Robert Silverberg

I need to pay more attention

How did I miss the beginning of this?

By a roundabout route I won’t go into and bore you with, I found an amazing thread going on at Black Gate magazine, initiated by Robert Sawyer on his own blog, posing the question, “Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?”. If you’ve not read any Sawyer, I suggest his “Calculating God.” It was the first book of his I read, and I loved it. Sawyer also gave us “Flash Forward” which was made into a tv series that only marginally resembled the book. I liked “CG” better, though.

Anyway, back to Black Gate. Robert Silverberg (yes, him) has posted his own blog response about the subject raised by Mr. Sawyer. Then, Jerry Pournelle joined the convo.

The whole thing is a who’s who of the sci-fi world, from the 1950s onwards. Wow. If you’re interested in meditations on the future of sci-fi, and the future for writers, head on over. Makes me feel a little better, actually, knowing that now-famous writers struggled with day jobs as carpenters, professors, and various other jobs, and the advice has ever been “don’t quit your day job!” Maybe it’s that misery loves company, but it somehow feels less like I’m doing anything wrong, and just need to keep plugging away.

Time Travel, Compliments of Robert Silverberg

hippiesSo to turn this back to writing, I wanted to share a short passage from a book I’m currently reading. I finally got around to starting The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg, which I bought awhile back. Although it’s classified as science fiction, it seems like it would fit better in the horror category. Apparently there was some dissension in the ranks when it was first published in 1972, when it was nominated for a Nebula award, and then in 1973 when it was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards.

Be that as it may, I wanted to share a short passage from the book that really grabbed me. To set the scene a little, the characters are four college roommates: Eli, Ned, Oliver, and Timothy. They’ve set off on what for most of them is a lark, a spring vacation road trip to the Arizona desert, in search of a mythical group that they hope will grant eternal life to two of them. Only two. After a whirlwind tour of Chicago en route, a strange depression seems to overcome them all, except Eli, who tries to rekindle his friends’ interest in continuing their journey.

“God’s been so polluted by the evangelists and the archaeologists and the theologists and the fake-devout that it’s no wonder He’s dead. Suicide. But where does that leave us? Are we all going to be scientists and explain everything in terms of neutrons and protons and DNA? Where’s mystery? Where’s depth? We have to do it all ourselves,” Eli said. “There’s a lack of mystery in modern life. All right, then, it becomes the intelligent man’s task to create an atmosphere in which surrender to the implausible is possible. A closed mind is a dead mind.” He was warming up, now. Fervor taking hold of him. The Billy Graham of the Stoned Age. “For the last eight, ten years, we’ve all been trying to stumble toward some kind of workable synthesis, some structural correlative that’ll hold the world together for us in the middle of all the chaos. The pot, the acid, the communes, the rock, the whole transcendentalist thing, the astrology, the macrobiotics, the Zen — we’re searching, right, we’re always searching? And sometimes finding. Not often. We look in a lot of dumb places, because  basically we’re mostly dumb, even the best of us, and also because we can’t know the answers until we’ve worked out more of the questions. So we chase flying saucers. We put on Scuba suits and look for Atlantis. We’re into mythology, fantasy, paranoia, Middle Earth, freakiness, a thousand kinds of irrationality. Whatever they’ve rejected, we buy, often for no better reason than that they turned it down. The flight from reason.”

1972. Hippies and flower-children still roamed the streets, although already endangered. The search for meaning was on in a big way. Fringe science was given serious treatment by the media. “In Search Of…,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy, was only three years away, exploring all the things Eli just talked about and more: Atlantis, flying saucers, Big Foot, the Loch Ness monster. People wanted to believe. Something. The counterculture revolution left a lot of people looking for more from life than the house with the picket fence and a comfortable suburban existence. Have we forgotten that? We seem content now to measure our lives with our 401k, our IRAs, the three-car garages. Pity. I have to say, I miss the atmosphere and attitude of the 1960s and early 70s. Ok, the ’70s went downhill fast, which lead to the horror of the ’80s greed and the Big Hair bands, but still. I’m only sorry the ’60s didn’t leave us with a more lasting legacy. Anybody feeling nostalgic besides me? Ah, the power of the written word.

You can tell I’m tripping on this book. Four guys on a road trip would not normally be the kind of thing I’d want to read, with the notable exception of the ultimate road trip book, On the Road, but Silverberg’s writing stuns me. This is good stuff.

I Boldly Went

Where everyone was going today: Back to the stores. I have never in my life ventured out on the day after Christmas, but I felt a burning urge to get out of the house today. The weather, while not idyllic, was not bad. It was a bit blustery and chilly, but sunny and dry. Good enough, I’ll take it. So where did I have to go so badly that I dared risk life and limb among the post-holiday shoppers? The bookstore. More specifically, my home away from home, Powells. I was on a quasi-mission, hoping to locate a copy of a Tarot deck that has recently become scarce, due to some sort of copyright war. Anyway, there were none to be had at Powells, but there were certainly more than enough books.

I treated myself to a book that Harlan Ellison has stated is “One of my favorite nightmare novels.” It says so, right on the front cover of The Book of Skulls, by Robert Silverberg. The edition I picked up is the 2006 edition (it was originally published in 1972 and won a Nebula Award), and the cover says “Soon to be a major motion picture” although I can’t find anything about it online. There is no information at the mother of all movie sites, IMDB.com. Probably just as well, Hollywood would doubtless turn it into a splatter-flick, gore-fest. It tells the stories of four friends who discover a book, the titular Book of Skulls that leads them to a secret sect in the Arizona desert who, for a horrific price, will grant immortality to two of them. There’s been some criticism of the book’s classification as sci-fi (it was nominated for a Nebula in 1972, and both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1973), but sci-fi and fantasy/horror have long been lumped into one category. People still debate about the genre Frankenstein belongs to. Is it horror? The first sci-fi?

I also picked up Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space . This one is a hard sci-fi novel, originally published in 2000. Reynolds has a PhD in astronomy, and worked at the European Space Agency which informs his work. The story concerns a scientist who is on the verge of uncovering the reason for the annihilation of an advanced civilization 900,000 years ago. Sounds like someone doesn’t want him to find out what happened to them.

I finally picked up John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War after reading about it now for ages online and how Scalzi used the internet to create a fanbase, which aided him in getting published. The premise is a decades long war in space for the few habitable planets out there. In this universe retirees, senior citizens, are recruited to serve two years in the military, allowing the green troops to benefit from their wisdom and experience. In exchange for two years service in combat, provided you survive, you get your own little homestead on one of these planets.

And last but not least, I also took home Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which, while it’s not classified as sci-fi (it was in the Mystery section), I think it could easily fall under sci-fi, as an alternate universe story. From the back cover:

Welcome to Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.

I picked this one because I’ve never read any Jasper Fforde, but he contributed a Pep Talk to NaNoWriMo this year that I really enjoyed and thought I’d like his writing. It sounds almost Pratchett-esque, although I don’t really like comparing authors to each other all the time. Fforde even has introductory notes and material at his Web site.

Now I just have to decide which one to read first…