01/07/2012. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy
pub: Subterranean Press. 426 page deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-402-7.
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com
When you finish a book and you are sad because there is no more, it was a good book. I finished 'Multiples: The Collected Stories Of Robert Silverberg Volume Six' and I was very sad. There are fourteen stories, mostly published in high pay magazines like 'Playboy' and 'Omni'. It can be presumed that they are of high quality or at least slick quality. By this stage of his career, Silverberg had been writing for thirty years so he had plenty of practice.
The stories range over time and space, so I will group them by setting rather than sticking to their chronology in the book. A few are set on an Earth, not so different from our own in many ways.
First up is 'Tourist Trade'. There is probably more wordage on the writing of 'Tourist Trade' than the story itself contains. Apparently, it took multiple drafts before being submitted to 'Playboy' and then a few more at the request of the editor. It's set in Morocco at a time when the Galactic Embargo has been lifted and the aliens are all coming to Earth as tourists. They are interested in our art and have vast wealth to buy it. Selling art has been made illegal because governments want to hang on to their heritage. Dealers have no such scruples. Focused on sex and money, this is ideal stuff for the 'Playboy' reader. As you might expect, Silverberg does good aliens but his protagonist is not loveable.
'Multiples' is about the dating scene for people with multiple personalities. They have their own nightclubs where they go to meet. Having multiple personalities is difficult. One personality might like to get plastered at night but another gets the hangover the next day. They switch quite often. Cleo wants to get into this scene and does so. As with so many Silverberg stories of this era, it is basically about well-off urban professional people dating and having casual sex, albeit in a science fictional context. Silverberg admits in the introduction that his own crazy sixties ran from 1968 to 1974 and were pretty chaotic.
The next story also takes place in a more or less contemporary Earthbound setting. 'Against Babylon' is a moving tale of love amidst raging California forest fires with an SF twist I won't give away as it is a surprise early in the story. The Babylon of the title is sinful Los Angeles.
Also set on the third rock from the sun, 'Hannibal's Elephants' is a comedy in which gigantic aliens land in central park, New York. Washington washes its hands of the whole thing and advises it is a purely municipal matter, which might happen in real life. Our hero is not very heroic but there are a few laughs along the way.
Still Earthbound but set in the near future, 'Hardware' is a shorter short about a wedge-shaped computer that exploring man has scooped up from the asteroid belt. Reactivated by laboratory lights, it begins to communicate with other computers around the world. This is a worrying development for the soft, fleshy types in the story.
'The Pardoner's Tale' is classified as cyberpunk because the protagonist is a hacker but the setting is by Silverberg. Aliens rule the Earth with contemptuous ease and humans are put to work as they see fit. Sometimes, they are used for experiments. A bleak future but as usual the author finds some hope in life.
Next, the far flung future. 'Sailing To Byzantium' won the Nebula Award and missed out on the Hugo by four votes so it's obviously pretty damn good. Crusty old Don Wollheim, who did not ooze flattery, said it might even be a classic. A twentieth century man, Charles Phillips, lives the life of Reilly, permanently touring with his hosts from city to city. Timbuktu, New Chicago, Mohenjo-Daro, Alexandria - any city from human history can be recreated in this future paradise. The Earth has only a few million real people left but there are millions of humanoid androids that play the part of slaves and citizens in the recreated cities. Phillips can't remember much about his past life but assumes that he was snatched from time, another novelty in an age of permanent playtime. As the story develops, he learns more.
So on to space, the final frontier. 'Sunrise On Pluto' came about because the learned Silverberg wrote a factual article on the planet, before it was downgraded and was asked later to do a fictional piece to go with it. 'Sunrise On Mercury' being one of his best loved stories he came up with this. Man gets to Pluto and finds... ! I won't spoiler it. A bit later, perhaps, on an independent satellite colony orbiting the Earth lives Juanito, who works as a courier for new arrivals. They need a courier for their first couple of weeks in this nearly lawless place that is a refuge for all kinds of criminals. Juanito's latest client is a man with no eyes who gets around with different perceptions. 'Blindsight' is a nice twist on the fleeing fugitive tale set in a well realised setting.
'Symbiont' also takes place on a space station but in a much later age. In his introduction, Silverberg states that 'Symbiont' was consciously written as something fit for the old 'Planet Stories', which basically featured adventure yarns and space opera. He undersells it thereby as it's better than pulp. In the second Ovoid War, a man fails to kill his buddy when an alien parasite gets him. Ten years later, they meet on a space station and guilt ensues.
No guilt in 'The Iron Star', though. One of the trickiest jobs in Science Fiction is to invent an alien that thinks differently to us. Asimov pulled it off in 'The Gods Themselves' and a few other writers have done it, too. In this story, a loyal corporation man investigating a neutron star finds humanity's first contact with aliens more of a pain in the neck than a wondrous occasion. He just wants to get his job done and go home.
Another neat tale and the final space story takes us to a really distant future. Silverberg is an open and ardent admirer of Joseph Conrad and wrote 'The Secret Sharer' as a kind of homage. The title is the same as that of a short story by the old Pole but the setting is utterly different. Conrad used the ocean as a metaphor for the vast, uncaring universe but Silverberg has the vast, uncaring universe itself to play with. Humans still have feelings though and even disembodied personalities get in all sorts of trouble.
Time travel is old hat for a vintage writer like this but he can still produce something original. In 'House Of Bones', a modern man is sent back in time thousands of years to an age when Homo sapiens live in houses built of mammoth bone. He is adopted by a tribe and lives with them. Neanderthals are nearly all gone but when one is seen nearby, our hero is sent to kill him, perhaps.
Finally, there are shared worlds. 'Gilgamesh In The Outback' was written for a shared world anthology called 'Hell' and in it everyone who ever lived is reborn. Silverberg admits this is somewhat similar to Philip Josť Farmer. Somewhat similar! Apart from a few monsters, it's the same. However, this is not the author's fault and he delivers a wonderful story of Gilgamesh in which the world's first legendary hero joins up with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft on a diplomatic mission to a remote kingdom. If you know anything about Howard and Lovecraft, this will be a joy. Several other historical characters put in an appearance too. Farmer's fantastic 'Riverworld' concept is surely good for a thousand novels and Hell serves the same function. This won the Hugo for Best Novella in 1987.
Not unusual for this man. Many of the stories herein were much praised and included in 'Best Of-' anthologies for the year they appeared, deservedly so. I think Silverberg is probably the greatest SF writer ever, perhaps slightly too sophisticated to achieve the popular appeal of some others. This is a brilliant collection from a gifted writer and deserves a place on the bookshelf or the electronic reading device. The only downside is the sadness you may feel when it's all used up but that can't be helped.
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