In his 1969 novel To Live Again, Robert Silverberg posited a world of the near future in which it is possible for the very rich to have their personae recorded and preserved, and later placed in the mind of a willing recipient after their own demise, as a means of surviving the death of the body and sharing their consciousness with another. It is a fascinating premise and a terrific book, and thus this reader was a tad apprehensive at the beginning of Silverberg’s similarly themed novel The Second Trip. Would Silverberg merely repeat himself here, to diminished effect, and offer his audience a mere rehash of an earlier great work? As it turns out, I needn’t have been concerned. Silverberg, sci-fi great that he is — especially during this, his remarkable second phase of writing, lasting from 1967 – ’76 — couldn’t produce a dull, repetitive work if he tried. The Second Trip initially appeared in serialized form in the magazine Amazing Stories from July – September 1971, made its first book appearance as a Doubleday hardcover the following year (the author’s 40th sci-fi novel since his first in 1954, and NOT counting that same period’s over 190 sex novels and 87 nonfiction works!), and is as original and stunning a vision of Earth’s future as any reader could hope for; another glorious work from the author’s glory days.
In the novel, in the futuristic world of, uh, 2011, the authorities have come up with a very effective means of dealing with the criminally insane. Using “electronic scrambling” and various mind-wiping drugs, a subject’s entire personality and memories can be erased and a new, artificially constructed persona created to inhabit the emptied brain shell. And that is precisely what happens to Nat Hamlin, a “psychosculptor” who had gone mad and become a serial rapist. When we first encounter him, he has just been released from confinement after a four-year stay, and with his new identity of Paul Macy, is about to embark on a career as a TV news anchor. Unfortunately, a chance meeting with one of Hamlin’s old girlfriends named Lissa Moore — who is experiencing a breakdown brought on by her recently acquired telepathic abilities, and who Macy naturally cannot remember — causes the supposedly obliterated remnants of Hamlin to fully resurface, leading to two personalities struggling for dominance in the Hamlin/Macy mind. In To Live Again, a persona attempting to take over its host’s body was referred to as a “dybbuk” and was treated as an incidental plot point; in The Second Trip, it is the novel’s front-and-center story line, and the struggles between the two personalities to gain the upper hand, and Macy’s evolving relationship with the befuddled mess that is Lissa Moore, make up the bulk of this hugely entertaining, beautifully written and expertly crafted tale.
Writing in Silverberg’s “Quasi-Official Web Site,” host Jon Davis tells us that he found the interior conversations between Hamlin and Macy to be “tiresome and repetitive” (although he does go on to praise the book), but this reader had no such problem, and indeed found these dialogues to be quite fascinating. In one particularly interesting passage, psycho psychosculptor Hamlin pleads his case, saying that he — an acknowledged great artist — has more to offer to the world than Macy, a bland and synthetic creation, while the newborn Macy defends his right to exist. Hamlin almost manages to win us over, too, until later events demonstrate the wisdom of the authorities in attempting to wipe him out to begin with.
Silverberg, as was typical for him back when, takes full advantage of the recent freedoms granted to sci-fi writers as regards language and sexual situations. Hamlin drops the “F bomb” quite often, as does his Dr. Gomez at the rehab center, and there are any number of sexually frank scenarios, including the lovemaking scenes between Paul and Lissa and, most unpleasantly, the old and new rapes perpetrated by Hamlin that are delineated.
The author laces his book with scads of fascinating futuristic detail, such as a sonar headband for the blind (what a great idea!), tesseract paintings, a fully detailed look at just what psychosculpting entails (this art form HAD been mentioned in some of the author’s previous novels), a grotesquely obese character who is trying to reach the 1,000-pound mark as some kind of fashion statement, and a burnt-out Columbia University, the charred rubble of which is now fit only for muggers and rapists. (Silverberg had graduated from Columbia in 1956.) He also makes some prescient predictions during the course of his tale, what with the legalized pot (“golds”) sold in packs and the “portable terminals” that sound very much like laptops or iPads. The author also employs various styles of writing to tell his enthralling story: well-written conversations here, interior monologues there, with some psychedelic dream sequences and staccato, impressionistic images strewn about.
The Second Trip is not a perfect book, and Silverberg, usually the meticulous perfectionist, does make some minor flubs here and there. For example, he repeatedly uses the word “umbilicus” when he means “umbilical cord,” and suggests that 6/4/11 was a Friday, when in fact it was a Saturday. Still, these minor gaffes are nothing compared to the greatness of this novel. Peopled with some truly fascinating characters (Lissa can almost be seen as a telepathic warm-up for the David Selig character in another of Silverberg’s great novels from 1972, Dying Inside) and concluding in a manner that should please just about any reader, The Second Trip surely is a trip worth taking….