ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Robert Silverberg, science fiction elder statesman

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Right about then, the Age of Aquarius seemed to be reaching an apocalyptic conclusion: Amid campus riots, a contentious war and political assassinations, it was hard not to feel fatalistic.

And Robert Silverberg, a New York writer who'd recently watched his home burn to the ground and now felt his marriage turning to ash as well, sat down to write one of the darkest books in American literature, as well as one of the most unjustly overlooked.

The reasons "Dying Inside," published in 1972, is not as well known as "Portnoy's Complaint" or "Rabbit, Run" are complex. But it didn't help that this novel -- set in a recognizable, crumbling 1970s New York -- concerned a gifted, neurotic guy who is also a telepath.

"I was getting tired of what the academics call the tropes of science fiction," Silverberg recalls from his fortress-like home here. "I didn't want any more space battles or aliens."

He wanted, instead, to reframe the genre's traditional themes with realistic settings. " 'Dying Inside' took telepathy," he says, "and put it down in the kind of novel John Updike might write."

In truth, it feels more like Philip Roth: The narrator, David Selig, is the sort of angst-ridden Jewish man Alexander Portnoy might have known. Selig is smart enough to peddle term papers to lazy Columbia students, and he spends his free time drinking with a roommate, reading the thoughts of pretty women, and trying to repair his tattered relationship with his sister.

"Dying Inside" never found a wide audience, but it's been hailed by those who know it. Michael Chabon has called it "one of those rare novels that manages to be at once dazzling and tender." The book, which the New York Times once called "the perfect science fiction novel for people who don't like science fiction," was reissued last month by Tor.

Part of what makes the novel so resonant is that Selig's power, which he likens to "an endless radio broadcast without commercials," begins to fade. This thing that's alienated him has also provided his sense of self. When it starts to die, he says, it's like hearing the sentences of the New York Times fragment into a Joycean steam of consciousness.

Like much of the best science fiction, this dying gift acts as a particularly open metaphor -- for aging, for impotence, for a writer's powers of empathy and insight. Jonathan Lethem, an admirer of Silverberg's, has described the novel as "an intimate allegory of the artist's quandary."

"Silverberg was a very disenchanted writer," Lethem says -- and one who, like Roth, exposes male anger. "Sometimes it comes across in a very ferocious way -- his own brilliance comes burning through the framework of the story, and it can be quite bracing."

Silverberg's editor was so braced, in fact, when she read his manuscript that she inquired about his mental health.

"I wasn't feeling all right," Silverberg recalls. "But it wasn't the story of my life."

A speculative man

At 76, Silverberg is refined, nearly aristocratic, with his goatee and full head of silver hair. Brooklyn-reared, he speaks with rolling locutions, his sentences perfect. Edmund Burke, the 18th century founder of modern conservatism, is one of his heroes.

"I've had a love-hate relationship with science fiction all my life," he says from the Oakland Hills home he shares with his second wife, writer Karen Haber. He broke into the field in the mid-1950s, when it was driven by magazine stories. Literary ambitions had crept into the work of writers such as Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury, but the readership was still largely composed of 12-year-old boys.

Columbia degree in hand, Silverberg slogged it out in the pulps, banging out about a million words a year, writing Ace Doubles -- his "Invaders From Earth" flipped over to reveal David Grinnell's "Across Time" -- and straying into historical fiction and soft-core porn.

But by the mid-1960s, science fiction was growing more serious. British writers and editors led the way, in a movement termed the New Wave -- pumping youthful energy and an emphasis on psychology, drugs, sex and social issues.

It triggered something in Silverberg. "I had Joyce and Kafka and Mann in my head," he recalls, "and could bring them together" with his pulp roots.

Silverberg was too old to be part of the New Wave, exactly. "He was very much a bridging figure," Lethem says. "He was the youngest of the elders, and an elder to the New Wave. He was a little too wise and knowing to buy the countercultural dreams of the New Wave, and saw it at a distance."

During this period, Silverberg refracted both his own anguish and the confusion and idealism of the times. Like West Coasters Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin, he drew from the younger writers' energy, producing the lyrical "Night- wings," "The Book of Skulls" -- the tale of four college students chasing immortality, which has attracted William Friedkin -- and "Dying Inside."

California has played an important role in the history of science fiction, especially the Bay Area, where George R. Stewart lived, Le Guin and Dick grew up and Robert Heinlein settled. In the early 1970s, after his fire, trying to save his marriage, Silverberg added to this westward energy when he moved to Oakland.

"Many of my New York friends had already moved to California," he says. "New York seemed to be falling apart, the whole world seemed to be falling apart, my marriage seemed to be falling apart. It was in a what-the-hell spirit."

He wrote "Dying Inside" over nine weeks, while shuttling back and forth between New York and the Bay Area.

The novel took science fiction into emotional and psychological depths it had only hinted at. "I took telepathy as a metaphorical way," Silverberg says. "What happens to Superman when he's not super anymore? What happens to the Olympic athlete when he's not winning medals anymore?"

Yet, falling inconveniently between genres -- too fantastic for literary critics, too literary for sci-fi reviewers -- the book was barely in print just three years after publication.

Difficult to market

The New Wave Silverberg and the others were riding didn't last long -- "Star Wars," he thinks, killed it. "A huge new audience came into science fiction," he says, "wanting books that reflected those films. There were millions of them -- they came to dominate the audience. We were having a quixotic literary revolution that had no commercial possibilities."

Still, what makes the late 1960s and early 1970s novels by Silverberg and others so powerful is not just that so many first-rate minds were drawn to the genre. It's also the way these authors address the social and political issues of the day by de-familiarizing them.

They were, of course, not the first sci-fi writers to do this. "Look at H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine,' " Silverberg says. "It travels 800,000 years into the future, and ends up with the class system of 19th century Britain. You pretend you're writing about the future, but your feet are planted right here."

These days, Silverberg is content. But of the major sci-fi writers of the period -- Le Guin, Dick, the late J.G. Ballard and Thomas M. Disch -- Silverberg, who has won the Hugo and Nebula awards five times each, remains the least known. Besides "Dying Inside" and his 1971 novel "A Time of Changes," which Tor has also reissued, many of his books are only marginally in print.

"He's not marketing his persona," Lethem says. "Each of the others has a persona -- gay or Pacific Northwest utopian or English dystopian. He's not a countercultural brand. Silverberg's only hallmark is quality. And in a crowded literary world, that may be the most difficult thing of all."

Timberg will moderate the "Science Fiction: The Grand Masters" panel with Silverberg, Harry Harrison and Joe Haldeman on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in Ackerman Grand Ballroom at UCLA at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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