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Close To My Heart

Many of us have made simple decisions which changed our lives. It could be as simple as turning right instead of left at an intersection or saying "Yes" rather than "No" to an invitiation. For many of us, that change happened after reading a book. Things weren't quite the same. We saw things differently, we found ourselves wondering different thoughts, we made decisions for different reasons. We were imbued with a sense of wonder. This series takes a look at the books that had such an impact.

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other titles in the Close To My Heart series.

Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder
Robert Silverberg, editor
Warner Books (1987), Gollancz (1988)
Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder
Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder
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: Phases of the Moon
SF Site Review: Legends II
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

A review by Matthew Cheney

I was twelve years old when I spent a few weeks' saved allowance money to buy Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder. It was not the first science fiction book I had bought -- no, I'd been reading SF for at least two years. Novels such as Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel and Robert A. Heinlein's Starman Jones had captured and enthralled my imagination, and anthologies such as the second volume of James Gunn's The Road to Science Fiction and Robert Silverberg's own The Science Fiction Hall of Fame had become my most treasured possessions, inexpensive paperbacks gathered during rare trips to Boston, because, living in rural New Hampshire in those pre-internet/pre-superstore days, I had no other way to get any SF books other than the bestsellers stocked at the tiny bookstores near my home.

What made this book different, and made it the first anthology I would read cover-to-cover, was the power of Silverberg's voice, the authority with which he expressed and justified his opinions, and the excellence of his selection. Thirteen stories are each followed by an essay in which Silverberg explains why the story is a model of how to write science fiction. I wanted nothing in the world more than to be a science fiction writer, and was still young enough to think there were some special secrets professional writers knew that separated them from ordinary people. I thought that by reading the stories Silverberg selected and the comments he made about them that I might learn enough secrets to convince the editors of Analog and Asimov's to publish me.

In the foreword Silverberg says,

"I will not attempt to hide the self-indulgent nature of this book. The whole thing is, in a real sense, an affectionate gift to that 12-year-old kid with my name who set out, in Brooklyn long ago, to be a science-fiction writer."

Wow! I thought. If Silverberg started when he was my age, then there's hope for me yet! Excitement pulsed through me. Hours passed without my noticing as I read. Even when I was utterly befuddled by a story, as I was with the last one, Frederik Pohl's "Day Million," I kept trying, because I trusted Silverberg so completely. I hated "Day Million" when I first read it, and thought Pohl was trying to make me feel stupid and inadequate. But then I read Silverberg's commentary:

"The story is audacious, outrageous, wildly experimental. It shows how far one can deviate from the assumptions and requirements of conventional magazine fiction without rebuffing the reader. It's not a story for every reader; nor ought every story, or even any story but this, be written this way. But it is an extraordinary demonstration of narrative originality, an experiment that works on every level."


I reread "Day Million" again and again, until I brought myself to the point where I could agree with Silverberg. I was grateful for the little out he offered by saying it wouldn't appeal to every reader, but I didn't want to be every reader, I wanted to be Robert Silverberg, and if I was going to be Robert Silverberg then I needed to learn how to admire "Day Million."

I might have understood more if I had read the anthology in order, but being an even slower reader then than I am now, I read the stories mostly by order of their length. Luckily, I didn't notice that "Day Million" is the shortest story in the book, and so by the time I got to it I had already read "Home is the Hunter" by Henry Kuttner, "The Monsters" by Robert Sheckley, "Colony" by Philip K. Dick, and "Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw. I had enjoyed, even loved, each of those stories and trusted what Silverberg had to say about them, so when I got to "Day Million," I at least didn't give up on the entire book, but rather decided any fault I found with the story was a fault of my own.

Now, far more years than it feels like since I first bought Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder, the first sentence of "Day Million" is as thrilling for me as any sentence I know: "On this day I want to tell you about, which will be about ten thousand years from now, there were a boy, a girl and a love story." It's the first sentence of a story I learned to understand and appreciate and even adore after overcoming an initial sense of alienation, frustration, and loathing. The memory of learning to love "Day Million" would carry me through many other stories and books that at first annoyed and perplexed me, works like William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Norman Rush's Mating that, once I discovered a way into them, became not books, but experiences that changed the contours of my brain.

Many of the opening lines and paragraphs of stories in Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder remain thrilling, but the most thrilling at the time was one that continues to capture the attention of readers today: "He doesn't know which one of us I am these days, but they know one truth. You must own nothing but yourself. You must make your own life, live your own life and die your own death... or else you will die another's." It is, of course, the first paragraph of Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit."

What I remember most vividly about that story is not its breathtaking fusion of style and content, but rather Silverberg's single criticism of it: that there is no transition between the first and second paragraphs.

"The only thing wrong is that nothing links Bester's second paragraph to the first, which gives the sensitive reader an unnecessary little jolt of displacement and tends to turn the cunningly devised opening paragraph into a stand-alone editorial comment on the action that is to follow, a mere precis instead of a lead-in."

I learned more from that sentence than I did from many of the writing workshops I've been a part of since then, because that sentence taught me not only that a writer should pay attention to such seemingly inconsequential details as how paragraphs fit together, but also that there are such things as "sensitive readers" and "displacement," that an all-but-invisible bit of craftsmanship can have a massive effect, that it is possible to notice such things only with scrupulous attention, that greatness rewards just such scrupulous attention, and that greatness is not a synonym for perfection.

Science Fiction 101 Looking at Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder now (even after it has been retitled Science Fiction 101), I am impressed not only with the close readings of each writer's craft that Silverberg offers, but with his choice of stories. He made the excellent decision of including stories that had had a profound effect on him when he read them, stories that got him thinking about how to write, and so the book is not a "greatest hits" collection, though it certainly contains some great stories. Were we to collect the best of Philip K. Dick and Jack Vance, such stories as "Colony" and "The New Prime" would not be the first to come to mind. Nonetheless, they fit Silverberg's purposes perfectly. (And no-one could argue that Damon Knight's "Four in One," James Blish's "Common Time," and C.L. Moore's "No Woman Born" are minor works by those authors.)

The selection is eclectic, but not scattered. Each story is a model of better-than-competent writing, but the stories show what vast range can be covered by the term "science fiction," a term that Silverberg defines with some precision in his foreword. Nonetheless, Silverberg's definition can, with only a little bit of stretching, include everything from the hard SF conceptualizing of Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days" to the far-future, just-this-side-of-fantasy "Hothouse" of Brian Aldiss and science fantasy of Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain," all of which he includes and discusses as examples of this most pliant of literary idioms, this thing we call SF.

Reading over Silverberg's comments now, there are very few I entirely disagree with. Quibble with, yes; scream against, no. Whether this is because his arguments are so clear and well-thought-out that they are incontrovertible or because I encountered them young enough for them to imprint themselves on my psyche, I don't know. Perhaps a mix of both. I simply love this book too much to disagree with it.

Well no, that's not entirely true. (Silverberg probably made me into a critic, so he's got himself to blame for the following.) In his commentary on Philip K. Dick's "Colony", Silverberg is unfair to Dick's later writing. Of the prose in "Colony," Silverberg says, "What matters is what happens, period; the writer's job is to depict the action. Dick's style in 'Colony' is lucid and effective, a no-frills technique that conveys the mystifying incidents of the story without excessively calling attention to itself. I prefer it, generally, to the dense, involuted manner of Dick's own later period." Silverberg goes on to compare a passage from "Colony" with a passage from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

It's likely that anyone who calls Philip K. Dick a great stylist is either ignorant or insane, but Dick was capable of the occasional interesting paragraph, and the paragraph from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (beginning, "Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls, it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill") is one of them. It's not deathless prose, but it's good for Dick, and it is an important early part of the book, a collection of details that builds atmosphere and texture, that immerses the reader in the smothering environment of the book's setting. It's the sort of paragraph a sensitive reader, a reader who wants something other than the plodding along of a plot, is grateful for.

Now that I have expressed this one long-held reservation about Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder, I feel free to love the book forever, unconditionally. I read it at just the right time, I absorbed its ideas and words into a core only accessible via childhood, and no other single book has so deeply affected my patterns of thought through the years. Most books that I am capable of feeling nostalgia for are books I am afraid of revisiting for fear of discovering that the thrill has gone, that what I loved long ago was fool's gold, that my reasons for loving were na¨ve or clumsy or stupid. Rereading this book, though, did not have that effect. The stories remain good, though they appeal to me in different ways now than they did when I was twelve, and I have read too much fiction to be awed by their craftsmanship the way I was when what they did seemed new and unique.

Silverberg's essays, though, remain thrilling to me, because they are thoughtful and insightful, yes, but also because they allow me to revisit the self I so desperately wanted to be before I discovered that there are no sudden secrets that separate bad writers from good and that life is more complex than even the best book makes it out to be. This book, then, is a palimpsest of the past, a way for the present self to glance back at a lost youth and offer him a smile.

"So here's a book for you, kid--" Silverberg says, "a birthday present from the future." He thought he was talking about only himself. How wonderfully wrong he was!

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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