Falling Through Many Trapdoors: Robert Silverberg

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Author: Russell Letson
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,923 words

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If the superficialities of the New Wave-Old Wave debate concealed any substantial issues, I suspect that they had less to do with stylistic experimentation, scientific content (“hard” versus “soft”), or the depiction of sex than with what may be loosely called world view. The themes and forms of American magazine science fiction have remained constant over the past fifty years; despite the tradition of dystopian, satirical, and disaster formulas, sf has been rationalist, materialist, voluntarist, and optimistic. It has tended to ignore the decay of Western belief systems documented by modernist literature and philosophy since the end of the nineteenth century. This is not the place for a detailed argument on this topic, but I suggest that resistence to the New Wave was strongly tied to a rejection of the pessimism and philosophical uncertainty of that fiction, and that those qualities are reflections of similar ideas to be found in modern literature from Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Conrad through Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, and Beckett. What I will argue in some detail is that the fiction of Robert Silverberg has, since the early sixties, pursued the modernist themes of anxiety and alienation, that he has shaped science fiction materials to deal with themes that were not previously part of the American sf mainstream.

All of the surface themes of Silverberg's major fiction—immortality, new religions, archetypal renewal experiences, time travel, bodily transformations—conceal variations on the more powerful theme of anxiety, and the shape of his fiction is governed more by the exposition and resolution of anxiety than by the working out of science fictional processes. This is not to say that the science has suffered, or that his narratives are no longer sf, but that the conventional focus on the process as represented by the science fictional idea and its implication is subordinated, in most cases, to the spiritual situation of the characters. Even in Tower of Glass and The World Inside, the two books that Silverberg thinks of as “closer to pure science fiction, the exhaustive investigation of an extrapolative idea,” than any of his other work, the characters exhibit signs of distress that seem to be less environmental than existential. Elsewhere the weight of the fiction is borne by the psychic state of the characters, and the sf content exists not for itself alone, but as an element of a kind of fiction that extends the range of the genre and brings to the modernist tradition a new source of metaphors and formulas. In this, Silverberg is clearly part of the movement (in the sense of motion, not Movement) represented by Aldiss, Ballard, Delany, Dick, Ellison, Malzberg, Moorcock—and, I believe, by less expected figures such as Heinlein and Farmer.

The catalogue of writers just cited indicates some of what I mean when I speak of an interpenetration of modernist and sf traditions. In the work of these writers there is a retreat from the easy optimism and philosophical certainty of conventional sf and an acceptance of the intellectual and emotional disorder...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420007410