Robert Silverberg, Unfamiliar Territory

After reviewing Silverberg’s work in the July 1971 Amazing, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at a prolific author I hadn’t paid particular attention to before. I picked up Unfamiliar Territory in a used bookshop in San Francisco. It’s a British publication from 1973, and includes stories from 1971 through ’73.

The collection starts with “Caught in the Organ Draft”, which is, as they say, pretty much what it says on the tin: an extrapolation that lets Silverberg address a major social issue of the time.

“(Now + n) (Now – n)” is a bit more complex, macguffin-wise, if a bit less meaningful in relation to present society. The p.o.v. character has the unusual ability to communicate with his past and future selves, 48 hours backwards and forwards in time. He uses this ability to make a fortune in the stock market. But then he meets a woman and becomes smitten with her, although his gift goes away whenever she’s nearby. It’s a fun ride, but the ending is actually so predictable that it surprised me.

“Many Mansions” in contrast, is a time-paradox story that takes a decidedly different tack, using a somewhat staccato, disjointed literary style to simultaneously convey the emotional separation between a married couple and the dissonant effects of their various time-travelling attempts to rid themselves of each other by going back to interfere with their grandparents. An uncommonly interesting look at a very common theme.

“What we Learned from this Morning’s Newspaper” and “In Entropy’s Jaws” are two more stories on the theme of time travel or time paradox. The first is about what we might do with information from the future, and is a solid story, if not a masterpiece. “In Entropy’s Jaws” is more ambitious, attempting to bring about a philosophical conclusion about the nature of time, but not convincing me in the end.

“In the Group” and “Push no More” are stories on a theme that seems to have been “in the air” at the time — science fictional sex. “Push no More” looks at the normal hormonal urges of a young teenager, with a telekinetic twist. With current sensibilities about pre-adult sexuality, I doubt this story would be printable today. “In the Group” is the more graphically sex-themed of these stories. It explores the relationships that might apply given a technology that lets several people simultaneously share a physical and emotional experience. Both of these are interesting for dealing frankly with a theme we’ve obviously become much more prudish about over the last 38 years.

“Caliban” is a somewhat Twilight Zone-style story about an ugly an who is re-awakened in a far future populated only with beautiful people. In “Caliban”, Silverberg, as in The Second Trip, once again gives a character my birthday, March 11, in this case exactly 50 years after mine. Unfortunately I can’t find anything in the online biographies that explains his use of this date.

Finally, “The Wind and the Rain” is a story that still seems current, reflecting the cyclical return of a theme to the public consciousness. It’s about a far-future team sent to Earth to speed up the natural process of renewal after the planet has been ecologically destroyed by human activity, a story I could easily see appearing today.

“Some Notes on the Pre-Dynastic Epoch”, “Good News from the Vatican”, “The Mutant Season”, and “When we Went to See the End of the World” round out the collection with four more professional and well-written stories.

Taken together these are an excellent look at the work of a professional who has written hundreds of stories in his career. If the collection has two major themes, they’re the liberation of sexual themes in ’70s writing, and exploration of the long-running sf theme of time travel paradox. Definitely the collection has aged well; certainly much better than “The Second Trip”.

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