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The Palace At Midnight by Robert Silverberg

01/10/2010. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy The Palace At Midnight 1980-82 Volume 5 in the USA - or Buy The Palace At Midnight 1980-82 Volume 5 in the UK

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The Palace At Midnight 1980-82 Volume 5 by Robert Silverberg. pub: Subterranean Press. 478 page deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-321-1.

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'The Palace At Midnight 1980-82' opens with an introduction by Robert Silverberg explaining that he gave up writing short stories in 1973 because it was too much hard work for too little money. He was lured back into it by peer pressure and the better word rates paid by ‘Omni’ and so we have the twenty-three tales collected here. Lucky us. They didn't all appear in ‘Omni’ but they lured him back to his old bad habits. So, to the stories, picking the highlights. There are quite a few.

'Our Lady Of The Sauropods' features real live dinosaurs grown in reptilian host ova with DNA recaptured from fossils. Mankind lives in satellite habitats circling the Earth. Our heroine is stranded naked aboard Dino Island, a habitat five hundred meters in diameter, where mighty predators roam. She suspects her ship was sabotaged by a rival scientist who wants to bring tourists to the island and make money. A surprising discovery enables her to survive but I won't give it away. Clearly, this was a good idea but Silverberg should have put Dino Island on 20th century Earth and made it a theme park then imperilled an Indiana Jones-style palaeontologist there with a cute kid. That would have made a great story and Hollywood might have picked it up. This story was written in January 1980, ten years before Michael Crichton's 'Jurassic Park'. I don't mean to allege or even faintly hint that Crichton plagiarised Silverberg, ideas abound in Science Fiction and it’s the treatment that differs. I think dear old Robert is just too cerebral to write really popular fiction.

Next up is 'Waiting For The Earthquake'. On the planet Medea, Morrison waits for the earthquake, a world-shaking event that happens once every 7,160 years when the stars around it line up in a certain way. Humans settled the planet long ago but have now all fled, leaving the natives to cope. Morrison stayed to watch. The background is similar to Asimov's classic 'Nightfall' in so far as it’s a recurring cosmological clockwork event that regularly destroys a civilisation. It is an interesting story.

‘The Far Side Of The Bell-Shaped Curve' is a clever little time travel story. Ilsabet and Reichenbach are time travelling tourists who meet up in Sarajevo, 1914, to watch the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand then hop around together when they fall in love, taking in Shakespeare's London and Nero's Rome. Time tourists are free to visit anywhere before 2187. Ilsabet meets another tourist and starts to spend more time with him and the jealous Reichenbach plots murder. The conclusion is a clever twist. With the assorted 'Back To The Future' films and even ‘Doctor Who’ getting out of trouble 'By His Bootstraps' (Robert A. Heinlein, 1941) you need to be smart to make this sort of thing surprising. Silverberg is smart. Reviewing ‘Doctor Who’ is not my job but, as an aside, I think the last series ending was a bit of a cheat. He went back and saved himself because he went back and saved himself. Illogical. It might fool the kiddies but it don't fool me.

'A Thousand Paces Along The Via Dolorosa ', written in October 1980, is about an ancient sect of Christian Palestinians who take magic mushrooms to experience God. I was pretty sure I had come across mushroom religion before in the work of Philip K. Dick and indeed I had. But 'The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer' was published in 1982, so Silverberg got there first again. This story is emotionally involving but I thought the ending was a bit weak.

'The Palace At Midnight' is set in a future when the USA is divided into many independent states, often ludicrously small. Tom Christenson is Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Empire of San Francisco and has an emergency meeting with an ambassador from Monterey. The background is more interesting than the understated plot and the revelation about the Emperor reminded me of ‘Conan The Barbarian #26’ by Roy Thomas, May 1973. I doubt if Silverberg has read it, to be fair. The world created here could easily be used for many novels.

'The Pope Of The Chimps' is a story about smart monkeys written in June 1981 and I cannot claim that it preceded 'Planet Of The Apes', not even the film. It certainly postdates 'Jerry Was A Man' by Robert A. Heinlein (1947). Silverberg explores what happens when smart chimps learn that humans die, a fact which has hitherto been kept from them. If anyone left the research area never to return, the chimps were told he had gone away. The experiment is being conducted partly to examine how humans made the leap to abstract thought which separated them from animals. The chimps have been taught sign language and bred over generations for intelligence. The story, not least the title, makes uncomfortable reading for an old altar boy raised in the One True Faith but that's Science Fiction. Incidentally, 'Jerry Was A Man' is one of Heinlein's best stories. Look it up.

‘Not Our Brother’ is about a man who goes to a remote Mexican village to observe the festivities on the day of the dead. It is not dissimilar to ‘How They Pass The Time In Pelpel’ about a man who goes to a remote Chilean village and witnesses a strange ceremony and ‘A Thousand Paces Along The Via Dolorosa’ about a man who goes to Jerusalem to take part in strange native rituals. Silverberg admits there are similarities but thinks the stories are sufficiently different, too. He is right.

‘Thesme And The Ghayrog’ is set on the world of Majipoor where Bob’s big novel ‘Lord Valentine’s Castle’ happens, but in an earlier age. Thesme is a sort of rebellious twenty-something doing things she thinks will outrage her community. She goes off, like Henry Thoreau, and lives in a little hut and takes care of herself but is close enough to the village to go home and get her laundry done. The story is told from her point of view and she is always surprised when nobody is outraged by her behaviour. I found it quite funny in a subtle way and the Ghayrog was a splendid alien.

‘Snake And Ocean, Ocean And Snake’ is about a telepath who, after years of fruitless searching, finally makes contact with a female telepath who is sane. He has contacted other minds but most of them had gone crazy with their gift. He is married to a nice ordinary girl but has a kind of telepathic affair at a distance with the other one, who lives in a different city. They can make telepathic love by conjuring powerful mental images, she is an ocean, he is a snake. It’s a Science Fiction love story and a good one.

The book concludes with ‘The Homecoming’, a long story about a research project more or less here and now which projects a man’s consciousness into the future to inhabit that of a future being. It works but he is projected millions of years into the future when the human race is extinct and the land has all but disappeared. He shares a body with a sentient, lobster creature and goes on a pilgrimage with it. This sounds a bit daft but is actually brilliant. Silverberg’s alien is one of the best realised aliens since the creatures Asimov won a Nebula with in ‘The God’s Themselves’. Silverberg nearly won a Nebula with these and probably should have.

These are quiet, serene, cerebral stories by a master of the genre, flawlessly written and well worth a look. Highly recommended. However, don't buy it if you like excitement. Bob Silverberg is not that kind of writer. The stories are considered, thoughtful, intelligent, restrained and literate but they are not exciting.

Eamonn Murphy

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