I've mentioned elsewhere that Robert Silverberg was one of those writers of the 1950s and 1960s who was regularly turning out interesting and workmanlike stories. Then came a series of novels that rocked readers of science fiction back on their heels -- this was Silverberg? The one I remember vividly was Thorns (1967, which Silverberg himself calls "the first significant book of [his] literary maturity"), a sensitive and powerful story of the pain and loneliness of those who were different. Right around the same time came Nightwings (1969) and Dying Inside (1972). The three of these established Silverberg as a major voice in science fiction, once everyone got over the shock. (I donít mean to make it sound like Silverberg was some sort of hack; he was a very productive writer who wrote what the market demanded because he lived on what he made writing. Then he took off.)
Silverberg himself seems to be under no illusions as to the literary quality of his early stories, as evidence by his introductions to the examples selected for To Be Continued. They sold. That established their quality at the time, and in this retrospective view, in which he has selected the ones he felt worth preserving. The impetus for this collection, and those that, we hope, will follow, is simply the desire to have an orderly, chronologically relevant source for his early work. There are, as he notes in his introduction, and inordinate number of collections of his stories, the first published in 1962, which continue on is dizzying array until -- well, now. (Silverberg cites a collection published in 1991 as an attempt to bring order to the chaos of fecundity, but there, too, chronology went by the board.)
Silverberg notes that he was pretty good at the beginning of his career, in the early 1950s. He's right. For those who have come late to science fiction ("late" being, in this case, any time after the New Wave and cyberpunk), it will be, I think, illuminating to see the kind of things that were filling the magazines, which were the source for science fiction in those days, and the kinds of things that Zelazny, Aldiss, Delany, Gibson, Willis, Simmons, whoever, built on and rebelled against. These are classic sf stories, first contact, post-Apocalypse, time-travel, every kind of story that was the province of this (relatively) new literature of exploration and the future.
It's hard to pick out highlights. I have favorites -- "The Macauley Circuit," a tale of cybernetics and what might follow humanity; "Alaree," a poignant tale of the terrible price that mercy can demand; "Absolutely Inflexible," about the legacy one leaves behind and how it can turn around and bite you; "The Road to Nightfall," which presents one man's decline and fall . . . there are too many. Yes, some are better than others, but that Silverberg had so many good stories to include speaks volumes in itself.
Of equal interest -- and value -- are Silverberg's introductions to each story. They become, as one reads along, a history not only of the early days of Silverberg's career (he sold his first story at age eighteen and was writing steadily throughout his college years), but a glimpse at a unique period in the history of the field: the Golden Age, when editors such as Campbell, Boucher, and Gold were shaping the future of this particular brand of literature and leaving behind the days of the pulp-formula story in favor of the literary explosion that happened in the 1960s and 1970s. (It's a bit ironic that many writers of the generation before Silverberg looked on the emergence of the New Wave as something of a threat, when they had laid the foundations for it. Silverberg and many of his contemporaries were wise enough to incorporate the new thrust into their own work.)
It is also a fascinating portrait of the growth of a writer. Silverberg points out time and again the lessons he learned from his colleagues (such as Harlan Ellison and Randall Garrett, with whom he collaborated on several stories as "Robert Randall") and from the editors to whom he sold -- or sometimes didn't sell -- his stories. (He mentions that Anthony Boucher encouraged him to submit stories to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and then turned them down regularly until Silverberg finally started writing more sophisticated stories.) And, like Jack Williamson, Silverberg was hugely productive, turning out, in the late 1950s, an average of two to three stories a week. But, he paid the rent, regularly and on time. He was a writer. The more he wrote, the more he had to offer editors, and the more he had to offer, the more he could sell.
Can you live without this book? Sure. Do you want to? Not if you like science fiction or have any interest at all in how it came to be what it is.
Jon Davis has created a "quasi-official" Web site for Robert Silverberg, with Silverberg's cooperation, at Majipoor.com . (It also comes in Spanish and Bulgarian versions.) Subterranean Press, which publishes a lot of nifty stuff, is here.