paltry number, one might think, for this remarkably prolific author… until one realizes that he also came out with no fewer than 82 (!) short stories and novellas that year in the sci-fi vein, plus 19 “adult” stories. On average, that comes to around a story every three or four days, PLUS those three longer works! I am just in awe of that kind of superhuman productivity! Master of Life and Death is the earliest piece of work by Silverberg that I have read thus far, and reveals that the budding author was even then capable of penning a highly imaginative, fast-moving and thoughtful work. Hypercreativity means little without talent to back it up, and if this book is a typical one for Silverberg’s early period, then I, for one, am going to be seeking out more.
In the book, the year is 2232, and Earth’s population, at 7 billion, is undergoing a major crisis of space and resources. (Whoa, stop right there! Earth’s population in 2012 was a reported 7 billion already; methinks this to be the first of several slight problems with Silverberg’s novel. Wisely, in his 1971 masterpiece The World Inside, which also dealt with the dilemma of extreme overpopulation, the number of teeming humans is said to be 75 billion in the year 2381; a more believable crisis figure.) To solve Earth’s paramount problem, the Bureau of Population Equalization, or Popeek, has come into being. Its threefold agenda: to relocate humans from densely packed regions to less densely populated areas; to euthanize disease-carrying babies and the elderly; and to find new worlds in outer space for future colonization. The reader encounters the No. 2 man at Popeek, Roy Walton, who is precipitately elevated to the No. 1 spot when his boss is assassinated by an anti-Popeek cabal. And what a first week in office Walton is forced to undergo! While acclimating to his new job, Walton must contend with the problem of a vanished terraforming team on Venus; the return of Earth’s first faster-than-light exploratory vessel, and the coming of an ambassador from the planet Dirna; the kidnapping of a scientist who has just come up with an immortality serum; the mystery of who placed surveillance equipment in NYC’s Popeek HQ; demands for his ouster by journalists and the public; AND a blackmail attempt by his brother Fred. Not to mention, of course, the little matter of bringing his ex-superior’s killers to justice…
Yes, Walton surely does have a lot to juggle during his first week in office, and author Silverberg manages to keep all those balls aloft and spinning at a remarkably fast clip. This short novel really does move, especially as it barrels to its breathless conclusion. No wonder that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction enthused that the author’s “success in maintaining complete clarity and strong narrative drive while manipulating unnumbered plots and complex concepts is a technical triumph,” and the New York Herald Tribune called it “a virtuoso performance.” I couldn’t agree more. And as readers admire Silverberg’s authorial dexterity, they should also marvel at Walton’s ability to handle all his manifold stresses. And indeed, he does change as a character — growing stronger, more confident and more ruthless — as the book proceeds. Is it any wonder that he must depend on filtered rum, caffeine tablets and “benzolurethrin” to get him through his travails, a la a character in a Philip K. Dick novel? Ultimately, Walton, to achieve his goals, becomes a kind of dictator of sorts, his motto being “the end justifies the means,” which DOES tend to bring up the rather uncomfortable notion that a benevolent dictator just might be the most efficient form of government. But Walton is at least a self-aware dictator, and cognizant of the fact that some of his maneuverings (e.g., subliminal advertising) are below the belt.
Silverberg fills his novel with all sorts of 23rd century marvels — such as “voicewriters,” “jetbuses,” “kaleidowhirl” TV shows, needle guns, an “executive filter” that obscures a person’s sweat on visiscreens, cloud seeders, scheduled rainstorms — but manages to keep his NYC of the future fairly recognizable. Master of Life and Death is eminently readable, practically unputdownable, and yet feels a tad dated at one point, perhaps unavoidably, when the capital city of Leopoldville is mentioned (it became Kinshasa in 1966). Strangely, Silverberg refers to the Indonesian capital as “Batavia,” although it was renamed Jakarta in 1946. An independent Ghana is referred to passingly in the book, which might serve as a guidepost as to when Silverberg penned this particular novel (Ghana received its independence in March ’57). The author makes a few flubs as regards time in his book (Walton at one point reflects that he had saved a boy’s life on the previous day, whereas it had been two days earlier; at one point, Walton looks at his watch and sees that the hour is 1100, whereas the reader knows, based on what had come before, that it should be more like 1300), but these are minor errors that only the most nitpicking wackadoodle (such as myself) would notice or be bothered by. The bottom line is that Master of Life and Death is some kind of minor wonder, and a sure indicator that the young Robert Silverberg was truly a talent to be reckoned with. At one point, Walton muses that the modern-day perception of Dostoyevsky might be something along the lines of “all he did was write books, and therefore could not have been of any great importance.” Well, all I can say is, thank heavens for the writers of books, especially for such fun and entertaining books as this one….
If you wanted to reduce the population, wouldn’t it be easier to let “disease-carrying babies” live? Just sayin’.
And I was going to say “I want a jetbus!” but I think we have them; they’re called airbuses now.
We have several Ace Doubles at the bookstore, and now I’m going to have to go look and see if this is one of them!
Good points, Marion! I think that the aims of Popeek in Silverberg’s book were supposed to be basically humane, and the elimination of genetically defective babies seen as a positive and beneficial thing. As to those jetbuses, they were of the commuter sort; flying buses that zip people around the confines of a single city. And as for the Ace doubles in our store, I didn’t know that we had any. Very cool!
Oops…I misread you, I think. You meant the store where you work at, didn’t you? Not a FanLit store….
I did mean the store I work at. Sorry to get your hopes up!
Marion, there are HUNDREDS of those cute little “Ace doubles.” Hope you are able to find the ones you’re looking for. Here are shots of all of them! http://people.uncw.edu/smithms/ACE.html