Having read some two dozen novels by Robert Silverberg over the past couple of years, I recently decided that it was high time for me to see what the Grand Master has accomplished in the area of the shorter form. As if by serendipity, while shopping the other day at the Brooklyn sci-fi bookstore extraordinaire Singularity, I found a volume of Silverberg short stories that, as it’s turned out, has fit the bill for me very nicely. Released in 1966, Needle in a Timestack gathers 10 short tales together from the period 1956 – ’65, out of the 581 (!) short stories, novellas and novelettes that Silverberg has thus far given us. (Readers who are understandably dubious regarding that seemingly superhuman number are urged to go to the author’s Quasi-Official Web Site for a complete listing and enumeration.) Oddly enough, the Silverberg story “Needle in a Timestack” does NOT appear in this collection; it first appeared in the June ’83 issue of Playboy magazine.
The collection is subtitled “An acidulous collection of science fiction stories,” and for good reason: Every single one of these stories ends on a downbeat note. Readers going into this particular bunch of tales should be prepared for a succession of deliciously written bummers… not that things grow repetitive or dreary as a result. Displaying Silverberg’s abundant and wide-ranging imagination, wit, intelligence and craftsmanship, each of the stories herein is a gem; no fillers in this assortment, that’s for certain!
The collection kicks off with “The Pain Peddlers,” which originally appeared in the August ’63 issue of Galaxy. In a prescient foreshadowing of today’s “reality TV,” Silverberg gives us a world in which the masochistic home audience is able to watch live surgical operations, as well as vicariously feel the pain being experienced by the UNanesthetized patients, thanks to EEG amplifiers and at-home, slip-on helmets. But things wind up getting just a tad out of hand for the executive producer of this truly unpleasant television program…
In “Passport to Sirius” (which made its first appearance in the 4/58 issue of Worlds of If), David Carman, 27th century wage slave, decides to chuck his droning, dead-end job and, using some adroit forgery, finagles himself a visa to the titular star system, to help fight in the war going on there. However, the interstellar war in question is not what it seems, and those who have read Philip K. Dick’s The Penultimate Truth may perhaps divine where this mordant blast at futuristic economics is heading. Silverberg DOES make a small boo-boo in this tale when he tells us that the Andromeda Nebula is 900,000 light-years away; that number should be more like 2 million.
Up next we have “Birds of a Feather” (from the 11/58 Galaxy), a delightful and hilarious tale that yet manages to conclude on a sour note. Here, we meet J.F. Corrigan, proprietor of the Corrigan Institute of Morphological Science; that is, a zoo containing almost 700 specimens from all over the galaxy. These specimens haven’t been captured, but rather hired, and in this amusing romp, we witness the travails that J.F. encounters on a typical recruiting day while in the Caledonia Cluster.
In “There Was an Old Woman” (11/58, Infinity Science Fiction), Donna Mitchell, an experimental biochemist, has manipulated one of her own zygotes, cultivating it in nutrient tanks, and thus causing to develop 31 identical sons, on whom she plans to do some further nature/nurture research. This is a wonderfully written story that actually allows us to get to know all 31 brothers, and one that ends on a decidedly shocking note. Mitchell, by the way, can almost be seen as a warm-up for the Lona Kelvin character in Silverberg’s 1967 novel Thorns; a 17-year-old mother of 100 babies… ”centuplets!”
“The Shadow of Wings” (7/63, Worlds of If) is, for my money, the slightest tale in the collection. Here, a 21st century linguist who has translated the alien Kethlani language, based on some relics found on Mars and Venus, is called in to interpret when an actual Kethlan is captured in a small spaceship. Our linguist must overcome his initial terror at the alien’s appearance and grapple for understanding in this short yet atmospheric story.
“Absolutely Inflexible” (7/56, Fantastic Universe) is an absolutely first-rate time paradox story. Here, a corps of men in the 28th century is tasked with capturing “time jumpers” from the past — whose germ-contaminated bodies might pose a threat to 28th century Earth — and shipping them off to the moon for perpetual imprisonment. As I’ve written elsewhere, many of these temporal paradox stories give me a borderline migraine, but I found this one to be remarkably clever and satisfying.
“His Brother’s Weeper” (3/59, Fantastic Universe) is another humorous outing, in which Peter Martlett uses a “deserializer” (a time/transportation device that IS somewhat headache inducing, as described) to take the 283-year journey to the planet Marathon, in order to wind up his deceased brother’s affairs… including the thorny matter of TWO women whom he was engaged to! Wonderful entertainment, this one!
In “The Sixth Palace” (2/65, Galaxy), two desperate men try to get past a killer robot that is guarding a vast treasure horde on an airless world of Valzar. This tale is plainly an updating of the Oedipus and the Sphinx myth, and can also be seen as a warm-up to Silverberg’s 1969 novel The Man in the Maze. It is a genuinely suspenseful affair, and quite a grim one.
Up next we have “To See the Invisible Man” (4/63, Worlds of Tomorrow), in which our narrator, for the crime of “coldness” in the year 2104, is given a one-year sentence of “invisibility;” that is, although anyone can actually see him, he is absolutely shunned by society. The telltale emblem on his forehead results in a year of complete isolation for our narrator, though he walks freely amongst his fellow men. Silverberg here gets to explore the ramifications of such a state, both the pros (the ability to do anything one wishes while being utterly ignored) and the cons (such as the inability to order food in a restaurant or to secure medical assistance); ultimately, it is a brilliant tale of enforced loneliness, the cactus symbolism of which again acts as a harbinger of Thorns.
The final tale in this collection, “The Iron Chancellor” (5/58, Galaxy), is one of the very best. In it, the overweight Carmichael family purchases a new domestic robot to help prepare dietetic and nutritious meals. But when a mechanical short circuit causes the robot to lock the family indoors and institute a killer diet regimen, the family members get far more (or perhaps I should say “less”!) than they had planned to chew on! Still another witty and suspenseful tale, culminating in still another depressing Silverberg finale.
So there you have it… 10 wonderful and wonderfully entertaining pieces, told in Silverberg’s best manner. Small surprise that the future Grand Master should have such a winning way with the shorter form, as well as the long. Please don’t let those downbeat endings put you off from seeking this one out, dear reader. Paradoxically, you’d be hard put to find a more delightful collection…