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Son Of Man
Gollancz paperback £9.99
review by Gary Couzens
Robert Silverberg was prolific from the outset: he's one of the few genre writers of note to have had a million words in print before his 30th birthday. Much of that early output was admitted hackwork, churned out by the yard. But as the 1960s progressed, he began to pay more attention to expressing his considerable abilities as a writer (not just as a typist). Although his speed was still formidable, which has led to accusations of over-facility, his novels from 1967's Thorns onwards display considerable more thematic and stylistic ambition than previously. Silverberg burned brightly for a decade, producing 16 novels and a lot of short fiction, before 'retiring' for four years. He came back with Lord Valentine's Castle in 1980, and his work since then has been accomplished and more relaxed, more commercially inclined, less emotionally intense than the work of that peak decade. But in 1970 to 1972 he really hit his stride, publishing eight novels in three years, all of them worthy of attention and some of them (notably Dying Inside, the last of them) masterpieces. Admittedly these are short novels by today's standards, mostly under 70,000 words, but even so this feat stands as one of SF genre's great examples of both quality and quantity. (Other candidates are Philip K. Dick between 1964 and 1967 and Dan Simmons in 1989-1990.)
Son Of Man, originally published in 1970, stands at the beginning of that purple patch. If I think it's one of Silverberg's lesser novels, which may be down to personal bias than anything else. The novel is a third-person, present-tense narrative where Clay, a contemporary human, is caught up in a time-eddy and sent into an Earth of the very far future. So far that the strange descendants of humanity have no memory of Clay's time, no knowledge of its great achievements. Son Of Man has little plot, being mostly a tour of this new world, structured around a set of five rituals.
Whether you take to this novel depends on your view of the SF genre. Silverberg is attempting to emulate Olaf Stapledon here, but it's the Stapledon of Last And First Men and Star-Maker, the visionary tourist of the far future. The more grounded and humanist Stapledon, of Odd John and Sirius, a writer of considerably greater emotional content (especially in the very moving latter novel), lies elsewhere - and is elsewhere in Silverberg's work. Also present are Silverberg's late-1960s libertarian sexual politics, which I've commented on elsewhere: if you have any feminist sensibility, chapter 11 will test your blood pressure. Ultimately, it's possible to recognise Son Of Man's quality of imagination and Silverberg's writing style, but also to acknowledge that as a novel (even as one of only 192 pages) it's a bit of a slog.
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