True to his word, after announcing his retirement from the science fiction field in 1959, future Grand Master Robert Silverberg’s formerly prodigious output fell off precipitously. Although he’d released some 16 sci-fi novels from the period 1954 – ’59, not to mention almost 250 (!) sci-fi short stories, AFTER 1959 and until his major return in 1967, his sci-fi production was sporadic at best. In 1960, Silverberg only released one sci-fi book, Lost Race of Mars (a so-called “juvenile”), and in 1961, not a single full-length affair; only two short stories. In 1962, however, in a slight return to form, Silverberg released Recalled to Life and The Seed of Earth. The year 1962 was hardly an idle one for Silverberg, however; besides those two novels, he also released one sci-fi short story, 32 “adult” novels (with such titillating titles as Lust Cat, Lust Cult, Lust for Two and Lust Lord) and seven works of nonfiction, including his popular Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations. I had not previously read any of Silverberg’s work from this early to mid-‘60s “in-between period,” and so was very happy (and fortunate) to get my hands on a 1967 Lancer edition of Recalled to Life (cover price: 50 cents), which lists the copyright date of this 1962 book release as … 1958; I believe the work actually first appeared in 1958 in the digest-size magazine Infinity Science Fiction. Anyway, a recent perusal of the book has demonstrated to this reader what I’d long suspected; that even in “retirement,” Silverberg’s writing skills were undiminished. As it turns out, Recalled to Life is yet another finely crafted, thoughtful and imaginative piece of work (although whether it is, as the blurb on the Lancer front cover maintains, the author’s “greatest science-fiction novel” is highly questionable).
In Recalled to Life, the reader makes the acquaintance of 43-year-old former mayor of NYC and former governor of New York State, James Harker, now in private practice at a law firm in Manhattan. Harker’s world is turned upside down when a representative from the Beller Research Laboratories in the fictitious town of Litchfield, NJ asks for his legal services and PR know-how. Beller Labs has, remarkably, come up with a revolutionary process of reanimating the recently deceased; unknown to the public, the technicians there have discovered a means of reviving a dead body, with the provisos that the body has been dead for only 36 hours or so and has suffered no major organ damage. But how to break this astonishing news to the world? That will be family man Harker’s new challenge. Harker accepts the assignment, anticipating the general public’s elation and acclaim, but both he and his Beller associates are dumbfounded when this new gift of reanimation is denounced by the public, organized religion, various government factions, and the press. Recalled to Life details the process whereby Harker endeavors to convince the different groups of what a boon to mankind the Beller process might be. And ultimately, to make his case, Harker opts for a most risky gambit indeed…
Silverberg has been quoted as saying that his Nebula-winning 1974 novella Born With the Dead is a sequel of sorts to Recalled to Life, and who am I to contradict him? The novella did deal with “rekindled” human beings, the “Deads,” who lived apart from the “Warms” in their so-called “Cold Towns.” But the novella is set in the year 1993, while the ’62 novel is set in the spring and summer of 2033, when a process of resuscitating the dead has just been discovered. So although the novella may be a sequel in spirit, it is certainly not one in actuality. Silverberg fills his ’62 novel with interesting subplots and well-drawn characters (mainly scientists and politicos), and adds color via zesty sci-fi touches; for example, the cigarette ignition capsules, the window opaquers, the “gravshaft” elevators, the “puritron stations” for handling NYC’s air pollution, the crosstown monorails, and the mention of settlements on both the moon and on Mars. He predicts the legalization of abortions in the U.S., although says that this came about in “the late twentieth century” rather than the actual date of 1973. Another prediction that Silverberg only gets half right: He tells us that both the U.S. and Russia landed on the moon in the early ‘60s, whereas, of course, the U.S. didn’t accomplish that feat – and did so alone – till 1969. For all its sci-fi trappings and flabbergasting central conceit, parts of the book still come off as inevitably dated: Characters use mimeograph machines (!), “Idlewild” is referred to (it became JFK International Airport in 1963), and so is the Manchester Guardian (the newspaper had already become just The Guardian in 1959). Strangely enough, the usually impeccable Silverberg even makes a flub as regards dates (May 14, 2033 will be a Saturday, not a Tuesday), and though his grammar and word selection are also typically faultless, in the course of this book, he even proves guilty of a repetitive phrase (“grizzled close-cropped hair turning gray”).
Still, for all its very slight faults, Recalled to Life remains a wonderful read, and its story is a fast-moving one, with many surprising plot twists. As might be expected, Silverberg has thought through many of the ramifications of the reanimation process, and the myriad legal, religious and ethical questions that it might pose. For example, if a person were to stipulate in his will that he did not wish to be reanimated later on, could he be construed as a suicide if his cadaver turned out to be an appropriate reanimation subject? Harker himself makes for a likable central character, and what he ultimately attempts, in order to bring about public acceptance of reanimation, is quite touching. The book concludes marvelously, and could easily have led to a genuine sequel had its author so chosen. A compact affair at under 150 pages, this is yet another compulsively readable page-turner from Mr. Silverberg, whose major phase as a sci-fi writer would not commence for another five years. Though devoid of humor, the book yet sports one priceless line. When Harker is asked by the current New York State governor if he is serious about this new scientific process of awakening the dead, what does Harker reply? “Dead serious.”