Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Guest Columns
 
June 2009

Other Spaces, Other Times - A Life Spent in the Future
A Review by Bud Webster

"Nietzsche once wrote, 'My memory says I did this, my pride says I did not. My memory yields.' That's sufficient warning, as though we needed it, that the autobiographies of writers are not to be trusted as factual documents." - from the introduction.

Robert Silverberg is no stranger to anyone reading this review. He certainly shouldn't be, anyhow. His career has spanned almost six decades, and by his own estimate, he has published more than twenty-five million words. Let me run that past you in numerals, so you can really taste it: 25,000,000 words. That total represents 280 novels, 580 stories, 95 non-fiction books, 50 collections, and editorial content in more than 100 anthologies.

So, what did you do last week?

I've written at length about Silverberg's career and life elsewhere and elsewhen, and so won't repeat it here; in any case, I'm here to talk about his autobiographical book, Other Spaces, Other Times, due out this year from Nonstop Press. Hey, he knows more about Robert Silverberg than I do anyway, right? Right.

This is not your average autobiography, as you can imagine, what with it being Silverberg and all. Like his friend and colleague, Harlan Ellison, Silverberg has written about his career and life all along, in introductions, articles, afterwords, essays, and, more recently, in various online venues. Silverberg himself did not assemble the book, but did provide NonStop's publisher/editor Luis Ortiz with the majority of the articles therein. So, instead of Our Subject starting at the top and rehashing everything from scratch, editor Ortiz has taken these prior writings, plus a few he dug up on his own, smoothed them over, created material to connect them all, and in the darkness, bound them. Heh. The individual segments are from all over the place, but the life and career they represent is chronological.

It's a hefty volume, as befits a career of sixty or so years, filled with pictures and scanned images of magazine covers, fanzines, and artwork from his books and stories. But pay attention to that quote up there at the top: this is a caveat lector, and not just about the possibility that he's slipped one over on us once or twice.

Why? Because above all, Silverberg is honest. Even if there are bits and pieces here and there that are pure fiction, they are - as all his fiction is - completely honest. Sometimes, even unpleasantly so. I'm not going to give much away in this review, but I will mention that if you think frogs are cute and sweet and funny and you hate vivisection, skip the essay on his childhood.

I did a lengthy piece on Silverberg the anthologist for another magazine a year or so ago as this is written, and when I sent it to him to vet, the first word in his note back to me was "Blush." The man gilds no lilies in this book; he neither pumps himself up to look better than he is, nor does he spare himself criticism in his self-examination (see that stuff about the frogs, for example). It's the straight dope he gives us from page one on, not a paean to the Glory that is AgBerg.

This means, amongst other things, that the casual reader of this autobiographical volume might not be terribly impressed. She or he may very well see the typically understated Silverbergian prose as unexciting and tame.

The casual reader, as is so often the case, would be wrong. Any one of us who struggled trying to make that first sale or were stung by soulless rejection slips straight off the Xerox machine will feel that frisson of recognition when he sells first an article, then a juvenile novel, and then, at last, his first short story. Any of us who regards the giants of the genre as, well, Giants, will read of Silverberg's encounters with them at conventions, workshops, and editorial offices and be struck with a case of the Wows. His story about meeting Will Jenkins (who wrote mostly as Murray Leinster - and I can't quite wrap my head around having to say that) in the Astounding office alone is worth the price of the book. There were, indeed, Giants in those days.

He talks about the little things, too, though. He tells us the stories of the stories, even those published in short-lived magazines that barely paid at all. For a process-obsessive like me, that's like finding a bucket of pirate coins in my back yard. I know I'm atypical, but knowing how another writer - or artist, or musician, anyone creative - works is far more interesting than why. There are nine-and-ninety ways of writing tribal lays, the man said, and I want to know about every single one of them.

One of the essays he reuses here is one I read long ago in its original form and place: "Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal" from Harrison and Aldiss's indispensable non-fiction anthology (yes, there is such a thing) Hell's Cartographers. It was this book, as I've said in another time and place, that helped set me on the road to becoming a writer of fiction as well as a student of the literature to which I hoped to add. In point of fact, it was Silverberg's essay that affected me the most.

Here it sits very comfortably among the other bits and bobs of his life and career, changed little, if at all, since it was first published in 1975. He relates, as dispassionately as if writing about someone else, his early days (not so long before, as we look back now) when his success as a writer of almost anything his editors wanted allowed him to buy Fiorello La Guardia's old mansion at the tender age of 26. (And so I ask again, What have you done this week?)

In a low-key kind of way, this is an exciting narrative about an exciting career and life. It's thorough, articulate as hell, and intellectual rather than emotional. Don't get me wrong, there's misfortune enough to be found, between illnesses, divorces, and fires (not to mention those frogs), but still the author relates these tribulations objectively, even analytically, never asking for sympathy from the reader.

My one major complaint - and by almost anyone else, it's no complaint, believe me - is that the original appearances of the individual fragments of the book aren't identified, although they are dated by year. Book-geeks like myself, especially those of us who make up indexes and bibliographies and write books about books, eagerly look for just such data and revel in it when we find it, adding it to our want-lists and correcting our online databases to comply. That this information isn't present will discommode perhaps one in a thousand of those who read this fine book - and we're accustomed to gnashing our teeth and rending the hems of our garments. Not, of course, that I would want the author or publisher to feel any guilt about it, mind you. It's all right, I'll be fine. *sigh*

That having been said, let me add my own caveat here, and I'll try and be as honest as Silverberg is. This book is not for everyone, not even for every reader of science fiction and/or fantasy. This examined life is remarkable, but it chronicles so much that the casual reader may feel overwhelmed. I found myself, historian and fan/tweak that I am, putting the book down from time to time to take a break from the proceedings. It's not a hard book to read, don't get me wrong, but it can be difficult to grasp without taking time to think about what you've just read. This is not a book to pick up on whim and flip through all slapdash and offhand, but one to be pored over and considered. It requires thought, this book, and unless you're willing to engage it on those terms, you're going to need a vacation.

What more can I tell you? Far less than Silverberg himself does in this substantial autobiography, that's for certain. For me to do it justice, it would take three times the word count you'll find in Other Places, Other Times, and that would only cover maybe the first thirty pages. I sometimes wondered while reading this book if he really does have a grasp of how important he is, and has been, to the genre. Does he understand his place in the history of the field?

I think he knows exactly how much he's contributed to science fiction, and I'm not just talking about those twenty-five million words, either. I think he's serenely aware of it, but as befits a Gentleman Giant, he is characteristically self-effacing. But why take my word for it? Buy it, spend the time and effort to comprehend it in toto, and you'll be enriched. I promise.

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