Son of Man by Robert Silverberg
Back in the 1970s, there was a certain type of film that, whether by chance or design, became highly favored by the cannibis-stimulated and lysergically enhanced audience members of the day. These so-called “stoner pictures” — such as Performance, El Topo, Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead — played for years as “midnight movies” and remain hugely popular to this day. Well, just as there is a genre of cinema geared for stoners, it seems to me that there could equally well be a breed of literature with a genuine appeal for those with an “altered consciousness.” That we don’t hear of such books is perhaps due to the fact that reading requires more in the way of active mental work than does film gazing; reading is not as passive an activity, generally speaking, as watching a film, and entails more of an exercise of the imagination.
But if there ever WERE such a genre of literature as the “stoner book,” then I do believe that Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man would be a prime example. Released in 1971, this was just one of four novels that the author came out with that year, the others being the wonderful The Second Trip (NOT an LSD reference), the Nebula-winning A Time of Changes, and his story of insane overpopulation, The World Inside. Quite unlike any other Silverberg novel that I have encountered, Son of Man is a bizarre, hallucinatory, phantasmagoric vision of Earth’s far future that is surely not for all tastes; even Jon Davis, the host of the Quasi-Official Robert Silverberg Web Site, tells us that the book is “probably not for the casual reader.”
In this virtually plotless novel, the reader encounters an everyman named (most symbolically) Clay, who may or may not be from Clayton, Missouri. Clay is somehow caught in a “time-flux” and whisked untold billions of years into Earth’s future (as opposed to Silverberg’s 1968 novel Hawksbill Station, which is set a billion years in the past), to a time when all the flora and fauna are completely changed, and even the constellations and continents have altered. Over the course of his travels, Clay meets the six different forms that mankind has evolved into: the sexually mutable Skimmers, who he befriends; the vegetablelike, soil-dwelling Awaiters; the squidlike Breathers; the shaggy Destroyers; the T. rex-like Eaters; and the saurian Interceders. With the Skimmers, he participates in/observes their five rites: the Opening of the Earth, during which their spirits (?) explore the bowels of the planet; the Lifting of the Sea; the Tuning of the Darkness, during which the “music of the spheres” is adjusted by the Skimmer crew; the Filling of the Valleys, in which all of Earth’s mountains are seemingly leveled and its valleys filled in; and the mysterious Shaping of the Sky. Clay also traverses the numerous zones of discomfort — Ice, Fire, Dark, Old (in which he ages drastically), Empty and Slow — and, along the way, changes into a female, roams the stars, gets dissolved in a river, is transformed into an Awaiter, explores an underground city now populated only by robots, traverses a desert that breeds hallucinations, and on and on….
Son of Man, as you can tell, is a book of virtually boundless imagination, and in that regard, it must be deemed a complete success. It is as if someone dared Silverberg to write the most way-out book imaginable in a sci-fi context, and the author accepted and rose to the challenge. The book is surely as bizarre as David Lindsay’s 1920 classic A Voyage to Arcturus (which also featured a hero who undergoes physical metamorphoses) and as pleasingly “trippy” as Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964), but what I kept being reminded of here, of all things, is H.P. Lovecraft’s posthumous, oneiric novella of 1943, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. As in that surrealist wonder, in Son of Man, any marvelous thing can pop up at any moment, and there is simply no way in the world for the reader to predict what will happen in the very next sentence! At one point in the story, Clay attempts “a rational analysis of his experiences,” at which the reader can only chuckle and wish him luck! In another section, the forces of Chaos erupt from a mountainside, and in a display of psychedelic verbiage that rivals anything in Henry Kuttner’s The Fairy Chessmen (1946) or Dick’s The Ganymede Takeover (1967), Clay sees “a thick snaky worm with luminous antennae, and a walking black barrel, and a dancing fish, and a tunnel with legs. He sees a trio of giant eyes without bodies. He sees two green arms that clutch each other in a desperate and murderous grip. He sees a squadron of marching red eggs. He sees wheels with hands. He sees undulating carpets of singing slime. He sees fertile nails. He sees one-legged spiders. He sees black snowflakes. He sees men without heads. He sees heads without men….” Anyway, most of the book is like that (you should get a load of what Clay sees in that hallucinatory desert!), and whether the author has any grander design than engendering sheer wonder and that elusive sense of cosmic awe, I’m not certain. The book is most assuredly heavily symbolic, but symbolic of what, I don’t know. Perhaps it would be wise to take a hint from what Clay thinks as he traverses that underground city: “Futile to seek logic here.”
Son of Man is, needless to say, both intelligent and finely written, in Silverberg’s best manner during this, the great second phase of his literary career. The book can be justly accused of being overwritten, and of consisting of “one damn thing after another,” but overall, it is a fairly overwhelming affair and, to quote author Brian Stableford, “a beautiful and brilliant book.” But hardly perfect. When Clay suddenly transforms into a woman, he mentally rattles off practically every darn bit of the female anatomy (“mesovaria, the infundibulo-pelvic ligaments…”) to the point where the reader assumes he must have been a 20th century gynecologist! And it was the Skimmer named Ninameen who tells Clay that “Dreams end,” not Ti, as he contemplates 140+ pages later. And when Clay soars through the sky “at an altitude of several miles” and is said to cast shadows in the ionosphere…well, the ionosphere doesn’t even begin till one reaches around 30 miles up. Still, it is hard to quibble with a book in which seeming reality is so very plastic. Silverberg’s novel also contains some clever humor — I love it when Clay becomes a woman after he lifts the oceans with the Skimmers, and the author writes that he is “unmanned by this sea-change” — and some quite moving sections regarding life and death and Man’s place in the grand scheme of things. It is a boldly ambitious book, an exercise in imaginative gusto run rampant, and, I guarantee you, quite unlike anything you have previously taken in. This reader has not partaken of recreational drugs in a very long time, but Silverberg’s Son of Man surely was an effective substitute, lemme tell you!
I know that psychedelic fiction was a thing in the 1960s and 70s, but with writers like Silverberg in particular I wonder if there wasn’t an element of a joke (or perhaps a dare) in some of these vivid but plotless wonders. I suspect he was pushing himself to see how “out there” he could get. (Or maybe he was just up against a deadline.)
A “vivid but plotless wonder”…wish I had said that, Marion. It describes this book perfectly!
Fantastic review! I like that you approach books on their own terms while at the same time giving enough information so that your readers can make a good guess as to the novel’s suiting their literary tastes. To me, such an approach offers a service to would-be readers while showing respect for an artist’s hard work.
This novel sounds like it could be frustrating to read if one is not in the mood, but I know I want to read it now. I’m certainly intrigued, but will wait to read it on a day when I am eager for words but not plot!
Thanx as always for the kind words, Brad. I just calls ’em like I sees ’em!