In the early 1950s a teenage Robert Silverberg began to submit stories to science fiction magazines. About this same time the Paris Review was inaugurating its celebrated “Writers at Work” interviews. In a properly run world, Silverberg would by now have been among the authors honored by that literary quarterly, since his has been one of the most prodigious careers in all American letters. Still, one can hardly imagine the result being better, or more sheerly enjoyable, than the seven long conversations conducted by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro in “Traveler of Worlds.”
That word “prodigious” captures two aspects of Silverberg’s professional life. First, he was a prodigy, publishing his first novel — the popular juvenile book “Revolt on Alpha C” — in 1955, when he was just 21. In 1956 he won a special Hugo award as the most promising young talent in science fiction. (The runner-up was Harlan Ellison.) Determined to earn his living with his typewriter, Silverberg then began to produce fiction and nonfiction at an astonishing rate, using both his own name and an unknown number of pseudonyms. One year he wrote 40 novels (though many of these were just quick-cash pornography). He worked much harder on popular introductions to archaeology and accounts of history’s byways, such as the still valuable “Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations.” By 1961 Silverberg had grown wealthy enough — largely through investments — to purchase a mansion that had once belonged to New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Money, as he says here, “makes for a quieter life, and I’m not interested in turbulence.”
Except, of course, in his fiction. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Silverberg brought out some of the most ambitious and artistically sophisticated novels and stories in the field’s history, including “The World Inside,” “The Book of Skulls,” “Downward to the Earth,” “Born With the Dead,” “Sundance” and “Schwartz Between the Galaxies.” Like the comparably intense visions of J.G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch and Barry N. Malzberg, these were light-years ahead of the field’s more popular escapist fare. Indeed, Silverberg’s signature novel, “Dying Inside” — about a telepath losing his powers — could almost have been written by Philip Roth, and is just as brilliant, mordant and moving as “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
Like Roth, too, Silverberg knew when to retire from imaginative writing, in his case around 2004 when he was elected a grandmaster by the Science Fiction Writers of America. As he tells ZinosAmaro, “I think most writers do their strongest work . . . between thirty-five and fifty. Certainly I did. Plenty of my work later than that needs no apology but . . . it does not have, line by line, the intensity of what I was doing twenty years earlier. So I stopped writing.”
That quotation neatly demonstrates Robert Silverberg’s dominant character trait: His clear-eyed self-understanding. In these conversations we learn that he values order, tidiness, moderation and routine — and not just because he’s past 80. These are, in fact, the very qualities that enabled him to sit down at his desk, day after day, year after year. Now he cultivates his garden in Oakland, Calif., dines out four or five times a week, swims for exercise every day and spends several hours each afternoon reading on the couch. Which authors? He mentions Gibbon, Trollope, Shaw, Balzac, Dickens, Simenon, Ivy Compton-Burnett.
Silverberg also collects pulp magazines, copies of the favorite books from his childhood (for example, Walter de la Mare’s “The Three Mulla-Mulgars”) and the works of Jules Verne, “a guilty pleasure.” He enjoys opera, especially Wagner, and with his wife, Karen Haber, regularly takes long trips, sometimes to science fiction conventions, often to Paris. Quite reasonably, the instinctively private writer doesn’t participate in social media, nor does he much care for 21st-century culture, though he recognizes that this is partly because of his age. As he says, “My whole life is a series of farewells now.”
That probably sounds depressing, though “Traveler of Worlds” is anything but that, if only because Silverberg possesses such an interesting mind. So too does Alvaro Zinos-Amara, who grew up multilingual in Europe, earned a PhD in theoretical physics and knows his interviewee’s work inside out. He quotes an old essay, for example, in which Silverberg declares that “most publishing deals. . . begin with high hopes, warm feelings, and glowing promises, and generally end with catastrophic bungling on the publisher’s part and disappointment for the writer.” This repeated pattern, the writer now adds, gradually wore him down.
Happily, more upbeat thoughts can be found in the recently revised and expanded edition of “Reflections & Refractions,” a collection of Silverberg’s essays and magazine columns. These range from the autobiographical — “The Making of a Science Fiction Writer” — to the mildly polemical, such as several cogent rejoinders to instances of extreme political correctness. There are, in addition, shrewd appreciations of Clifford Simak’s sf classic, “City,” of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories and of Robert A. Heinlein (“the most significant science fiction writer since H.G. Wells”), not to overlook memories of legendary editors such as John W. Campbell, Anthony Boucher and Horace Gold, as well as the three Rules for Literary Success: “Read a lot. Write a lot. Read a lot more, write a lot more.”
Even readers who don’t know Silverberg’s fiction will certainly enjoy spending a few civilized hours with the man himself: In any movie of his life he would obviously be played by the meticulously urbane Jeremy Irons. Over the years Robert Silverberg has shown us many unsettling futures, and to these we can now add the strange and surprising one we call old age.
Michael Dirda’s latest book, “Browsings,” will be out in paperback next month.
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Fairwood Press. 276 pp. Paperback, $16.99
By Robert Silverberg
Nonstop Press. 456 pp. Paperback, $18.99