Monday, August 08, 2011

In the Beginning - Robert Silverberg

I've mentioned before how much I like Robert Silverberg's early science fiction stories. It's not that I don't like his later work. I just haven't read a lot of it yet. But I intend to, soon.


In the meantime, I came across this massive collection of short stories, novelettes, and novellas by Silverberg that were originally published in the SF digests during the 1950s. These are stories he considers lesser work, pure pulp-influenced science fiction adventure yarns (just my meat, in other words). But as he makes clear in the usual fascinating introduction, he certainly doesn't disavow them and still finds things to like in them. I found a lot to like in them, myself, including some intriguing science fictional ideas and plenty of excellent writing.


All the stories are good, but two stood out for me. "Cosmic Kill" (AMAZING STORIES, April and May 1957) is a 20,000 word novella Silverberg wrote in two days to order for the editor of AMAZING, Paul Fairman. It's a sequel to a novella written by Fairman that appeared in the magazine several years earlier. (Both stories appeared under the pseudonym Robert Arnette, the only time Silverberg used that name.) It's as full of breathless action as you'd expect from a story written like that, but it's also very interesting in that events in the story, which concerns efforts to bring an interplanetary terrorist to justice, seem very similar to things that have gone on in reality during the past ten years, and I'm speaking, of course, of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Mostly, though, "Cosmic Kill" is an extremely entertaining action yarn. Another favorite is "The Hunters of Cutwold" (SUPER-SCIENCE FICTION, December 1957, under the pseudonym Calvin M. Knox), which takes a pulp adventure plot of the sort that would have appeared in JUNGLE STORIES ten years earlier and transplants it to a science fictional setting. In fact, Silverberg's original title for the story was "Five Against the Jungle", a very pulpish title. Silverberg was a master at this sort of thing (a lot of his early SF strikes me as being transplanted crime stories), but "The Hunters of Cutwold" has a very effective sting in its tail making it a story that could only work as science fiction, and pretty thoughtful SF, at that.


As always, Silverberg's introduction and story notes make for fascinating reading, and overall, IN THE BEGINNING is one of the best books I've read this year. Originally published several years ago as a limited edition hardcover, it's now available as a very affordable e-book, which is how I read it. I picked up several other Silverberg collections at the same time and will be getting to them soon, I hope. If you want to sample some of the best adventure SF that the Fifties digests had to offer, I highly recommend this one.

13 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I read most of these in the digests when they were appearing. Silverberg might not think as much of them as he does of his later work, but to me they were wonderful stories then, and they still are today.

Walker Martin said...

Silverberg is one of my favorite SF writers, especially his great period when he was writing for Fred Pohl in GALAXY, late 1960's through early 1970's.

But I've read this book and several others that have recently reprinted much of his early work. And he's still at it; the last issue of ASIMOV'S SF MAGAZINE has a novelet by him.

Lawrence Block said...

I wonder how many people know the origin of Calvin M. Knox as a pen name. Bob's agent, the self-styled Scott Meredith, told Bob he'd never see a name like Robert Silverberg on the cover of a magazine. Something, uh, less ethnic was indicated. Bob picked the two most Protestant names available, Calvin and Knox. (The M, he confided, stood for Moses.)

The two of us had a grand old time in May at a Bay Area library, telling stories about out beginning in the wonderful world of Midcentury Erotica. There's a transcript posted in two parts on the Mulholland Books website.

Charles Gramlich said...

I really liked a lot of Silverberg's early work. I've got quite a few of them here and have read more of those than of his later stuff. I want this collection, though.

James Reasoner said...

Calvin Moses Knox, eh? That's a great story. Almost as good as the one in AFTERTHOUGHTS about where the title YOU COULD CALL IT MURDER came from.

I would have loved to be there for that conversation. You guys should take the show on the road.

Richard Moore said...

I have to get that Silverberg book as like others have noted, I gulped down so many of these stories as a kid. His Ace Doubles were among my first SF novels.

I wonder if the Fairman story was "The Cosmic Frame" although it wasn't published under the Robert Arnett name? The Fairman story was made into the SF movie "Invasion of the Saucer Men."

Ed Gorman said...

This is one of my "down" books. When I'm in need of just zoning out I pick this book up and remind myself why, as a yute, I wanted to be Robert Silverberg when I grew up. I've been reading and admiring the man for fifty-or so years. I have four of his novels and two of his collections on my Essentials shelf. An amazing writer.

James Reasoner said...

Richard,
No, it was "Empire of Evil", published in the January 1951 AMAZING.

Robert Silverberg said...

Larry Block has the Calvin Knox story a bit awry. It wasn't Scott Meredith who said I'd have trouble with a Jewish byline; it was my collaborator Randall Garrett, who told me that John Campbell, the editor of ASTOUNDING SF, disliked having Jewish names on his contents page. Maybe so, but Campbell bought and published plenty of Silverberg stories under that name, and when I told him, years later, how the Calvin Knox name had been conceived, he burst into laughter.

James Reasoner said...

Now that you mention it, I seem to remember reading about Randall Garrett's connection to the name in one of your other books, maybe those "Robert Randall" books. I have the Ace reprints of those but haven't read them yet, other than the intros. (I always read intros right away.)

Richard Moore said...

In response to Robert Silverberg's mention of his collaborator Robert Garrett, I want to recommend the Crippen & Landru collection of their SF/mystery collaborations A LITTLE INTELLIGENCE as originally published in the Ziff-Davis digests and Robert Lowndes (bless his memory) pulps and digests of the 1950s.

Interesting to hear that it was Randall Garrett and not Meredith who suggested a name change for Silverberg. Meredith was known for changing names of writers (and employed agents) he considered too ethnic to more anglo alternatives.

Todd Mason said...

Well, since there are too many accomplished folks in this comments field, I'll add the brief comment that the best, particularly, of the work that Walker mentions (from the mid '60s to the mid '70s and Silverberg's first retirement) keeps all the drive of his early work and adds sophistication of structure and characterization and subtext that does nothing to discourage the reader...from, say, HAWKSBILL STATION (the first RS novel I read, when I was 12 or so...I think the shorter form was one of the earliest of his "new" approach stories in GALAXY) through DYING INSIDE and "Born with the Dead" even more than SHADRACH IN THE FURNACE (one each in GALAXY, F&SF and ANALOG), you are unlikely to be disappointed, and likely to be permanently impressed. (As the titles might suggest, not always the cheeriest of fiction...but, then, neither is THE OX-BOW INCIDENT or THE TRACK OF THE CAT...or...)(DYING INSIDE arguably does have a happy ending!)

James Reasoner said...

HAWKSBILL STATION is in my "Read Soon" stack (which is much larger than its name implies).