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The Masks Of Time
Robert Silverberg
Gollancz paperback £9.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Gollancz has reprinted The Masks Of Time in their smart series of yellow jacket paperbacks. This imprint has now advanced to include a half cover illustration on the front, which offers additional visual appeal without losing the striking colour characteristic, which marks out this series of reprint science fiction. Inside, it is clear that this is a direct reproduction of an earlier edition, as the thickened - but readable - lettering will testify.
   The book was originally published in 1968, is set in 1999 and concerns a visitor to that age who claims to have travelled from the year 2999. The visitor, Vornan-19, embarks upon a world tour, causing havoc through his apparent naivety of 20th century society and standards. When he plans to visit the USA the government attempts to intervene. They gather together a group of experts to shepherd him on his travels and to determine whether Vornan is genuinely from the future. The professorial team surrounding Vornan are skilfully delineated; their developing relationships with each other and with Vornan. The effect that Vornan has on these long-term companions exemplifies his nature. Vornan seems ignorant of his own history and unaware of the social and technological underpinnings of his own times. The six experts variously interpret this as an unwillingness to share or a fraud unable to create a convincing story. Their opinions vacillate as they - and much of the world - falls under the spell of his undeniable charisma. His mischievous attitude multiplies the millennial fever already gripping the world, especially as his claims are an affront to the Apocalyptists. This movement believe the world will end on 1st January 2000 and engage in orgies and destruction, so many opposed to the Apocalyptist movement rapidly accept Vorian's position.
   Leo Garfield, a physicist who has spent his career researching time reversal and who is shanghaied onto the panel, tells all this in matter of fact tones. The narrative voice is realistic as Garfield attempts to provide an account of the year of Vornan. The book is structured as a document of record which naturally assumes much of the world as he sees it, yet which attempts to be honest about sources, clear about causes and fair in describing himself and others. As Vornan is shown around the planet at the end of the 20th century, there is an explicit comparison with the end of the 29th century and an implicit comparison with the world of the reader. Reading this book in 2002 adds a new resonance to this cunningly wrought millennial mix. The vision of the future, which it captures, is quite different from that of recent SF; it hopes for so much more, making it seem peculiarly fresh. This adds to a strange nostalgia in the depiction of a world that still looks so science fictional when it is set in our past. We have no holiday resorts on the moon, or snow melting coils in the streets of Washington whilst the promise of nuclear power has gone sour and wall screens are still the preserve of the rich.
   Still, beyond the cities and transport networks, there are empty places. In the desert beyond Tucson, in a small house powered by its own reactor, are Garfield's two closest friends. It soon turns out that their isolation is a retreat from the world. Jack is one of Garfield's former students; a brilliant physicist who retreated from work that Garfield believes would have lead to unlimited energy for all. Nor is our narrator sure whether this retreat was due to a failure or to Jack perceiving the upheaval that this would cause in the world. At first it looks as if this will be the primary theme of the book - whether science needs moral guidance; whether discoveries and inventions are merely tools; whether long-term benefits outweigh the trauma of massive change. Instead, Jack's dilemma is skilfully drawn into the larger story, providing a motivation for Garfield to become involved with Vornan and later engendering a personal crisis, which deeply affects the narrator's perspective.
   This individual tumult is writ large upon a world so unsure of its direction that Vornan seems capable of pushing it over a tipping point. Vornan is often quoted, both in conversation with Garfield and from media interviews, and so explains his own position well but he is capricious to the extent that he remains largely unknowable. The influence of such a charismatic person in an age of pervasive media is a significant facet of the book, leaving questions unanswered at the end of the novel and implying that the full impact of his passage has not yet been seen.
Masks Of Time by Robert Silverberg
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