Though To Be Continued: 1953-1958 is the first official volume of the definitive collection of Robert Silverberg’s short stories, it should be read after In the Beginning: Tales from the Pulp Era (1955-1959), a collection of short stories that overlaps with To Be Continued only in terms of chronology: There are absolutely no stories duplicated in the two volumes, and in To Be Continued, Silverberg makes frequent reference to In the Beginning which, like To Be Continued, has the same autobiographical introductions to every story.
Having now read these first two volumes, I am fairly certain Silverberg would want readers to finish In the Beginning before starting To Be Continued, assuming, of course, that one wants to follow Silverberg’s career in chronological order. That is certainly Silverberg’s goal and his stated reason for being dissatisfied with previous short story collections of his work: They attempt merely to collect his greatest stories without any regard to following chronology. In the Beginning followed by To Be Continued corrects that fault in the earlier collections.
If In the Beginning is very good, then To Be Continued is great by comparison. I would say that some of the best stories in the previous volume match the best in this volume, but there are more high quality stories in To Be Continued than in In the Beginning. I expect to see an increase in level of quality across the board in future volumes, but at this point, what I notice is a greater consistency of the highest level of writing of which Silverberg was capable at this point in his early career (he was still a very young man, prodigy though he was).
Of the twenty-four stories in this volume, while almost all are enjoyable and/or interesting, there are nine stories good enough that I’m considering them all for teaching in my college English courses at some point in the future: “The Macauley Circuit,” “Alaree,” “The Artifact Business,” “A Man of Talent,” “World of a Thousand Colors,” “Warm Man,” “The Man Who Never Forgot,” “There was an Old Woman,” and “Ozymandias.” There are a number of other stories I really enjoyed reading, because Silverberg’s stories rarely drag and are almost always easy to get into.
“The Macauley Circuit” is dated a little in terms of technology, but the questions it poses about art are certainly not dated. The narrator is a “synthesizer-interpreter” who, when we first meet him, is adding “ultrasonics” to a score of Beethoven’s. From his perspective, the narrator believes he is “strengthening” the symphony by “adding the ultrasonics.” Concert performers, of course, are not pleased, because audiences now go to hear synthesizers perform famous classical pieces instead of human musicians. The narrator has two conflicts in this short story: A famous, aging concert pianist comes to see him at the same time as he realizes his co-worker Macauley has “worked out a circuit which almost would have made synthesizing a symphony as easy as playing a harmonica.” If only the pianist can figure out that the synthesizer makes it possible for those who use them to become artists in a new way, then maybe the concert pianist will see that his life still might have meaning. But what if the Macauley circuit makes obsolete even the “synthesizer-interpreter” as artist? “What is art?” Silverberg asks. And if a machine can make music, is it still art? How much input does a human being have to have for the music created via technology to be considered art?
“A Man of Talent” also examines the relationship between art, artist, and society. When a poet decides his art is true and pure if he writes only for himself, he leaves Earth to live on a planet on which he is unknown. He asks only to be left alone to write. Imagine his surprise when those who live there are not shocked to find out that he is a poet; they are shocked to discover that he is ONLY a poet. All who live on this planet grow up drawing, painting, writing, composing, singing, and so on. They also have their daily work. Silverberg, though, throws a great twist in this story: Our poet finds his place on this planet when asked one important question that changes his entire perspective and helps him find new meaning in life as he rethinks his definitions of art and the artist and the role of both in society.
“Alaree” and “World of a Thousand Colors” deal with a concern of Silverberg’s that seems to be a primary one. I’ve noticed it in stories collected in In The Beginning, To Be Continued, and To the Dark Star, as well as the stories he did not write but chose to include in his anthology Science Fiction 101. Also, from my reading reviews of Silverberg’s later novels, I believe that these stories must be essential ones to read for anyone interested in this author’s developing his ideas surrounding a group of related, but not identical, terms: self, identity, personality, soul, individuality, as well as other terms that lead him to explore these concepts: selflessness, communion, heaven, empathy, I and we. Empathy also seems to be a key term for Silverberg because it’s the ability by which an I can conceive of an “other” and thus create a true “we” on an intimate and emotional level.
In “Alaree,” an alien learns the concept of I after much explanation, but this new knowledge has serious consequences. In the even better and more fully developed “World of a Thousand Colors,” Silverberg intentionally sets out to write in the style of Jack Vance, whose work he greatly admired. In this tale, the Vance-like scoundrel works his way into position to receive a great reward; however, he just might not be able to claim it because of his very nature as an individual. Silverberg considers a question that has religious implications for many: Is the loss of the body equivalent to the loss of self? To what extent is self, personhood, identity, individuality, etc. defined by the body? Are they inseparable?
“The Artifact Business” is a story of archeology on an alien planet, but as always, Silverberg’s stories are good because of what they say about the human condition instead of the mere inventiveness of the settings. In this story, Silverberg is writing about how our pursuit of knowledge often has to be funded, and the funding is often what drives what scientists can do more than their own personal interests. In the case of this story, the archeologists are bothered that their “digs” are at the mercy of shifting whims and fashions among the wealthy classes who want to own what is found. By making the story about archeology, Silverberg also asks this question: Who owns what is “found” by scientists (whether what is found is an object unearthed or a cure discovered)? The archeologists in this story want their finds to go into public museums instead of going into private homes and galleries, but they can’t increase public knowledge without the funding, and they can’t get the funding without giving what they find to their financial backers. There is a delightful twist to this story that makes it one of the best in the collection.
“The Warm Man” explores further another one of Silverberg’s major subjects: Empathy. In this particular story, a strange man comes to town and seems to mysteriously feed off the pain of others. He’s almost like a vampire sucking out the unhappiness he senses around him. All is well, until people in town get a little uncomfortable. But the warm man’s situation goes from bad to worse when he meets another person with a unique ability that is not the same as his but of the same type, or category.
“The Man Who Never Forgot,” you’ll be surprised to discover, is about a man who never forgets. I love this story because, like many people, I’m fascinated by memory. Having taught college students for twenty years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the same age group over an extended period and to see how memory differs both in kind and quality. Silverberg, who apparently has an incredible memory, used the story to look at what life might be like if one had perfect memory. Life as he shows it doesn’t look very good. But Silverberg lets us know in his introduction that the story is not only about memory: It’s about any special gifts one might have and whether they truly feel like gifts or feel more like personal curses to endure. Silverberg writes that when he read this story again for this collection, he was surprised to see that it’s really an early version of his novel Dying Inside.
“There Was an Old Woman” is about a scientist woman who, through “multiple extra utero birth,” raises thirty-one identical sons but assigns them each a different profession to demonstrate that “environment controlled personality, that given the same set of healthy genes any number of different adults could be shaped from the raw material.” It doesn’t go quite the way she plans. This story was fascinating, but I was quite surprised by the ending. It’s very strange, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. Silverberg says that the idea of “multiple extra utero birth was sufficiently interesting to me that I would use it again, in a very different way, eight years later, in my novel Thorns, the first significant book of my literary maturity.”
“Ozymandias” is a story I like because I enjoy the poem by Shelley, and I find interesting the way in which Silverberg both employs the original theme of the poem and adds an additional meaning to that already multi-layered ironic poem. At the plot-level, it’s about explorers visiting a long-dead planet.
There are so many other good stories, but this review is already going to be too long, so I’ll mention a few more as briefly as possible: “Gorgon Planet” is a variant Medusa tale; “Absolutely Inflexible” is a clever time-travel tale with a great O. Henry ending; “The Songs of Summer” is a funny story about a man encountering and trying to take over an unresisting future pacifist society; “To Be Continued” is about being immortal and wanting a child, concerns touched on in the very early Silverberg novel The 13th Immortal; like stories I’ve seen in the other Silverberg collections I’ve read, “Sunrise on Mercury” and “Delivery Guaranteed” are stories he was asked to write based on printed cover art; and “Counterpart” considers what would happen if we could fully take into our personality an additional identity and whether that change would increase a person’s overall capacity for empathy.
Other than the fiction, however, I enjoy his autobiographic introduction to the book as well as the often lengthy introductions to the individual stories. Silverberg talks about his life, his craft, the SF industry, specific publishers, and his fellow writers. I found all these introductions fascinating even though I’m not that knowledgeable about the SF field (I was asked to join Fanlit as the writer and editor of the comic book reviews). If you enjoy memoir and autobiography, you will greatly enjoy this additional part of the book. When you considered that the collection is already top-notch, these additional introductions make To Be Continued a worthwhile read for any fans of science fiction written and published during the last, dying days of the pulp industry. For fans of Silverberg, this collection is a must-read, particularly since some of the plot devices and many of the themes are ones that he will develop more fully in his later novels.