Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express (1995-2009) by Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg (1935-still alive as of this writing) is one of the longest-running science fiction authors, having made his first sale in 1953. Especially in his early years, Mr. Silverberg has been prolific, with his non-series short fiction alone filling nine sizable volumes. This is the last in that series, but not necessarily the last collection of his short stories.
As the author explains in his foreword and the story introductions, he’s slowed down some as he’s aged, for various reasons. There’s “only” sixteen stories from fourteen years presented here, but most are longer, a few up to novella length.
The opening story is “Diana of the Hundred Breasts” originally written for sale to Playboy, but turned down by them. A wealthy layabout goes to visit his brilliant archaeologist brother at his dig in Ephesus, Turkey. They meet a retired minister who’s touring the area, and the brother takes the other two to see the famous Diana statue of the title. A little later, the archaeologist uncovers what may be the true meaning of the statue, but the brothers are left with more questions than answers.
I found the story so-so. Mr. Silverberg uses tourists as main characters in many of his late period stories, something the Playboy fiction editor chided him for. Even when the characters aren’t tourists as such, the stories often include long sightseeing sections.
He also favors the setting of the very far future and having characters realize just how very old the universe is. Of these tales, I liked “The True Vintage of Eruzine Thale” the best. It’s set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle. Poet and wine connoisseur Puillayne is pulled out of his ennui by three suspicious looking men who claim to be fans of his work. They turn out to be far more interested in Puillayne’s collection of rare treasures, especially the title liquid.
“The Millennium Express” is set in the relatively near future of 2999. Four clones of great men have suddenly begun destroying the remaining treasures of the past. A witness of one of their crimes becomes their pursuer, trying to discover their motivations and prevent them from wiping out the Louvre. It’s a story about letting go of the past.
My choice for the strongest story in this collection is “Defenders of the Frontier” which first appeared in the Warriors collection, which I read previously. A squad of soldiers man a forgotten outpost between their Empire and “the enemy.” No orders or supplies have come to them in years as their numbers dwindled. The enemy, too, has dwindled–they seem to have killed the last one in a thousand mile radius some weeks ago. The soldiers can’t leave their post without orders, but if the enemy is truly gone, then there is no point in remaining.
I was reminded of the anime series Sora wo Oto, also about a small group of soldiers at a seemingly pointless outpost, though its mood is very different.
The final story is “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar”, set in India as the British Empire is building railroads there. Young Smithers learns of a legendary sound in the desert, as though there were invisible people there, or perhaps ghosts. He drags his friend Brewster off on an adventure to investigate. They learn the truth behind this mystery, but at a terrible cost.
Several of the stories have scenes of extramarital sex. (Apparently, at one point Mr. Silverberg concentrated on soft porn when the science fiction market was in a slump.) “Beauty in the Night” has rape, child abuse and general physical abuse.
Overall, a high quality collection. Robert Silverberg is a fine writer who has honed his craft over decades, and took his time with these stories. However, I think this volume might do best for older readers who have some life experience to fully appreciate the nuances. Beginners might want to start with one of the earlier volumes.
Disclaimer: The version I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and the final contents might be slightly different–at the very least, the typos fixed.