Tag Archives: Robert Silverberg

Far Horizons, Ed. Robert Silverberg

<em class="BookTitle">Far Horizons</em>, Ed. Robert Silverberg

Harpercollins, 1999, 482 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97630-7

If you’re looking for a review of the science-fiction short-story anthology Far Horizons, edited by Robert Silverberg, I suggest that you look elsewhere.  Because as I close the book, I have plenty of things to say… but few of them actually have anything to do with its specific content.

I suppose that a few declarative sentences may not hurt in setting the stage, though, so here goes: Far Horizons is an all-original anthology in which Silverberg has asked an all-star roster of Science Fiction authors to write short stories set in their well-known fictional universes.  The result brings together new stories set in David Brin’s Uplift Universe, Ursula K. Leguin’s Hamish universe, and so on.  Niven’s Known Universe may be missing, but otherwise what you get is a series of call-backs to SF’s best-known universes from the 1960s to the 1980s.  Nearly every story has an award-winning pedigree, and even moderately knowledgeable readers will know every single name in the table of content.  As far as sheer SF star-power is concerned, I don’t think there’s been quite another anthology like this.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories are good, new, inventive or even enjoyable.  Most of the writers try to position their stories in cracks left by their novels.  Orson Scott Card, for instance, uses his story to describe an interlude in-between Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (that story was later collected in First Meetings.)  Minor episodes are what Far Horizons has to offer, although the story I enjoyed the most, Pohl’s “The Boy Who Would Live Forever”, is set to run in parallel with its parent Heechee saga.  (That story first had me thinking about re-reading Gateway, only to recant as I was reminded of just how weird the later Heechee novels eventually became compared to the first novel.)  Some of the stories from writers I was eagerly anticipating, such as David Brin and Dan Simmons, left me almost completely cold.

Still, even in disappointing, the anthology got me thinking about the renewal of the SF genre and how to let go of the past.

Readers should be aware that the next few declarative sentences are far more personal in nature, and have even less to do with Far Horizons: I became a father in 2012, and (newborn duties obliging) took a voluntary year off from freelance reviewing.  This “semi-hiatus” isn’t absolute (hence this review), but it has shaped my reviewing choices so far this year.  I’m reading a lot of books that I don’t expect to review, which includes anthologies.  I rarely review anthologies because they’re seldom coherent enough to offer a solid reviewing thesis, and also because I tend to skip a lot of stories if they don’t grab me by their second page.  I can finish an anthology in two commuter bus rides, but it won’t be because I have read them from beginning to end.

I’m also using this semi-hiatus to put some distance between myself and what I used to do out of routine.  Becoming a father changes things (everything), and my relationship with reading genres is being tested: What was I doing out of inertia, compared with actual honest interest?  I have nearly stopped buying books “to take a chance” on new or marginally-interesting authors.  My book reviews are now motivated by creative impulses rather than habit. (ie: “I’m going to blow up if I don’t write this down right now!”)  And, perhaps inevitably, I’m using this distancing to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about such things as Science-Fiction.

I started reading SF by the truckload in the mid-nineties, taking the list of Hugo and Nebula-winning novels as my primary reading list.  Taking advantage of used-book sales and the accumulated mass of SF commentary then available, it’s natural that I regard the 1960s-1980s era of Science-Fiction as my natural formative period.  An era that happens to match almost perfects with Far Horizons.

But Far Horizons dates back to 1999.  One of the authors in the table of content has died recently, and many of the others have seen their relative profile within the genre fall precipitously in that they no longer command the same kind of attention they once did.  Meanwhile, the genre now looks very different from what it was in 1995 or 1999: media SF is more pervasive, video-games are narrowly trailing movies as a dominant vector for genre visuals, and print SF is now quite a bit more diverse than it used to be.  There are relatively fewer pure-SF readers, and even the dedicated ones now have trouble placing Heinlein, Niven and Sturgeon, just as I’m fuzzy on earlier SF writers such as Weinbaum, Nourse or Kuttner.

I’m not bemoaning the death of an era as much as I’m finally acknowledging that it’s happening, and trying to look forward.  SF-as-a-genre has died and been resurrected in radically different ways a couple of times in its history (from magazines to books, from paperbacks to hardcover bestsellers, and now from paper to electrons), and that’s OK.  I’m all for change if it means that I get to read great stories that wouldn’t have been welcomed in the old-school SF ghetto.  More diversity, more viewpoints, more takes on our possible futures?  Yes, please!

Heck, the amount of physical household space re-arranging that a newborn requires even had me chipping away at the certitude that well-stocked bookshelves are an unarguable boon.  I’m nearly convinced that I can enjoy ebooks without having to purchase a physical copy.  I suspect that the way I’m defining fixed spaces for my CD/DVD collections and then culling ruthlessly is a harbinger of things to come for my book collection.  Isn’t it easier to make a backup on separate drives than to move books from shelves to shelves as the collection expands?

As I focus on the health, safety and happiness of the cutest baby in the world (another declarative sentence; no argument tolerated) you can say that I’m looking forward to the next generation of readers in more ways than one.  I will eventually return to reading current SF as my backlog of unreviewable books gets exhausted and as I catch up on my accumulated sleep deficit, but I have a feeling that the pause will do me some good.  As with all genres that are in conversation with themselves, SF renews itself and a fundamental disservice that older fans may bring to the table is an obstinate inability to acknowledge the current state of the art.  Old-school SF as showcased by Far Horizons is still great fun to read and has provided happy memories to generations of readers, but it’s not the culmination of the genre, nor does it reflect the best of what’s now possible to do with the tools of the genre.  Rather than rant at the disappearance of the good old stuff, I choose to welcome the even-better new stuff. 

The Alien Years, Robert Silverberg

EOS, 1998, 488 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105111-X

This book is designed to annoy you.

Not that this is a bad thing. Think of Robert Silverberg’s The Alien Years as part of the great big genre Science Fiction conversation about alien invasions, reaching all the way back to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The whole initial point of alien invasions, of course, is to show the dynamics of imperialism as applied to us first-world readers. A truly realistic alien invasion novel isn’t supposed to be jolly: we get conquered/killed, The End. Extra points for believability can be given to those stories when the aliens just blast the Earth to little bits without pausing to negotiate or even say hi.

But what’s the fun in that? It may not be a surprise if, since the pulp era of science-fiction all the way up to half of Baen’s SF lineup, most alien-invasion stories have been about winning against overwhelming odds. It’s one of SF’s core myths, and one which, post-Vietnam and almost post-Iraq, may not be as implausible as critics of the BEM-Killer sub-genre may think. Alas, most contemporary alien-invasion stories now fall into such common story-telling patterns: They are so far off the original intent of the story template that they’ve flipped over to comfort fantasy.

So when grandmaster Robert Silverberg sets out to write new alien-invasion novel, it’s not implausible to expect him to have something more on his mind than writing another shoot-em-up novel in which the plucky human send the BEMs packing home in a matter of days.

For one thing, you can depend on the invasion scenario, but you can’t depend on your protagonists: Within pages, Silverberg kills off the first viewpoint character to witness the alien’s initial invasion. Then it’s fast-forward in the future as the aliens don’t leave and there’s nothing the humans can do to change their mind. Everyone’s hopes for negotiations remain unfulfilled: the aliens aren’t talking and whenever they think humans are getting too uppity, they flick a magical switch and shut down all electricity around the planet. Billions die. Years pass. Another chapter begins.

Against such overwhelming odds, most humans give up. Some of them throw in their lot with the aliens. Others just try to ignore the problem. Not all of them, though: Around the world, pockets of resistance try and try again. A particularly hardy bunch cloisters around the Carmichael compound in Southern California, where various plans are discussed to bring down the invaders.

But it’s in the nature of The Alien Years that whenever someone gets too close, something happens, plans fail and the action skips forward a few years later. The novel gradually takes on the mantle of a family epic, as the original players die and are replaced by another generation, and then another. A dramatic heft settles upon the novel as Silverberg plays with the expectations of the alien-invasion sub-genre, gravely intoning that the little comforts of such stories are just there to make us feel better.

It’s not, however, a complete success: So all of its dour contrarian attitude, The Alien Years often resorts to its own share of clichés and dramatic shortcuts. Somehow, the impassive aliens manage to talk to humans Quislings without communicating with anyone else. Silverberg’s cyber-hackers and orphan assassins all seem awfully convenient. And, for all of his genre self-awareness, Silverberg wraps up his novel too conveniently, leaving little explanation and even less satisfaction besides the good old sub-genre template. In some ways, The Alien Years is a novel that runs out of convictions.

One the other hand, Silverberg may be too much of an old pro to go to the logical end of his intentions: If readers are bound to be annoyed by this novel as it exists right now; imagine how they would have felt had The Alien Years really tried to overturn alien-invasion novel clichés. It would have been a five-page short story with hundreds pages on which to note your frustrations.