Robert Silverberg: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight: 1980-82

It’s a little sobering to realize that Robert Silverberg in 1980 was roughly at mid-career. He had given up writing completely for the middle part of the 1970s, and only came back to short-story writing at the beginning of 1980, after being pestered by Ben Bova and Robert Sheckley to write something for the new science-fiction magazine, Omni. Finally bowing to the inevitable — and after having started on the novel Lord Valentine’s Castle in 1978 — he produced “Our Lady of the Sauropods,” the first selection in this volume.

“Our Lady” is one of the stories that deals, either specifically or somewhat more remotely, with religion, which seems to be something that Silverberg returned to again and again. “The Pope of the Chimps” is rather more on-point, treating the excesses of religious authority, while “The Homecoming,” which finished this volume, is somewhat more distanced.

Lord Valentine’s Castle seems to have had an effect on Silverberg’s prose. He continued to write Mahjipoor stories throughout this period, and I have to confess that they were never my favorite Silverberg: like the planet, they seem to be of great volume and low density. One is included here, “Thesme and the Gayrog,” which embodies all that I found wanting in them: it goes on and on, and to my mind, at least, there’s little point. Silverberg is much better at delineating character through dialogue and action than through introspection, and Thesme’s thoughts about her situation don’t really help us to understand her.

When Silverberg is on, however, he is really on, and there are some standouts here. “Gianni,” in which a team of scientists resurrect Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with the hope of more great music, is a lot of fun and just underlines the idea that when you’re dealing with a genius, it’s best not to have any expectations. “The Man Who Floated Through Time,” immediately preceding, is a tough little story about the price of playing it safe. “The Regulars” is a nice riff on the “No Exit” theme, although somewhat gentler than Sartre’s original.

My one real complaint about the volume is that Silverberg too often let himself go: there are a number of instances that left me feeling that there were more words than story, and while Silverberg can be a brilliant stylist — witness the short bit of madness that is “At the Conglomeroid Cocktail Party” — he has a tendency to let style take over when it probably shouldn’t. (No, not every artist is consistently brilliant — that would be too much to ask — but producing something like Thorns or Dying Inside or The Star of the Gypsies sets up some pretty high expectations.) I was struck, however, again and again, by the sheer inventiveness of the settings: in that regard, don’t expect anything predictable from Silverberg.

Given that this series of collected stories is under the control of Silverberg himself, it’s a must-have for fans. Add in his introductions to the stories, which detail the circumstances of the creation (a choice view of the artist at work) and give us some good glimpses of “the state of the art” — at least in science-fiction publishing — at the time, and you have not only a good if somewhat uneven story collection but a valuable history of the science-fiction world.

(Subterranean Press, 2010)

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