I had long thought that Philip K. Dick‘s 1964-’66 period was the most intensely productive and prolific streak that any sci-fi author of note has ever enjoyed, with nine major novels produced during those three years. But as it turns out, Robert Silverberg, seven years P.K.’s junior, has got him beat by a mile. During the three-year period 1967-’69, Silverberg somehow managed the superhuman feat of releasing no less than 15 novels — six in ’67, three in ’68 and six again in ’69 — and all of them, reportedly, of a very high and literate quality. Silverberg’s fiction began to mature immensely in ’67, by which time he had already released some two dozen full-length sci-fi novels since his first in 1954, and a look at the book in question, 1968’s The Masks of Time, will serve to reveal how capable a writer he had become by this point. Released in May of that year as a 75-cent Ballantine paperback, the novel deservedly garnered a Nebula Award nomination (it ultimately “lost” to Alexei Panshin’s excellent Rite of Passage) and stands as a wonderful, intelligent entertainment to this day, 45 years later.
Although there have been dozens of sci-fi books dealing with an individual’s use of a time travel device to visit the past or future, in Silverberg’s book, we get a look at such a visitor from the outside. The book is narrated by Leo Garfield, a California-based physics professor who is chosen by the U.S. government to be on an escort committee comprised of five other scientists. It seems that a man claiming to be from the future, and named Vornan-19, has suddenly appeared on Rome’s Spanish Steps on Christmas Day 1998. Already a sensation in Europe, his imminent arrival in the U.S. has the government more than a trifle concerned. Riots have already broken out among the cultists known as the Apocalyptists, who believe the world will end on January 1, 2000, and for whom a man claiming to be from the year 2999 represents a total negation of their philosophy. But is Vornan a legitimate time traveler from the future or merely a clever and charismatic faker? That is what Leo and his five fellow academics — an historian, a biochemist, an anthropologist, a philologist and a “cosmic psychologist” — must decide, as they chaperone Vornan-19 around the country and, ultimately, the world.
The Masks of Time manages to be a pleasing creation on several levels. The book is exceptionally well written (Silverberg seems to have an unfailing knack for delivering just the right word or phrase), literate, fascinating and exciting. It features a wealth of well-drawn characters, and makes ample use of the newly liberated sexual attitudes of the era, as the field of sci-fi loosened up with the rest of the world. Vornan is clearly bisexual in nature, and Leo and his Arizona friends, Jack and Shirley, are avid proponents of casual nudism.
This is the sort of novel that just bursts with imaginative touches on nearly every single page, be it the green-slime bugging devices, the floating pneumochairs, or the artificial life forms created by Leo’s biochemist associate. Silverberg shrewdly makes some accurate predictions as to devices in the near future (such as electric cars, music cubes, a telephone answering machine, and something that forcefully suggests today’s Internet), and hilariously has Vornan reveal the secret of mankind’s origin on Earth (hint: It has to do with jettisoned space garbage!).
The Masks of Time features one wonderful set piece after another, including one in an upstate NY mansion where a monstrous party in Vornan’s honor is held. With Mobius-strip walls, moving floors and ceilings, bizarre partygoers, mechanical insect maids, et al., this psychedelic kaleidoscope of a segment is surely some bravura work from Mr. Silverberg; at least as mind-bending as anything in Dick’s oeuvre, and as vividly detailed as the best of Alfred Bester. Other memorable sequences include a visit that Vornan and his guides take to the NY Stock Exchange, to a (legalized and automated) Chicago brothel, to the amusement center in the moon’s Copernicus Crater (this same lunar pleasure spot was more extensively featured in the author’s 1967 novel Thorns), and, as the cult of Vornan grows, to his reception by millions in the countries of South America.
Causing problems wherever he travels, Vornan is a mystifying character, and the reader will be hard put to get a precise handle on this sexually rapacious, elusive and ambiguous man from the future. Ultimately, he causes not only worldwide upheaval, but also rifts amongst the sextet of scientists (four men, two women, significantly) and amongst Leo, Jack and Shirley, as well. Whether seen as a Christ figure or parody of Robert A. Heinlein‘s Valentine Michael Smith, Vornan surely spells trouble for all surrounding him. Personally, I found the story absolutely unputdownable; when I read a book at the office instead of doing the work I’m supposed to be doing, THAT’S a sure sign of a gripping page-turner!
Just two minor quibbles with what is otherwise a fantastic piece of work. First, when Leo travels from California to D.C. by plane, leaving at 10:10 AM Pacific time and arriving at 10 AM Eastern time, I get the feeling that the author has confused his time zones a wee bit. Or am I missing something here? And then, at the novel’s end, when Vornan expresses his wish for a personal “crowd shield (think: protective force field), so that he might walk among the South American mobs in safety… hadn’t it already been established on pg. 5 that Vornan is capable of emitting an electrical field, similar to an eel’s (giving a whole new meaning to the expression “future shock”!), that would render such a device redundant? Oh, well… guess you can’t play it TOO safe when a million worshippers are trying to pull you to bits! Quibbles aside, this really is some wonderful writing from Mr. Silverberg, here very plainly coming into the full flush of his considerable powers…