June 25, 2008
Back From the Future: Robert Silverberg Has Guided Sci-Fi Readers for 55 Years
Science fiction writer Robert Silverberg was on the phone from his spacious home in the hills above Oakland, outlining his daily routine.
"I'm up at 5:30 or 6, but not willingly," he said. "By 8:30 I'm in my home office. I take a swim in the afternoon and I garden. We have about an acre of land."
Silverberg's standing is certainly familiar to Kim Stanley Robinson, the award-winning sci-fi author (the "Mars" and "Science in the Capital" series) and a historian of the genre. "Silverberg was a transitional figure who straddled two worlds _ the straightforward storytelling coming out of the pulp magazines of the 1950s and the new wave of writers slightly younger than him who revolutionized science fiction in the 1960s," Robinson said.
The news here is that Silverberg's publisher, Subterranean Press, released in May "Something Wild Is Loose: 1969-72" ($35, 408 pages), the third of an anticipated nine volumes of his short fiction.
"I've been writing for 55 years," he said in a voice so cultured it could be the template for an elocution class. "(This series) will make it possible for me to say to readers, 'This is how science fiction has changed; it's how I changed.'"
Wait a minute. ... Nine volumes of short stories? That reminds us that Silverberg is likely one of the most prolific writers to ever tell a tale. His bibliography is daunting: nearly 300 novels and 600 works of short fiction, along with 100 nonfiction books. He has edited 100 anthologies and published in 100 magazines.
Then there are the hundreds of reviews and editorials, introductions and afterwords. And that list is assuredly incomplete. In one four-year stretch during the start of his career, he wrote 1 million words a year. So as not to overdose the reading public with his name, his editors suggested that he adopt pseudonyms. He ended up with more than 50 of them. "When people ask, 'How did you write that much?' I say, 'I did it one word at a time.'"
Silverberg has won every major sci-fi award. In 2004 he was named a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the ultimate accolade.
Just how did all this come about? The Brooklyn-born Silverberg began writing sci-fi stories as a child. Later, he was working toward a bachelor's degree in literature at Columbia University when he published his first novel in 1955. The next year, he was awarded his first Hugo for "most promising new science fiction author."
Dramatic stuff for a student, and it got even better.
"I was still in college when (sci-fi writer) Randall Garrett (the 'Lord Darcy' series) moved in to the apartment next door," he said. "Garrett said to me, 'I'm a professional writer with a lot of experience. I think we could work together. You are very disciplined, I am not.'
"It worked out beautifully for two or three years," Silverberg said. "When he would fall asleep at his typewriter because he'd been up all night drinking, I would pick up the manuscript and continue writing.
"Eventually I got married," Silverberg mused, "and my wife said, 'That man is not going to enter this house.'"
The years in which sci-fi was being shaped were exhilarating, Silverberg recalled. "There I was, this hyperactive young writer in the midst of all the great science fiction writers, who accepted me as a colleague," he recalled with some pride. "I can list on one hand the famous science fiction writers I never met."
There's a story about Silverberg that has floated around for decades, about why he quit science fiction twice in his career and then returned to it.
"Essentially, it left me in 1959," he explained. "Most of the magazines I wrote for began collapsing, and the surviving ones were timid. So I found something else to do that was more rewarding to me artistically."
That turned out to be a body of well-researched nonfiction books (mostly published under pseudonyms) that leaned toward science and history _ titles such as "The World of the Rain Forests" and "Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations."
"A lot of them related thematically to science fiction," he said. "To me, they were all aspects of the same mode."
In the mid-1960s, sci-fi writer, editor and longtime friend Frederik Pohl gave Silverberg a chance to re-enter the genre by extending a carte-blanche invitation to write for the three magazines Pohl was editing.
"Who could refuse that? I discovered there was something I wanted to do, and I did it" through the 1960s and 1970s, he said. "That's when he came into his own," Robinson noted. "When he saw that science fiction could be written in the styles of the great literary modernists, it struck sparks in him. He became one of the new wave. He's so prolific that he popped off a half-dozen classics in rapid order _ 'The Book of Skulls,' 'Dying Inside,' 'Nightwing.' Those are among the books that marked that era as being the high point in American science fiction. Silverberg was a big part of it." Obviously, Silverberg was at a new peak.
"The second time I gave up science fiction was because I burned myself out," he said. "I was writing books in a matter of weeks. I now see it was an impossible thing to have done, but I did it anyway."
Plus, by the mid-'70s, the author saw a profound transformation in readership when Hollywood flooded the market with novelizations of sci-fi TV series and movies. "So the combination of being burned out and of seeing my work swamped by all the media-related fiction led me to shrug and say, 'I've done very well financially, I'll give up writing.' But 40 is too young to do that.
Eventually, I didn't feel so tired anymore and I wrote 'Lord Valentine's Castle.'" Silverberg said that almost as a throwaway line, but the publication in 1980 of that landmark fantasy-adventure novel was the foundation of his long-running "Majipoor Cycle" series, one of the genre's most widely read epics. "I'm very proud of it," he allowed.
Another point of pride is his collaboration with Isaac Asimov, the biochemistry professor who also happened to write science fiction. The 2004 movie "I, Robot," starring Will Smith, was "suggested" by Asimov's robot-centric short stories and novels. Silverberg and Asimov collaborated on their own robot story _ "The Positronic Man" (1993), made into a 1999 movie called "The Bicentennial Man," starring Robin Williams.
"We had an easy collaboration, but the eerie part came with 'Positronic Man,'" Silverberg said. "Isaac was very sick and knew he was dying. The whole point of 'Positronic Man' is that the robot _ to prove he's really human _ allows himself to die. So there I was, writing a book about the splendor of dying for my collaborator, who was himself dying. A very strange experience."
What about another Silverberg book?
Surely he has something up his sleeve. "By the standards of my youth, I'm hardly writing at all," he said. "I did write several short stories last winter, but I have no plans for another novel. I don't know that I want to lock up whatever my remaining life span is to write a book."
Surely Silverberg has reflected on his remarkable career: "I do look back in some astonishment and think, 'My God, did I write all of that?' When I was 14, I thought, 'How wonderful to be a science fiction writer. I'd like to do that.' I have never lost touch with that ambitious 14-year-old, and I can't help chuckling and thinking, 'You did it and you did it right.'"
Not to be macabre, but one last thing: Has he given any thought to a fitting epitaph?
"A few years ago, I actually did come up with a mocking sort of epitaph for myself," he said. "It's this: 'Here lies Robert Silverberg. He spent most of his life in the future. Now he's in the past.'"
(c) 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
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