Monday, 4 August 2008

Thorns, Robert Silverberg

ThornsNew bands, stuck on a promotional treadmill after the release of their first album, often look back to the way the Beatles would release a couple of albums a year in the 1960s. (I admire the Arctic Monkeys for getting their second album out so quickly, where other bands have been prevented from doing so.) How much more stunning is it to look at the examples of these science fiction writers of the same period, who would often release four or five books a year, a remarkable achievement, even allowing for some of them being reprints of earlier magazine work? In 1967 (according to Science Fiction: the Illustrated Encyclopedia), as well as Thorns (my copy is a later reprint), Silverberg put out The Gate of Worlds, Those Who Watch, To Open the Sky, The Time-Hoppers and Planet of Death. I don’t know if current-day authors, working away at huge trilogies (and receiving much better payment than their predecessors did, to be fair to their masters), chafe at the bit as much as bands do, but it’s interesting to think of what might have resulted from some of them writing twelve different short novels, instead of just the one trilogy. One thing’s for sure, lazy readers like me would have read more of their work.

So, another review of an old book from me – this might be the way of the immediate future, since I’ve vowed to buy no new books as long as I own more than 1,000 unread books! (I have about 160 to go.)

As with Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, I found Robert Silverberg’s books a bit of a struggle as a teenager. I’m not disappointed about that, because if I’d read virtually all their books by the time I was 25, as happened with Asimov, Heinlein, Moorcook, Jack Vance and so on, I would have nothing left to read now: I might even have to read new books! What made the books difficult back then was mainly their seriousness: Moorcock is as experimental as Silverberg, Aldiss or Ballard, often more so, but there are always gags in there. The closest Silverberg’s 1960s and 1970s novels (or at least the ones I’ve read so far) come to being funny is when they evoke a wry half-smile at the awfulness of having to be a human and live among other humans – as symbolised in this book by a surgically-altered human living among us. This book is grim, serious, and reminds you of the worst things about yourself – and, yet, in spite of that, it has a sweet, romantic centre. It hardly needs to be said that, as a book by Robert Silverberg from 1967, at a time when, as far as I can see, you could make a serious argument that he was one of the best novelists working in the English language, this is a brilliant book, but I will say it anyway.

Thorns, Robert Silverberg, NEL, pb, 160pp (1977).

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