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Son of Man
Robert Silverberg
Pyr, 215 pages

Son of Man
Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg was born in New York City in 1935. In 1949 he started a science fiction fanzine called Spaceship and made his first professional sale to Science Fiction Adventures, a non-fiction piece called "Fanmag," in the December 1953 issue. His first professional fiction publication was "Gorgon Planet," in the February 1954 issue of the British magazine Nebula Science Fiction. His first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, was published in 1955.

In 1956 he graduated from Columbia University, with a major in Comparative Literature, and married Barbara Brown. After many sales, he earned a Hugo Award for his promise (the youngest person ever to do so). In the summer of 1955, he had moved into an apartment in New York where Randall Garrett, an established science fiction writer, lived next door; Harlan Ellison, another promising young novice, also lived in the building. Garrett introduced Silverberg to many of the prominent editors of the day, and the two collaborated on many projects, often using the name Robert Randall. He divorced his first wife in 1986 and married writer Karen Haber the following year. He now lives in the San Francisco area.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: To Be Continued
SF Site Review: Phases of the Moon
SF Site Review: Roma Eterna
SF Site Review: The Longest Way Home
SF Site Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2001
SF Site Review: The Book Of Skulls
SF Site Review: Lord Prestimion
SF Site Review: Sorcerers of Majipoor
SF Site Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame
SF Site Review: The Alien Years
SF Site Review: Legends: Stories by the Masters of Modern Fantasy
SF Site Review: The Avram Davidson Treasury
SF Site Review: Sorcerers of Majipoor

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Hughes

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The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: "No man can step in the same river twice. The river is not the same; nor is the man."

Or at least that's one variant out of several translations of what Heraclitus is supposed to have said way back at the turn of the fifth century BCE. We can't be completely sure of this pithy observation's provenance because it has come down to us only through a quotation cited by Plato a couple of centuries later. For all we know, the thought may be original to Plato himself, who then hung it on old Heraclitus to give the wisdom more oomph, just as Sam Goldwyn is credited with all kinds of observations on life within the movie biz that he may never have uttered.

But I digress, though intentionally. I had Heraclitus's possible apocryphal observation in mind as I opened Pyr's reissue of Robert Silverberg's 1971 New Wave tour de force, Son of Man for the first time in more than thirty-five years. My memory is growing capricious (and that's the kindest word I can summon), now that I'm serving out the last few months of six decades, I could recall only that I had read the book and that I had liked it, as I liked everything of Silverberg's prodigious output that I had read up until 1973.

So, recognizing that I'm not the fellow I was when I first stepped into this particular river at twenty-four, how was the water, thirty-five years on? Not to my taste, I have to say. But, by golly, it flows and flows.

Son of Man is the story of Clay, a man of our time who is inexplicably thrust far, far, far into Earth's future, to an era when not only is our civilization forgotten, but our whole species is no longer even a memory. Humankind has moved on, several times, creating new species. Clay travels across a dreamlike landscape in company with a handful of the Skimmers who are one variant of the latter-day "sons of men," a term that would have to be rewritten to something like "offspring of persons" in our post-feminist era. He meets other iterations of the human meme, like a pink sphere inside a shining cube of a cage and the regressed and grotty Goat-men; he becomes other kinds of human: he is himself a Skimmer for a while, as a female as well as a male; he becomes a squid-like Breather and then spends a timeless period as an Awaiter, a sapient carrot stuck in the earth, and more.

Always he moves on, joining with the peripatetic Skimmers in performing a series of rites that are both profound and mysterious (in the rite sense of the word), like "The Lifting of the Sea" and "The Shaping of the Sky." And constantly he swims in a river of sex, because after "change," the second great theme of this book is fucking. Lots and lots and lots of it, in variations that would have left Hugh Hefner washed up on the tideline, gasping for breath. Clay is constantly exploring new ways of connecting, anatomically, intellectually and spiritually, with his companions, his environment and himself. The descriptions are graphic -- though not pornographic -- and reminded me that the New Wave was when science fiction discovered (and embraced, sometimes sweatily), one of the great sciences it had until then carefully neglected.

All of this is told in a deliberately "literary" style: present tense, dense paragraphs of description and sensation, long lists of words, as in this passage, after Clay has been dissolved into a river of what seemed to me a 60s presentiment of nanobots:

Night is coming on. The waters hurry. He is dismembered, disintegrated, dispersed, dissected, disjoined, dissociated, disunited, disrupted, divorced, detached, divided.
Out of this fluid disseverance (Bob's thesaurus must have missed that one), he becomes the Awaiter-carrot until he rescued from a vegetative nirvana of noneness by the sphere in the cage. And on he goes, like a Pilgrim not quite sure of his progress, deeper and deeper into the world, and into his soul, to the final quietude.

You could say that Son of Man is an artifact of its period, a remarkable, heady, head-trippy plunge into a new way of writing sf, and into a new way of thinking, especially thinking about things that, until that moment, sf had not much considered. But does that make it stale and musty, like that old braided coat hanging in the back of your closet, the one you used to wear to the be ins on those long-ago Saturdays in the park?

No, it doesn't. Because Silverberg was throwing himself headlong into the timeless questions -- what are we? where do we come from? where are we going? -- that have been worrying us since long before Heraclitus and which will continue to be on our evolving minds as we blunder on into the future, making it (and ourselves) up as we go along.

So if you're looking for truly literary sf, or for something you can finally throw in the face of that artsy-fartsy co-worker who disdains the genre as no more than rocket ships and space squids, Son of Man could be just what you need.

Copyright © 2009 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His latest novels are Template, and Hespira: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn. His web page is at http://www.archonate.com/.


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