Tag Archives: Robert Silverberg

Best Far-Future SF Books

I love science-fiction books set in the far future. And I’m not talking mere tens of thousands of years—I mean tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of years in the future. In most of my favorite tales of the distant future, our world is unrecognizable—the sun is swollen, nearing the end of its life, and our time is but a fragment of a vast forgotten past.

As a reader, I’m drawn to the pure imagination found in these stories. As a writer, I love the liberation the extreme future offers, the opportunity to just cut loose and not be constrained by whatever trends we think will control our lives a few paltry years out. It forces the writer into some serious world-building, since it requires constructing societies, technologies, even animal life, from scratch. But that’s part of the fun.

Very few writers can pull off that kind of setting well. These are my favorites, in no particular order:

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950) is a book that many sci-fi fans have heard about, but not as many have read. It was out of print for a long time, and was a hard book to find in used bookstores. In this future Earth, a red, exhausted sun drags itself across the dark blue sky. Technology has been developed so long ago that people don’t even understand how most of it works, and is often treated as if it were magic, with characters wielding technology like wizards conjuring spells.

Vance remembers one of the most important rules of far-future fiction—the people of those times won’t act like we will. They’ll have different motivations and perspectives, and so it is with the strange, often brutal, swashbuckling protagonists of these tales.

In Son of Man by Robert Silverberg (1971) we follow Clay, a man of the 20th Century who has become lost in a mostly unexplained time flux. He ends up in a future so distant that all that remains of humanity are a handful of bizarre descendant species—carefree, but immensely powerful Skimmers, unmoving Awaiters, bear-like Destroyers. The planet Mercury is gone, as are Saturn’s rings. As he explores the future Earth with Skimmers who’ve befriended him, Clay meets other humans from times in between that have also been flung forward by the time flux. Most of them are unrecognizable as people.

The tone of this novel is downright trippy, the kind of book that many readers assume must have been written during a drug-fueled binge, but anyone who knows anything about Silverberg knows of his writerly discipline. You don’t write 82 novels under your own name, plus a couple hundred more under pen names, 71 non-fiction books, edit dozens of short story collections and produce more than 450 short stories and novelettes if you’re away from your typewriter getting wasted. No, this book is just pure imagination in flight.

Of all the books mentioned here, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson (1912) is the strangest. As the title suggests, the Earth is a land of eternal night, as the sun itself has burned out. The world is lit only by the glow of the “Earth Current” that sustains what is left of the human race. All of humanity lives in the Last Redoubt, a miles-high pyramid, and dares not venture out, as they are beset on all sides by horrifying demonic beasts and bizarre aliens. Only ancient technology keeps the monsters at bay.

The hero is the reincarnated soul of a man from our millennium who leaves the sanctuary of the Redoubt to search for a soulmate from a past life who may survive in a legendary second Redoubt. His journey is epic in every sense of the word.

This book is too long, often redundant, and the author adopted an archaic style that takes a while to get into. Yet once you read it, you can’t get the haunting landscape out of your head.

Since The Night Land is old enough to be in the public domain, other writers have picked up the setting and run with it. The most noteworthy is John C. Wright’s Awake in the Night Land.

The Book of The new Sun by Gene Wolf (1980-) is made up of four volumes—The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch.

Severian the Torturer is the main character, and he’s the classic unreliable narrator. Across the four books we learn there is more to Severian than first suspected, and his role in humanity’s future is larger than anyone could have guessed. Severian’s journey takes us across an Earth unlike any we’ve encountered. Wolfe does a great job of imparting the weight of time upon the residents of this old Earth. Digging into the ground anywhere uncovers layers of lost and forgotten civilizations. Gene Wolfe is a great writer, one of the best in SF, and this is his masterwork. He carries on the tale in The Urth of the New Sun, which sees Severian travel the stars and secure mankind’s destiny.

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Worldcon part 2: Writers

The World Science Fiction Convention, and the Hugo awards presented there every year, has always been primarily focused on the literature of science fiction. Unlike Comic-Con out in San Diego, which has a heavy Hollywood presence, Worldcon celebrates the novels, short stories, novellas and fan magazines of the genre above all else.

Sure, there were some movie and TV stars in attendance in San Antonio this year (Hey! It’s that dude who plays The Hound on Game of Thrones!), but for the most part, the star-gazing at Worldcon involves spotting your favorite authors.

Now, I’ve been a writer or editor for 23 years, and I know my share of writers, so I don’t normally get the vapors around other scribes. But man, when you get the chance to meet and mingle with authors you’ve been reading for decades, your true favorites, writers whose stories stay lodged in your mind for life, it’s hard not to devolve into a squealing fanboy.

The grandmaster, Robert Silverberg, signing at the 71st Worldcon in San Antonio.
The grandmaster, Robert Silverberg, signing at the 71st Worldcon in San Antonio.

For instance—Robert Silverberg. He’s my favorite SF author, a multiple Hugo and Nebula winner, author of classics such as Dying Inside and Nightwings. When I found out he was doing a signing on Friday afternoon I rearranged my schedule to be there. Squealing fanboy? Well, I did stand in line for 45 minutes to get him to sign my copies of Project Pendulum and A Time of Changes, but I managed to not gush too embarrassingly.

Nancy Kress is another former Hugo winner who was nominated again this year for her novella After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall. The book had already won a Nebula award (The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s top award). She’s long been on my list of authors I need to read, and after attending a couple of panels she was on, I went straight to one of the booksellers in the vendor area and bought a copy and later got it signed. Impressive woman, impressive book.

But everywhere I turned there was an author whose books clutter my shelves and my mind. I attended a reading by George R.R. Martin of a chapter from his next A Song of Ice and Fire book, and might have even tried to get one of his books signed but for the line that stretched from San Antonio to Austin. David Brin was seemingly everywhere, usually on the best panels. And look, there’s Kim Stanley Robinson! No, over there, next to John Scalzi.

That kind of weekend.

So call me a nerd, a fanboy, whatever. At the bright lights of Comic-Con I probably wouldn’t recognize a quarter of the names and faces. But at Worldcon, I was taking a walk through the bookshelves of my life.

Robert Silverberg: When the Blue Shift Comes

Robert Silverberg is one of my favorite authors. He’s one of the few writers whose work I actively collect—I’ve got crumbling, decades-old paperbacks, 1st edition hardcovers, book club editions (which were often the only hardback versions ever made of some of his works) and trade paperbacks.

As a reader, I’ve loved the range of his stories, from tales set billions of years in the future to convincing SF tales set in contemporary times. As a writer, I’ve admired his style and his skill, and his ability to write in so many genres, under so many pen names, for so many decades. He makes it seem so effortless, and his best works, such as Dying Inside, haunt your thoughts long after you’ve finished the book.

ARC for Robert Silverberg’s “When the Blue Shift Comes.”

But for all my Silverberg collecting, I’d never secured  an Advanced Reading Copy until recently (An ARC is an early edition sent to reviewers prior to regular publication.) I picked up this copy of When the Blue Shift Comes at ArmadilloCon in Austin this summer, and not only is it a unique addition to my collection, but it represents a new concept in fiction publishing.

When the Blue Shift Comes is part of The Stellar Guild Series by Phoenix Pick, in which famous authors are teamed up with up-and-coming writers. Sometimes the well-known writer selects a protege with whom to collaborate, sometimes the publisher suggests a candidate, but you end up with a tale begun by the famous author and completed by the newcomer. Besides Silverberg, some of the other authors in the series include Larry Niven, Harry Turtledove and Mercedes Lackey, so the publisher has some heavy-hitters lined up.

When the Blue Shift Comes is Silverberg without restraints, a tale set in a distant future where humans hop between galaxies as easily as we drive to the next town. How far in the future? Well, it’s the Year 777 of Cycle 888 of the 1111th Encompassment of the Ninth Mandala which, if you check your calendar, is pretty far out there. Earth is populated by immortals, at least until a universe-threatening anomaly is discovered and sets the story in motion. Silverberg wrote the first half of this novella and then handed it off to Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, who did a fine job completing the story. It could not have been an easy task—Silverberg employed a very unique voice, almost as if a flighty angel were telling the tale, but Zinos-Amaro picks it up seamlessly. In addition, Silverberg set a very large stage that must have been a mind-bending challenge to finish. Hey, how would you like to have to take a half-finished tale that moves us to the brink of the very end of the universe itself, and bring it to completion? Nicely done, Alvaro.

When the Blue Shift Comes will be released in November in trade paperback and e-book.