Those Who Watch: Compulsively readable and quite touching

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThose Who Watch by Robert Silverberg science fiction book reviewsThose Who Watch by Robert Silverberg

There is a certain aptness in the fact that I penned this review for Robert Silverberg’s Those Who Watch on January 15, 2015. That day, you see, happened to be Silverberg’s 80th birthday, so my most sincere wishes for many more happy and healthy birthdays must go out to the man who has become, over the years, my favorite sci-fi author.

These days, of course, Silverberg is one of the most honored and respected writers in his chosen genre; a multiple winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, not to mention a Science Fiction Grand Master. Hard to believe then that, back in 1959, Silverberg, facing a diminishing market for his work and chafing under the literary restrictions of the day, announced his retirement from the field. Since 1954, he’d already come out with some 15 sci-fi novels, plus around 240 (!) sci-fi short stories and novellas. And even during his so-called retirement, from 1959 – ’66, he still managed to release 10 sci-fi novels, around 20 sci-fi short stories, 35 books of nonfiction, AND some 150 or so (!) adult novels, with such wonderful titles as Lesbian Love, Lust Goddess, Sex Bait and Orgy Slaves.

It wasn’t until Galaxy editor Frederik Pohl lured Silverberg back to the fold in 1967 that the author began his second phase of writing, one marked by a more literate style, a greater emphasis on characterization, and — taking advantage of the more liberal mores of the day — a healthy dollop of sex. Those Who Watch, released in ’67, and one of six Silverberg sci-fi novels that year (not to mention seven sci-fi short stories and eight adult novels), is very much a transitional work, melding the pulpy feel of his ‘50s books with the deeper characterizations and interest in sexual matters that would be a hallmark of his writing in the coming years. It is a short but highly pleasing affair; compulsively readable and, ultimately, quite touching.

In the book, the reader learns that Earth has been under observation, for many thousands of years, by orbiting spaceships of the rival planets Dirna and Kranaz. In the futuristic world of, uh, 1982, each side maintains some 1,000 ships in high orbit; an ancient treaty prohibits either party of this galactic Cold War from actually setting foot on the planet or making their presence known in any way. Major problems arise, however, for one of the Dirnan ships, when its fusion generator goes haywire and its three-person crew is forced to bail out before the novalike explosion ensues. Disguised in the outward semblance of Earthlings, the three crash-land, many miles apart, in the state of New Mexico; all have suffered major injuries to their human shells. Fortunately, all three are taken in and cared for by decent Earthlings, and Those Who Watch explores the Terran/Dirnan relationships that follow.

Mirtin, the oldest of the Dirnans, a male, is found by Charley Estancia, a keen-minded, 11-year-old Indian boy who lives in a nearby pueblo, and is cared for by the youth in a cave. Vorneen, the Adonis-like, sexually rapacious crewman, is cared for by Kathryn Mason, a 30-year-old, widowed single mother living in Bernalillo. And Glair, a Dirnan female inhabiting a voluptuous blonde body, is found and tended to by Col. Tom Falkner, an alcoholic, divorced wreck living in Albuquerque, who also happens to be in charge of the AOS (Atmospheric Objects Survey), the governmental agency in charge of tracking down UFOs… despite the fact that Falkner is a complete skeptic in these matters. Meanwhile, as the three pairs interact and ultimately find that all their lives are enriched and bettered because of it, a Kranazoi agent lands on Earth, determined to bring the three Dirnans to justice for breaking the ages-old treaty. A hoary plot, perhaps, but the author here manages to make it seem fresh.

OK, I’m going to voice my one major problem with Silverberg’s book right now, before I praise it to high heaven. In the author’s 1957 novel Master of Life and Death, which I recently read also, we are introduced to a race called the Dirnans, who are said to be 8’ tall, with leathery green skin. To my surprise, the Dirnans here are said to be only 3’ tall; that is the only description of their actual bodies that Silverberg ever gives us. So they cannot be the same race at all, nor could they even be a different race from the same planet, as the Dirnans in the ’57 book were said to be ammonia breathers from Procyon’s eighth planet, and the Dirnans here clearly thrive on oxygen and hail from their sun’s fifth. I can only infer that the author forgot he’d previously used the name “Dirna” in one of his novels 10 years earlier; they are clearly two very different planets and races. One can of course argue that it is a big universe, and two different planets named Dirna must statistically exist, but still, I can’t help feel that Silverberg might have used another name, to less confusing effect.

Other than this problem, Those Who Watch is a beautifully written book, with exceptionally fine dialogue, and the reader really does get to know and care for its six main characters. Silverberg makes us feel the New Mexico milieu (a map of the state might come in handy for a better appreciation), and he does seem to have done his homework in regard to the Indian reservations and life thereon. (He would go on to write the nonfiction work The Pueblo Revolt in 1970.)

I’ve always been a sucker for a book with a good alternating story line, and here, the author gives us a triple doozy; quadruple, actually, counting the chapters dedicated to that Kranazoi agent. Silverberg colors his 1982 world with all sorts of futuristic touches that still haven’t seen the light of day — such as spray cans of liquor, ignition caps on cigarette butts, “antistim” pills to clear up a hangover, ultrasonic cleaners, the seemingly inevitable window opaquers …and fluorescent paint on women’s cleavage as a fashion statement — but these failed predictions detract from the novel not a whit.

Those Who Watch, as mentioned, is ultimately very moving; there is a gentleness, a sweetness about it that this reader found quite appealing. And if Mirtin’s farewell note to Charley doesn’t make you mist up a little… well, I can only say that you’re made of tougher stuff than I. The book is a compact affair, clocking in at under 150 pages (I refer here to the original 60-cent Signet paperback, which I was fortunate enough to acquire), and one can justly say that the story might have been expanded a bit more; fleshed out just a tad. Another author might have easily turned this book into the introduction to an entire series, but Silverberg, at least at this point in his career, was not content to indulge in sequels. The book may be a concise one, but what’s here is just wonderful. Score another one for today’s birthday boy! More than highly recommended!

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. I read numerous books by Silverberg in the 70s and 80s : they were frequently translated in French. But I sort of abandonned him later when I started reading in English, don’t know why. Now I’m adding more and more of them and it’s all your fault, Sandy!

    • So many books, so little time!

    • Brad Hawley /

      I, too, blame Sandy for making me want to read as much Silverberg as possible! In my case, however, I’m not returning to Silverberg; instead, I’m reading his works for the first time. And every single story and novel of his is amazing. Even his VERY early works are worth reading. I’ve come to rely on Silverberg when I don’t know what to pick up next.

      Likewise, I’ve come to rely on Sandy when I want to find other classic SF authors who are new to me. Sandy, in an e-mail discussion, once explained to me his reading process, and that discussion made me realize that he reads novels more closely than almost anybody I know, and in the process, he falls in love with the novels and their authors. That well-informed literary love, that passion, shows through in his reviews.

      It also explains, by the way, why so many of his reviews are four- and five-star reviews. When one reads with so much “generous understanding,” as one literary scholar calls it, one is likely to see the strengths of a literary work instead of focusing primarily on weaknesses. I think that Sandy’s reviews allow us to come to novels and authors with the knowledge necessary to appreciate a specific work or author better than we might otherwise. In other words, though WE might have a three-star reading of a novel, if we read Sandy’s review first, we might be able to experience the same novel as a four- or five-star work of literature.

      I think that’s a wonderful role for a literary reviewer to play: To help us become better readers of the novels recommended to us. Sandy is exactly this kind of reviewer.

      Thank you, Sandy.

      (I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why I like your reviews so much Sandy, and I’ve tried to articulate those reasons above.)

      • I agree, Brad! And even if I think I’ll never read the book he’s reviewing, I read his review carefully anyway, because I’m going to learn something about the book, it’s author, and how it fits into SFF history. I gain knowledge.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Gee, is my face red. I don’t know what to say…I’ve never read such nice things written about ANY of my book reviews. I suppose all I can say is “Thanks so much, guys!” If any of my reviews makes a potential reader interested in any of the books that I have written about, or reminds someone of just why he or she liked a particular book in the first place, then I suppose my job has been done successfully. And yes, as Brad says, I suppose I am a bit more lenient with my star ratings than some others, if only because I realize just how difficult it can be to come up with something halfway decent, much less outstanding….

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