The Secret Sharer and Other Stories: Silverberg achieves greatness

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Secret Sharer and Other Stories by Robert Silverberg The Secret Sharer and Other Stories by Robert Silverberg

The Secret Sharer and Other Stories by Robert Silverberg is available on Audible and offers a top-notch performance by Robertson Dean. The title is a little misleading, I think. There are only three selections included, and only one is a short story. The other two seem to be novellas. However, based on the way Silverberg’s works have been repackaged and republished over the years, even those distinctions are difficult to make: For example, We Are for the Dark is included in both his collected short stories volume seven, We Are for the Dark: 1987-1990, and in the collection Sailing to Byzantium: Six Novellas. In listening to all three selections, I noticed that The Secret Sharer and We Are for the Dark are both much longer than “Good News from the Vatican.” The short story is a good one, but I absolutely loved the two novellas.

The Secret Sharer, which can be found in Sailing to Byzantium: Six Novellas, is a reinterpretation of a story of the same name by Joseph Conrad, one of Silverberg’s favorite writers. However, it’s not merely the same story put into a science fiction setting. Instead, he takes the basic premise of a stowaway on a ship and the bonding between captain and stowaway and then develops new themes not possible for Conrad to develop in his story.

In Silverberg’s story, the stowaway is actually a “matrix,” one of three major categories of people aboard the ship — the ship’s crew, passengers put into a kind of semi-permanent sleep for the entire voyage, and bodiless individuals who are now just personalities made up solely of a kind of electricity. A bodiless individual of this type is called a “matrix.” Each matrix has left a body behind somewhere for any number of reasons and has booked package to a new location where it will be inserted into a new body that is vacant, also for a variety of reasons, including the possibility that the person who was in this new body originally left it to become a matrix and travel elsewhere.

The basic plot is that a matrix has escaped and accidentally killed a passenger in a failed attempt to enter that passenger’s body. The matrix has done so because she cannot stand to have an identity without a body. We find out she is a young girl of seventeen who goes by the appropriate name of Vox. She approaches the young captain and asks for sanctuary in the only place the ship cannot find her — within his body. The young captain agrees, and the rest of the story is about the struggles he undergoes to keep her hidden. Since he is not liked well by most of his fellow crewmen and since they are a suspicious group, his struggle is a difficult one, particularly since members of the crew sometimes have to connect mentally with the captain to perform certain tasks.

This premise could result in a terrible story in the hands of a mediocre writer, but Silverberg shows complete mastery of his story and its larger thematic purpose. He returns to themes he started developing in his early short story collections In the Beginning and To Be Continued. What is individualilty? What is identity? Personality? Soul? Self? Can an identity, a personality, a soul, a self, or an I exist without a body? What does it mean to say I, You, or We? How does Empathy work? What is Selflessness? Communion?

In addition to considering the definitions of all these terms, Silverberg, as he does in other stories, calls space “Heaven.” He seems to do so in order to give greater religious, or at least spiritual, resonance to the terms above, to connect the concept of Identity with that of Soul, as well as Empathy and Selflessness with the theologically-associated term Communion. I won’t tell you what happens in this story, but it’s less about plot than it is about how we connect with others, why we do and why we should connect with others, not to mention the risks and benefits that result when we encounter others at the deepest levels possible. The captain’s relationship with Vox is not about true scientific possibilities — it’s about acts of empathy that happen every day.

If I suggested that the word spiritual might be a better word than religious to describe Silverberg’s concerns in The Secret Sharer, the words spiritual AND religious are essential to describe Silverberg’s thematic interests in We Are for the Dark and “Good News from the Vatican.” We Are for the Dark is about a religious order that, as the story opens, has recently reached a crisis on Earth. The story is told movingly in the first person by a Lord Magistrate, who is high up in the order and in charge of choosing those who will go out beyond Earth, never to return, on the Order’s mission to follow and spread Darklaw out to the heavens.

At the start of the story, our narrator is called to see the Master, who slowly reveals to him the crisis: The ships, which they can track but with which they cannot communicate, have gone beyond the boundaries they have established by God’s will as revealed in what they call Darklaw. They have literally gone off the map and are heretical by going so far without direction from the Master. Our narrator is made scapegoat by the following logic: He must have chosen poorly if those of the religious Order he has sent out have betrayed the Order. As a result, he is sent out himself, off Earth, to seek out answers, though by the rules of Darklaw, he’s not actually allowed to return to Earth to provide those answers to the Master and others of the Order. We Are for the Dark is the story of his travels.

Ultimately, We Are for the Dark is both about the spiritual and the religious. In a reflective moment, the narrator thinks, “the journey to the stars and the journey toward God are one thing and the same. It is the journey into reality.” This thought echoes similar claims made in other stories by Silverberg’s characters. Again and again Silverberg suggests via his fiction that the stars are Heaven in a spiritual sense and not merely in the sense of everyday language when we tell someone out at night looking at the stars to glance “toward the heavens.” Silverberg is playing off this everyday expression to bring into his stories these theological questions; however, he never answers simply the complex questions he raises. His stories are suggestive and not didactic in this area: One is left wondering if Silverberg is telling us that the stars are the closest we are ever to come to Heaven or if he is using the stars as a metaphor for Heaven or both? Whatever the real man Silverberg believes, as author, Silverberg does not preach in the stories I have read so far.

We Are for the Dark is also religious in that it is about organized religion: Can one group of people dictate how others should live, particularly if those people live at a distance and under different conditions, many of which are so different that the people dictating can’t even know or imagine how different those conditions are? When our narrator goes from world to world, he slowly realizes how little he knows. In fact, I can see the influence of another writer on Silverberg here: Somerset Maugham, whose narrators are always reserved and open-minded enough to go among different people and different places without offending others. A typical Maugham narrator keeps his mouth shut, observes carefully, is polite outwardly, and is extremely thoughtful inwardly. Silverberg has claimed Maugham as an early favorite writer of his, and I can certainly see it here in the Lord Magistrate as he kindly listens to those who have deviated from Darklaw.

This Maugham-like narrator offers conclusions about religion that allow Silverberg to express a clearer, less ambiguous, point than he did about Heaven. We Are for the Dark clearly tells us that those who wish to dictate the religious behaviors of others, particularly from a distance, are wrong to do so: As the narrator concludes after visiting only a few worlds: “Why should we have believed that we could prescribe a single code of law that would meet the needs of hundreds of widely varying worlds? Of course they would modify our teachings to fit their own evolving cultures, and some would probably depart entirely from that which we had created for them. It was only to be expected.” There are many more revelations to follow, and I’ve tried to give away as little of the plot as possible after the basic premise. Of all the Silverberg’s stories I’ve read so far, this story is one of the best in terms of plot, narrator’s voice, descriptions, style, dialogue, and theme.

The final selection in this Audible collection is the award-winning “Good News from the Vatican,” which can be found in the third volume of Silverberg’s collected stories, Something Wild Is Loose: 1969-1972. As Silverberg mentions in the introduction to the story in the printed collection, this story was written at high speed at the request of a friend and was meant to be a funny, quirky story about a robot being chosen as the next pope. “Every era gets the pope it deserves,” observes one character. Silverberg says he picked the subject because, though he’s not Catholic or even Christian, he is much interested in the Papacy and knows quite a bit about the choosing of popes. As a result of that knowledge, he felt he could write a quick story and not spend more than a day interrupting his work on his current novel. He sent it to his friend, put it out of his mind, and got back to work on his novel.

“Good News from the Vatican” won Silverberg his second Nebula, and I have absolutely no idea why it won an award. It’s certainly amusing, and the first-person narration draws the reader/listener in, but I don’t think it comes even close to being one of his great stories. I do like it, however. I particularly enjoy the narrator’s observations of his small group in Rome as they wait to hear who will be named pope. His subtle observations on those around him once again remind me of a narrator out of a Maugham short story. Countless Maugham stories are based almost solely on the observations of a narrator as he sits down to dine, and this story seems less about a robot pope than about creating only a slightly science fiction background as an interesting reason for having a group of otherwise very different people to gather together for an extended period of drinking and eating and drinking.

It’s a good story, and I want to read it again, especially now that I know that it won the Nebula. Perhaps I missed something much more sublime and subtle and ironic than I am currently willing to attribute to the story and its themes. It seems a masterful story of its type, but from my perspective, the story doesn’t have high enough ambitions to allow it to reach the greatness that many other Silverberg stories achieve. The Secret Sharer and We Are for the Dark, on the other hand, show Silverberg striving for greatness and achieving it.


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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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