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Phases of the Moon: Stories of Six Decades
Robert Silverberg
Subterranean Press, 630 pages

Phases of the Moon: Stories of Six Decades
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: 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
Robert Silverberg Tribute Site
Interview with Robert Silverberg

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

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Reading Phases of the Moon, I quickly realized, was not like reading collections of other writers. Personally, I enjoy collections, as they allow me to sample a variety of different works from an author -- seeing that person's take on different ideas, themes and issues, and perhaps stretching their writing in ways that might not translate well at longer lengths. One thing is generally consistent, however: each writer has a distinctive voice that permeates the prose. Despite wildly divergent stories, a certain unique flavor -- intangible, perhaps, but there nonetheless -- infuses the tales. Pick up one of Paul Di Filippo's collections. Or maybe a volume from Charles de Lint or Gene Wolfe. Even Harlan Ellison, who takes pride in never repeating himself, has a way with words that feels familiar whether the story in question is "Jefty is Five" or "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus to Shore." The author's signature is set in the foundation of every story they write, and even if it's buried beneath 90 tons of steel and masonry, it still shapes how the final construct looks and feels.

Except, of course, when that writer is Robert Silverberg. Phases of the Moon reads not so much like a single author collection, but rather an anthology giving a historical overview of the evolution of the genre spanning six decades. Every story here could have a different author's name on it, and I wouldn't blink twice. The ease at which Silverberg shifts perspective and approach, changes the very rhythm of his sentences, the selection of words is nothing short of amazing. Each story reads as if it sprang from a different mind, flowed from unrelated fingers onto pages separated by not only miles, but lifetimes. As if that wasn't accomplishment enough, these "other writers" who just happen to share the Robert Silverberg moniker, produce stories that are not merely good, but relentlessly good. Many authors work a lifetime striving to reach a degree of excellence in there work, but in Phases of the Moon Silverberg cherry-picks -- count 'em -- 23 stories that fit the bill. The mind boggles.

Anyone who has read any amount of science fiction or fantasy at all should recognize at least a few of the stories collected here. There's a plethora of Hugo and Nebula award-winners, and more that have been reprinted multiple times. I, myself, was more than familiar with a handful. "Good News from the Vatican," a light hearted classic about the first robotic pope, is one that I studied in literature class at Texas A&M University back in the 80s. "Sailing to Byzantium" was immensely powerful the first time I read it, and I marveled at the creativity that not only conceived of "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another" but was able to pull it off so confidently. Those -- along with some others -- I knew. No surprises there. It's the other stories in this book that bowled me over this time.

"The Pope of the Chimps" is grounded in reality so firmly it almost isn't genre at all. If you consider the extensive sign language vocabulary of Koko the famous gorilla, then the tale shifts from the realm of disturbingly plausible to frighteningly probable. Which, naturally enough, raises theological questions that extend beyond the story's scope, that if lower animals voluntarily and willfully worship in the Judeo-Christian tradition, would they then be entitled to eternal souls? "Hunters in the Forest" starts off simply enough as a riff on Ray Bradbury's classic "A Sound of Thunder," but instead of ripples through time, Silverberg sets off devastating emotional ripples that are amazingly cruel and profoundly satisfying. "To See the Invisible Man" is an engrossing character study touching on many aspects of crime, punishment and the need for social contact. One of my favorites in the collection is the final story collected here: "With Caesar in the Underworld." This deft piece of alternate history uncoils itself casually, following the days of a minor Roman official and the youngest son of the infirm emperor as they play host to an ambassador from the Byzantine Empire. For entertainment, they travel deep in the subterranean world that exists beneath the famed Seven Hills, vaults and caverns built over the course of centuries that now host all manner of bizarre bazaars and peculiar entertainments. The narrative dispenses with plot and instead assembles itself as something of a series of day-in-the-life sequences that flow seamlessly together. Certain foreshadowed touchstones come and go, and the randomness of real life forces itself into the spotlight more often than not. Ultimately, this is a story not about a great empire in decline, but of those individuals who may or may not be significant that comprise that very empire. The narrative concludes the only way it could -- a conclusion impossible to see coming, but one that's unsurprising -- and the story gels as a cohesive whole.

The only pieces that don't entirely measure up are the four stories that represent Silverberg's output in the 50s -- and to be fair, anything from that era would suffer in comparison to his later work. On their own, they are all solid stories, showing a clever and diverse mind at work. Against any other short fiction from that same decade, they more than hold their own. But when placed side-by-side with the other selections in this collection, the tremendous leap Silverberg's skill in crafting words made during the early years of the 60s is driven home convincingly. And again, each stands apart from the others, distinctive in style and approach. I, for one, am appreciative of their inclusion.

The introductions accompanying the individual stories are a welcome touch as well, setting context for the period and atmosphere the stories were written in. The evolution of "Born with the Dead" is a particularly poignant one, tracing how a crumbling marriage and social turmoil came together with death themes he'd been working on to produce the story which, ultimately, served as the centerpiece of a special, unexpected Robert Silverberg issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. This type of information is the living, breathing history of the genre. If it isn't recorded, it is lost forever. That Silverberg took the time and effort to set it to paper, thus ensuring a little bit of history is passed on to posterity... well, that deserves special praise. The only real negative in these introductions are the many times Silverberg recalls the self-doubt that dogged him at times, the belief that the genre had passed him by and that his particular brand of creativity was no longer of interest to the reading masses. To which current readers may well feel the urge to reach back through the decades, give his younger self a good shaking and shout, "You're Robert Silverberg for crying out loud! Write!"

So is Phases of the Moon a good investment? Only if you happen to like brilliant, gripping prose that challenges as well as entertains. It may not be the best collection ever, but for my money it's the best collection of the year. Careers that produce six decades' worth of wonder don't come around all that often, so it's best to savor them when the opportunity arises.

Copyright © 2004 Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke writes science fiction and fantasy as well as related non-fiction. A collection of his interviews, Voices of Vision: Creators of Science Fiction and Fantasy Speak, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press and he also serves as fiction editor for RevolutionSF.com. His web log can be found at jlbgibberish.blogspot.com


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