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.
Princess Nakaba has bright red hair. This is not a rare hair color in her homeland of Senan; indeed it’s all too common. Both in Senan and its southern neighbor Belquat, all the nobility and royalty have pure black hair. Her flaming tresses suggest that Nakaba is the product of an affair with a peasant, or some weakness in her family line. Thus she has long been shunned and mistreated by her royal relatives.
When the time comes for a political marriage to quell the periodic military tension between Belquat and Senan, Nakaba is chosen for the task as a deliberate slap in the face to both her and the royal family of Belquat. The brides in these marriages tend to turn up dead in suspicious circumstances a few years later, so sending Princess Nakaba both tells her how expendable she is, and informs Belquat that their princes are not worthy of purebred wives.
Prince Caesar of Belquat isn’t too thrilled with this marriage either. He’s the younger son of the royal family, but also has a claim on the throne as Prince Cain is the son of a concubine, while Caesar’s mother is fully married to the king. His mother’s people are scheming to make him the heir, but Prince Caesar has no interest in ruling Belquat when Cain could do a perfectly adequate job. Caesar is not a particularly talented warrior, and has won what combat skills he has by long practice.
Princess Nakaba’s sole ally at court (at least at the beginning) is her servant Loki, who has been with her since childhood. Loki is a member of the Ajin race, humanoids with animalistic ears and tails. Their senses are sharper than ordinary humans, and their great strength and superior reflexes make them natural warriors. Ajin are an underclass who are allowed to be servants at best, and are often massacred to keep their numbers down. Loki is devoted to Nakaba, not least because he knows she has a hidden power called “Arcana” that is about to blossom.
This shoujo fantasy manga was first published in 2009. There’s heavy romance elements as Nakaba and Caesar must try to make their marriage work despite being enemies, and deal with the passions of other people who have their own love or political objectives.
This first volume has three long chapters. We first meet the royal couple shortly after the official wedding ceremony. They don’t like each other, but have to put a polite face on in public and both are trying to make the marriage work to the extent that’s possible. Princess Nakaba makes an etiquette blunder at her first dinner with the new family, King Guran takes the opportunity to sentence Loki to death (he really hates the Ajin) but the servant is able to escape.
While Prince Caesar is no fan of the Ajin either, he does pledge to get the death sentence revoked if Loki shows his loyalty to Nakaba by returning to her before dawn. Loki does, and Caesar stands by his promise. However, the way the promise is fulfilled in no way endears Loki to Caesar. Despite that, this marks a turning point in Nakaba and Caesar’s relationship as they begin to see each other’s positive traits.
I’ve looked ahead a bit, and there are many plot twists to come, starting with the true nature of Princess Nakaba’s Arcana.
The art is decent, as is the writing. There’s a certain amount of violence, so the publisher has rated this series as “Teen.” There are a couple of forceful kisses, but Caesar backs off his insistence on enjoying his “marriage rights” when Nakaba puts up a fight.
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.