A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg
After four years of successive losses, sci-fi great Robert Silverberg finally picked up his first Nebula Award in 1972. His 1967 novel Thorns had lost to Samuel R. Delany‘s The Einstein Intersection, his brilliant 1968 novel The Masks of Time had been bested by Alexei Panshin’s equally brilliant Rite of Passage, 1969’s time travel tale Up the Line had succumbed to Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness, while 1970’s unforgettable Tower of Glass had been beaten by Larry Niven‘s Ringworld.
But in 1972, Silverberg finally copped the top prize given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, winning for his superb novel A Time of Changes and prevailing over Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and novels by Kate Wilhelm, Poul Anderson, T.J. Bass and R.A. Lafferty. (A Time of Changes was also nominated for the Hugo Award, ultimately losing to Philip Jose Farmer‘s To Your Scattered Bodies Go.) Originally appearing in the March – May ’71 issues of Galaxy magazine, the novel was released as a hardcover book in June of that year, and in conjunction with the author’s three other remarkable novels of 1971 — The Second Trip, Son of Man and The World Inside — demonstrate what a tremendous roll Silverberg was on during this phase of his lengthy career.
A Time of Changes takes the form of a memoir written by the fugitive prince Kinnall Darival, who pens his story in the desertlike Burnt Lowlands of the planet Borthan, at least 1,000 years from today. Darival is currently the most wanted man on the planet, and his story explains why. First settled by Earthmen a millennium earlier, Borthan — or, at least, Velada Borthan, the only continent that has been civilized — is now a society run in conformity with the dictates of their “Covenant.” It is a society that severely frowns on any demonstration of the self. Speaking of one’s feelings to another has been proscribed, to the point that even the use of such words as “I” and “myself” are deemed more offensive than the 21st century “F bomb.” Indeed, one may only speak of such intimate matters to one’s bondsister or bondbrother (everyone, apparently, gets two) or to the professional “drainers,” who, in their quasi-religious manner, seem to combine the attributes of both analyst and paid confessor.
As Darival tells us from his crumbling shack in the middle of the burning desert, he had been forced to leave his province of Salla when his older brother, Stirron, had assumed the position of septarch, following the death of their father. He had found little welcome in the northern, ascetic province of Glin, and so had worked his way down to the southern, tropical province of Manneran, where he had wed the look-alike cousin of his bondsister Halum (who he’d been shamefully in love with), raised a family and risen to a position of prominence.
All was going well with him until he’d encountered the roving Earthman named Schweiz, who made him realize what a repressive society he lived in, and with whom he’d partaken of a drug from the uncivilized southern continent of Sumara Borthan, which enabled its users to enter one another’s minds and (gasp!) share feelings. And Darival’s crimes were only compounded when, in company with Schweiz, he’d traveled to the unknown continent to get more of the drug, and come back to “turn on” the populace to a new covenant of love, feelings and mutual understanding.
A Time of Changes is a beautifully written book, and as it turns out, Kinnall Darival is almost as good a writer as Silverberg himself (LOL!). He is an immensely likable and self-effacing man, imposing physically yet constantly telling the reader about his perceived “shortcomings” (such as his premature ejaculation problem), and his slow conversion from upright observer of the puritanical Covenant to a messiah of free love is wonderful to behold.
The world of Borthan is meticulously described by the author, down to its history, geography, customs, flora and fauna, and can almost be seen as a warm-up for Silverberg’s most elaborately detailed planet, Majipoor (although it took him eight novels and change to flesh out THAT world fully). Very much a novel of its time, with its emphasis on drugs and “soul sharing” and the liberating power of love, the book retains its great effectiveness today, over four decades later. As for that Sumaran drug, it is described in a manner that forcefully brings to mind LSD, especially when Kinnall and Schweiz spill the powder into some wine, drink it down, and wait a 1/2 hour or so for the effects to manifest. Those initial effects DO seem reminiscent of the lysergic experience, too, although no acid that I have ever heard of, unfortunately, enabled soul-to-soul telepathy between its users. A pity.
As in Son of Man (an extremely psychedelic, borderline unreadable book that makes one wonder about the extent of Silverberg’s own drug experiments during that period!), our lead character here gets to know what it feels like to be a woman (by doing the drug with his mistress); as does the telepath David Selig in the author’s 1972 novel Dying Inside, our lead character also gets to experience a “double orgasm” (while doing the drug and having sex with that same woman). The book is absolutely compelling, fascinating and charming; a true “page-turner” that even contains some traces of genuine humor (in an apparent nod to Star Trek, the shipmaster who takes Kinnall and Schweiz to the southern continent is named… Capt. Khrisch!).
“My prose has its faults,” Darival tells us at one point in his history, but there were certainly none that this reader could discern. In all, this is yet another wonderful creation from Mr. Silverberg, one of the best of the 15 or so that I have read so far, and surely deserving of that Nebula Award. To put it succinctly, and in a phrase that would surely shock and appall most of the inhabitants of Velada Borthan, “As for myself, I loved it!”