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The Song Of Orpheus by Robert Silverberg

01/11/2010. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy The Song Of Orpheus in the USA - or Buy The Song Of Orpheus in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 130 page deluxe hardback. Price: $ 25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-310-5.

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Orpheus was a Greek chap or maybe a demi-god who bought music to the world. His music is so super that the gods love him and the very rocks and trees get up and dance to his jigs or cry to his sad ballads. Like Gilbert and Sullivan's wandering minstrel, his catalogue is long, through every passion ranging. His mother was a Muse, one of the Muses who inspires the arts, and his father was either a king or Apollo, depending on who you believe. Orpheus, our narrator for this volume, is not sure himself. He confirms nothing. He denies nothing. That's his catchphrase. Orpheus tells his story in a vague kind of way with much waffle about life being endless and lived over and over again, the tail-devouring serpent and all that. He has lived it many times and the past and the future are all one to him, as with the gods. Orpheus rescues his lovely wife, Euridice, from the underworld over and over again and every time he turns back to look for her, breaking his bargain with Hades and loses her for good. Why does he turn back every time he relives life even though he knows what will happen? He can't help turning back. It is fate.

Fate, inevitability and the pre-ordained track is an old theme of Silverberg's. It came up a lot in ‘The Stochastic Man’ (1975) and again in ‘Star Of Gypsies’ (1986). Some scientists believe that time and space are one and that our sense of moving through time is simply due to our limited perception. The future is over there in the same way as that mountain in the fourth dimension, but just as fixed as that mountain. Fate. The notion is oddly comforting if you think about it.

I, for example, am fated to give 'The Last Song Of Orpheus' a non-rave review so I don't have to feel guilty about it. Any guilt I might feel is eased by the fact that I normally praise Silverberg, shout his merits from the rooftops and gladly tell everyone about the many excellent books he has written. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. Silverberg is an artist in the best sense of the word and willing to experiment and go out on a limb. Here he went for first person, stream of consciousness narration re-telling an ancient myth. He did it well but I prefer his Science Fiction.

Orpheus has an interesting life though. Apart from his famous journey into the underworld, he also visits Egypt and sails with Jason and the Argonauts. He doesn't want to go with Jason but Zeus sends Cheiron, the wise centaur king, who tells him he must. Jason must succeed and he will fail without Orpheus. It is fate again. Orpheus says the ways of the gods are a mystery but we know that Jason had to succeed to prepare the way for Ray Harryhaussen. You can read the plot on Wikkipedia if you like or you can buy the book. Silverberg's prose is clever and fluent, almost biblical in style and with lots of telling and little showing and many and’s, for Bob is writing in a fashion suitable to the heroic subject matter and he is an artist and does it well. It does go on a bit for my taste but my taste is not everyone's, so if re-tellings of old myths are your thing you might like it.

The other noticeable and slightly annoying thing about this 30,000 word novella is that it doesn't need its 130 pages. There are blank pages between chapters to make it thicker and on the first page of every chapter a big blank space and not much text. The lines are quite far apart so there are 30 to the page instead of the more usual 44. This makes it easy to read but also gives the impression of thin material s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d for publication. Subterranean Press does have illustrations in their editions and a note on the inside cover says 'illustrations by ?????’ this shortcoming will probably be put right in the final edition as I’ve only seen the text.

Eamonn Murphy

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