Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review: The Masks of Time

In an introduction he wrote for his own book, Robert Silverberg lauds himself for deviating from his "past transgressions" of writing sci-fi pulp and foraying bravely into the new frontier of literary sci-fi. What makes it literary? I can't tell. But I have some candidate details: it's quite accepting (and possibly even encouraging) of all forms of sexual behavior [1]; it treats Christianity (all religion, for that matter) as nothing more than a pernicious variety of mass insanity; it's anti-capitalist [2]; it doesn't really have a plot; and because, in his words, the main character is Jamesian.[3] It details the life of one man assigned to accompany a time traveler (named Vornan-19 [4]) as he explores the world of (his) past (which is roughly our present). They keep thinking Vornan-19 has some other purpose, but his pure hedonism and unwillingness to discuss anything about the future eventually convinces them that he's just a tourist.[5]

I have many complaints, including some I've forgotten (so they're not listed here): 1. The first chapter could've been eliminated completely and the result would've been a stronger work. 2. Silverberg wasn't able to leave the pulp completely behind: some Washington D.C. bureaucrats have orange, goopy lifeforms, collected from Venus, living in glass jars on their desks. Despite the repeated attention Silverberg called to them, they failed to be a Chekov's gun [6] and thus only served to create a kitschy futuristic atmosphere for his novel. I also thought that naming the time traveler Vornan-19 was a little campy. 3. This novel suffers from a narrative flaw surprisingly not found in the Turkey City Lexicon [7]: all the characters are simultaneously accomplished in both intellectual matters and in sheer physical beauty.[8] Such superhuman characters are difficult to relate to and have the effect of rendering the novel even more outrageous. 4. Apparently Silverberg hadn't read anything about science for at least 25 years [9] since he still believed that protein, not DNA, was the material of inheritance. 5. The way he portrays religious belief isn't how it actually works. It's just how he wants it to work so that he can dismiss it out of hand. 6. This book is not science fiction.[10] The fact that one character is a time traveler and another may be on the verge of discovering how to tap all of the energy stored in matter [11] are both McGuffins for Silverberg to denigrate anything and everything he can set his sights on. The subplot involving the narrator's friends, Jack and Shirley, wasn't just utterly pointless, it was a red herring—giving the illusion that this book might actually have a point. Perhaps that's too harsh: it was all just a build-up to an act of homosexual seduction at the end of the book. Maybe that was edgy in 1968 but now it's just smut.

My verdict: I hated just about everything about this book. Except for the fact that Silverberg only mentioned sexual acts instead of describing them I wouldn't have finished reading this book. I've only read two other things he's written [12], but after this it's not likely I'll read any others.


[1] It also features another aspect of socialist sci-fi which I find puzzling: agéd men are seduced by barely-old-enough nubile girls with surprising regularity. It must be born of the twisted psyche of the socialist sci-fi author. But why, I just can't guess. It's certainly unrealistic. Less so (I think) than laser guns and hyperdrives. I recommend you read this article by Dave Wolverton (warning: some language) to learn more about the tropes commonly found in so-called literary fiction.

[2] Silverberg might try to argue that it's not anti-capitalist. But his treatment of the capitalist characters tells another story. They're all brutes who fly into a rage when it is suggested that their beloved economic system will eventually expire.

[3] I assume that this refers to The Ambassadors since the other works by Henry James that I've read (The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller) don't feature a middle-something narrator.

[4] Even though Vornan-19 was a human being, I couldn't help but picture him as Megamind—right down to the blue skin. (You can read my review of the movie Megamind here.)

[5] I can't help but think that this is a thinly-veiled ripoff of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (which is libertarian and was published seven years earlier), but with a liberal/socialist outlook rather than a libertarian one.

[6] See's gun.

[7] See

[8] It's hard to believe that a woman with three Ph.D.s, a Nobel Prize, and who is on 17 global panels that decide the goings-on of the world also happens to be stunningly beautiful and has a knock-out physique. (That's not an example from the book—I made that up.)

[9] Experiments that showed conclusively that DNA (not proteins or RNA) was the genetic molecule were published in 1943. And this book was published in 1968 (when Silverberg was about 35).

[10] I'm of the opinion that if you can tell the story without the science fiction aspects, then there's no point in making it science fiction at all. There's no reason this novel couldn't be about a European tourist coming across the Atlantic to meet someone who is about to invent the hair drier and seducing him.

[11] One of the underlying premises of the novel (that the global financial system—i.e. free market capitalism—would collapse if there were a way to produce cheap energy on-location) is flawed. First, it ignores the fact that commodities other than energy (food, metal, manufactured goods, etc.) would still have to be collected/produced distant from the consumer and shipped and thus would still require economic transactions (i.e. money). Second, it overlooks the fact that new technologies never instantly replace their predecessors. Vinyl records didn't immediately replace phonograph cylinders. 8-tracks didn't immediately replace vinyl records. Cassette tapes didn't immediately replace 8-tracks. Compact discs didn't immediately replace cassette tapes. And .mp3s still haven't completely replaced compact discs. New technology is usually very expensive—especially if it's radically new. (In the case of the computer, there was also the matter of size—if personal computers were as cheap as they are today, but still took up several rooms, you wouldn't find very many people who owned one.) As demand increases, so does production, lowering costs. Eventually it reaches a price that makes it available to the general public. Thus its integration is gradual and the concomitant displacement of its predecessor is also gradual. In the case of the cheap energy suggested in The Masks of Time, it would take long enough to be purchasable by the general public that the economy would have time to adjust. I can't think of any technology that capitalism couldn't absorb.

[12] I've read Revolt on Alpha C (which is sort of a re-telling of the American Revolution) and Gilgamesh in the Outback (which was also obsessed with male homosexuality).

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