The I’s Have It
Sci-fi genius Robert Silverberg keeps cranking out books.
Robert Silverberg is what’s known as a Grand Master.
The Oakland writer was so designated in 2005 by the Science Fiction Writers of America, in recognition of a career that produced scores of novels and “close to” 1,000 short stories.
Now retired at age 82, Silverberg is done with writing fiction, but fiction isn’t done with him. In October, Three Rooms Press published First-Person Singularity, a collection of some of his best short work. Each story is narrated in the first person, whether singular or plural.
“The special aspect of this book is that each narrator is an unexpected one,” Silverberg said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s not just Joe Spaceman telling his story—it’s a dolphin; it’s a computer; it’s an alien in disguise.”
The book contains 18 of the author’s most accomplished short stories and tackles a far-flung range of subjects, settings, and styles. “The Secret Sharer” re-imagines Joseph Conrad’s novella of the same name as the chronicle of a space captain’s relationship with a bodiless intelligence. “Passengers” imagines a future where aliens telepathically hijack unsuspecting humans, “riding” their bodies and making them forget whatever unconscious acts they have committed. The timid author of “The Europeans” is a witness to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds in “The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James.”
Silverberg made his first short story sale in 1953, and his arrival on the scene was meteoric; his output almost superhuman. According to the “quasi-official” website Majipoor.com, between 1957 and 1959, Silverberg published, under his own name and various pseudonyms, more than 220 short works and 11 novels. By 1960, he was ready for a kind of sabbatical and turned to writing nonfiction, often about archaeology and anthropology.
Around 1967, Silverberg began the series of ambitious, often dark and despairing, science fiction novels for which he is best remembered—Dying Inside, Hawksbill Station, and The Book of Skulls, among a dozen others. After another break, he came back in 1978 with renewed creative energy to create Lord Valentine’s Castle, first in an endearing and enduring series of best-sellers set on the planet Majipoor.
Another one of his stories is reprinted in The Obama Inheritance, a collection of noir tales riffing on conspiracy theories surrounding the 44th president—from fake birth certificates to Supreme Court clones to a race of lizard men living underground.
“At the Conglomeroid Cocktail Party” takes place “when genetic meddling has transformed human beings into widely variegated creatures that would be hard to recognize as human,” Silverberg said. “What it has to do with Obama or politics is beyond my ability to guess.”
According to Gary Phillips, the collection’s editor, the story is “about gender- and species-bending, and the acceptance of such,” perhaps an antidote to the current “reactionary zeitgeist.”
Some of the stories in The Obama Inheritance tap into the current popularity of dystopian fiction. Silverberg, who has created more than his share of disturbing futures, understands their appeal.
“Look at the world around you,” Silverberg said. “We’re living in a dystopia. Except right here in the lovely East Bay.”