Robert Silverberg’s science fiction, now reissued, didn’t get everything right. But he was on point about how we might react to alien encounters.
Little in life ages as poorly as science fiction. Representing contemporary mores can damn anyone’s posterity, but projecting them onto the canvas of the wrong future makes a writer ridiculous. So, even when it’s from a beloved writer like Robert Silverberg who is part of the fabric of American science fiction, a re-release of four stories from the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s in an expensive hardbound book seems inauspicious.
And, indeed, there is much wrong with Silverberg’s futures. He missed, as most writers did, the rapid advancement of connectivity while inequality festered and glaring social needs went unaddressed. The idea that, 50 years on from Those Who Watch (1967), more than half the world (and 80% of Americans) would have a mobile phone from which they could call any other from almost anywhere, was unthinkable. But the 1985 novella Tom O’Bedlam, re-edited and included in full here, captures the ugly tribalism of a population on the brink of disaster, even without our so-called “social” media and the misinformation they encourage.
So, even among the wrong guesses and reproduced biases (not least way too many white men objectifying female curves), there is a lot to admire. Collected as Among Strangers the four stories are all about humanity’s contact with aliens. The topic of human interactions with the “other” is infinitely fruitful.
“Those Who Watch” is about a disillusioned government alien watcher who doesn’t believe aliens exist until three accidentally fall to Earth and he falls in love with one. The Man in the Maze (1968) is a retelling of the Greek story of Philoctetes, transported from the island of Lemnos to the planet of Lemnos. Tom O’Bedlam is set within an incipient apocalypse where a dreamer and borderline insane wanderer sees visions that turn out to be of an alien world. And The Way to Spook City (1992) has an autonomous alien state in the U.S. southwest, complete with morphing alien life-forms, alien livestock, language and culture.
Those Who Watch is a fascinating period piece, with tin can aliens and a Cold War mindset. The varied perspective of those in New Mexico who find the fallen aliens does most to redeem the story — the aforementioned Colonel Tom Falkner, Kathryn Mason a young widowed mother named Kathryn Mason and, most intriguingly, Charley “a skinny boy full of dreams and white man’s ideas” who comes from a Pueblo Indian village, preserved for and by tourist dollars. How each character greets the aliens sets the scene for the whole collection.
Nearly 40 years on, Tom O’Bedlam remains a disturbing and difficult piece to pigeonhole. Sometimes called a “classic” and one of Silverberg’s own favorites, it deserves a whole long essay itself. Though less of a page-turner than much of his oeuvre, Tom O’Bedlam’s uneasy balance of hope and despair, wisdom and insanity, played across a radioactive California remains compelling. Another of Silverberg’s favorites – and one which has also stood the test of time is The Man in the Maze. Set far from Earth and based loosely on a Sophocles play, the emphasis is squarely on the profound impact of alien contact on one man.
Most glaringly, and perhaps most understandably, the pulp sexism of the earlier work would make them unpublishable now. Though anachronistic, the texts do not ignore the problem of the woman as “other.” Written 25 years later than Those Who Watch, but once again set in New Mexico, Spook City approaches an alien and a woman as a combined idea. In search of his brother Tom, Demeris falls for, but resists, an alien who takes the form of a human woman. She claims she wants to join the human world – as Demeris’ brother seems to have chosen to join the alien world – but Demeris can accept neither of their choices.
The two New Mexico stories are interesting but slight. The other two, one with a foot in Classical Greece and the other with half a voice from an anonymous 17th century “mad song” are anything but slight. Though flawed, they are gems worth the repeat reading this re-issue offers.