Robert Silverberg: Overview

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Author: George Kelley
Editor: Jay P. Pederson
Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,232 words

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Robert Silverberg has won five Nebula Awards, four Hugo Awards, a Jupiter Award, and the Prix Apollo. As one of science fiction's most popular and durable writers, he has produced consistently professional work for five decades. Yet his writing style and themes have changed as he has matured and gained the skills of a master storyteller. In his revealing autobiographical essay, "Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal" (in Hell's Cartographers), Silverberg admits to producing over a million words per year of published material in his apprenticeship years 1955-59. Much of this was hackwork; stories like "Slaves of the Star Giants" and "Secret of the Green Invaders" and novels like The Planet Killers and Stepsons of Terra. Yet some of the stories were outstanding, including the dark "Road to Nightfall" and the clever "Translation Error," giving notice of the superb stories Silverberg was about to produce.

The late 1950s saw the decline and sudden contraction of the number of science fiction magazines coupled with the declining market for science fiction novels. Silverberg responded by shifting his main writing emphasis from SF to juvenile nonfiction, where he achieved critical acclaim for such excellent works as Treasures beneath the Sea, Empires in the Dust, and Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations. Much of the research for these books would find itself transformed in Silverberg's future science fiction. He also produced over a hundred soft-core pornopaperbacks, most under the Don Elliot/Eliot pseudonym. Yet Silverberg did not entirely abandon the SF field during the 1960s. Frederik Pohl, then editor of Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow, invited Silverberg to write whatever he wanted. Silverberg, intrigued by the open offer, submitted his now classic "To See the Invisible Man" (1962). The narrator is punished by a future society for his crime of "coldness" by being completely ignored by everyone in that society for one year, even though the society is benign. "To See the Invisible Man" shows a shunned man in turn shunning a society; this is a sophisticated story light-years from such earlier primitive action adventures as "Battle for the Thousand Stars."

The end of this transition period saw Silverberg begin to emerge as a powerful short-story writer. With "Flies," written for Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, Silverberg breaks new ground. An alien race restores a dead starship pilot named Cassiday and enhances his powers. Sent back to Earth as a kind of transmitter for the aliens, Cassiday commits hideous acts of violence, since he is incapable of emotion. The aliens, realizing their mistake, return Cassiday to their world and give him back his conscience, providing the means of self-torture. The story deals with major moral and religious themes, themes Silverberg will expand on in his major novels. Silverberg won his first Nebula award for "Passengers," a horror story of humans dominated by parasitic aliens called Passengers who ride their host humans and utterly control them. "Passengers" explores the question of free will versus determinism, a major theme of such later novels as The Stochastic Man and Shadrach in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420007413