The Stochastic Man: Silverberg very near the top of his game

Robert Silverberg The Stochastic Man , Lord of DarknessThe Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg science fiction book reviewsThe Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

Although his previous output had for several decades been nothing short of prodigious, by the mid-’70s, sci-fi great Robert Silverberg was finally beginning to slow down. The author had released no fewer than 23 sci-fi novels during his initial, “pulpy” phase (1954-1965), and a full 23 more from 1967-1972, his second, more mature, more literate period. And following 1972′s Dying Inside — whose central conceit of a telepath losing his powers has often been seen as corresponding to Silverberg’s self-professed, supposed diminution of his own writing abilities (not that any reader would ever be aware of it) — for the first time in the author’s career, there were no new sci-fi novels for several years.

But as it turned out, Silverberg still had two more major works up his sleeve before calling it quits in 1976 (before he came roaring back with his MAJIPOOR CYCLE, starting in 1980): The Stochastic Man (1975) and Shadrach in the Furnace (1976). A look at the 1975 work will surely make readers wonder why Silverberg ever thought of taking a break at all, as the book is as imaginative, beautifully written and mind expanding as any other in the author’s canon. Nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the novel lost out, on both fronts, to Joe Haldeman‘s The Forever War, yet remains an eminently entertaining and thought-provoking work, now almost 40 years later.

The tale is told by Lew Nichols in the, uh, futuristic, cusp-of-the-millennia (December 2000) setting of a decayed and strife-ridden New York City, one that makes the urban rot of the mid-’70s seem like a Legoland. Nichols had enjoyed a very unusual occupation, doing stochastic projections for major clients. (I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up: “Stochastic” simply means “involving chance or probability.”) Using mathematical formulae (“Kolmogorov axioms, Ehrenhaft games, Markov chains, the Pascal triangle,” etc.), Nichols is able to make better-than-educated guesses regarding future events. Married to a beautiful Indian woman and residing away from the urban violence in his protected Staten Island enclave, life is certainly good for Nichols. And that life becomes even more exciting when he meets NYC mayoral hopeful Paul Quinn at a party and joins his staff. With Nichols’ assistance, Quinn wins the election in a landslide and then sets his eyes on the presidency. Meanwhile, Nichols’ stochastic gifts soon begin to seem like weak tea indeed when he encounters a little old man named Martin Carvajal, who has the uncanny knack of being able to look into the future with perfect accuracy, and who claims that that future is unalterable….

While The Stochastic Man is as gripping and entertaining a sci-fi tale as any fan might hope for, its underlying message of mankind living in an inflexibly rigid, deterministic universe is one that many readers might feel uncomfortable with. Not since Cornell Woolrich’s great 1945 thriller The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, perhaps, has such a bleak vision been presented to us, and even Jon Davis, host of the Quasi-Official Robert Silverberg Web Site, mentions that he finds the novel a bit “unpleasant.” The book is a fairly serious affair, and almost completely devoid of humor. What little humor there IS to be found is largely of the black variety, such as Silverberg’s descriptions of the extreme violence that transpires during a typical NYC week (the Harlem forces use Syrian tanks to attack Spanish Harlem; the Puerto Ricans retaliate, with the aid of three Israeli colonels, by firebombing the Apollo!), and the fact that most of Quinn’s staff is comprised of Armenians — Missakian, Ephrikian, Mardikian…  everybody, it would seem, except a Kardashian! (And yes, it IS a tad difficult at first to keep these names straight.)

Silverberg, as usual, peppers his tale with any number of imaginative touches; thus, the powdered calcium bone that people smoke to get high; the new, faddish Transit Creed religion that Nichols’ wife becomes infatuated with and that leads to marital discord; Carvajal’s diagrammatic explanation as to just how his divining abilities might work. Typical for the author in this, his liberated second phase, there are numerous erotic — and even borderline graphic — sex scenes in the book; Silverberg, after all, to make a living between 1959 and 1967, had also written around 150 sex novels, with such marvelous titles as The Bra Peddlers, Lesbian Love, Lust Cult, Passion Peeper and Dial O-R-G-Y.

As in his 1968 novel The Masks of Time, the raucous events surrounding the end of the millennium figure prominently. And as in his hallucinatory 1971 novel of the far-distant future, Son of Man, here, the Earth of a billion years hence is imagined by Nichols in one surreal sequence (“Mechanical birds, twittering like creaky gates, flutter overhead”).

The Stochastic Man, good as it is — and if I have been remiss in stressing this, let me say right here that this IS Silverberg very near the top of his game, and that modern sci-fi doesn’t get too much better than that — is not a perfect novel, and its author makes a few errors here and there. Nichols’ hair, for example, is said to be “light” at the opening and “dark” around 100 pages later. In addition, Silverberg’s own stochastic powers were a bit off as regards a NYC terrorist attack; it wasn’t the Statue of Liberty that was obliterated, but rather another downtown landmark! And there was no Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the year 2000, as it turned out; it was reorganized after 1979. But these are minor matters. Nichols and Carvajal are wonderful and likable characters, the story is a fascinating one, the political machinations are realistically intricate, and indeed the book overall is fairly unputdownable. For an author who felt that his writing powers were on the wane, this book stands as a stark denial. One does not need any stochastic abilities whatsoever to predict a reader’s great satisfaction after turning the final page of this wonderfully inventive piece of work.

The Stochastic Man — (1975) Publisher: In a not-too-distant future, the assassination of an all-powerful New York City Mayor has plunged the five boroughs back into a dangerous cesspool of crime, drugs, and prostitution. Professional prognosticator Lew Nichols joins the campaign team of a fast-rising politico running for the city’s top office, and is introduced to a man who privately admits to being able to view glimpses of the future. Lew becomes obsessed with capturing the man’s gift and putting it to use for his candidate, but struggles to accept the strict terms he arranges with his mentor … and the unforgiving predetermination of the future. Hugo Award Nominee, John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee, Nebula Award- Nominee.

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SANDY FERBER is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum is Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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9 comments

  1. I wonder what the fictional Nichols would make of statistics guru Nate Silver.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Marion, my stochastic prediction is that the two would have a LOT to talk about….

  3. Brad Hawley /

    I WANT this book with THAT cover! Awesome!

    Sandy, I am starting to dive into Silverberg’s works, particularly his short stories, so I’m really enjoying reading your reviews. I loved Nightwings, and I’ll get to this one soon. But at the moment, I’m halfway through his earliest collection of pulp stories. Not only are the stories good, but the introductions are fascinating, particularly his discussion of the publishing industry at the time, his working on his craft while in college (when most of these stories were published), and his meeting and working with different publishers and SF writers, particularly Harlan Ellison, another of my favorite short story writers.

    The most exciting little comment he made in an introduction wouldn’t mean much to anybody else I suppose, but he mentions that one of his favorite writers–even all the way back then–was Somerset Maugham (along with Conrad). Maugham, who seems to have fallen completely out of fashion, is my favorite writer of short stories in the English language–by a very, very wide margin–so, I was very excited to find out that this Silverberg guy–new to ME–was influenced by Maugham’s South Sea stories as he started crafting his own short stories before he was even writing novels.

    It certainly makes me like Silverberg even more than I already did!

  4. Brad Hawley /

    “. . . a decayed and strife-ridden New York City, one that makes the urban rot of the mid-’70s seem like a Legoland.”

    That’s funnny . . .

    By the way, your review makes me want to read several works other than the one reviewed: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes as well as other novels you mention by Silverberg. Now THAT is a good review.

  5. Sandy Ferber /

    Well, thank you so much, Brad, for your very kind words; terribly encouraging, and all that. As for Mr. Silverberg, every year I do a little reading project starting in early January, in which I read eight to 10 books by a certain author. Silverberg was my man last year AND this year, and after reading around 16 of his books (most of them from his classic second phase of 1967 – ’76), I feel compelled to admit that the man is some kind of a freakin’ genius. All the books were as different as can be, yet all were stunningly original and well done. It doesn’t surprise me that he discusses Harlan in that short-stories book, as the two are very old friends dating back from the ’50s (an excellent interview of Silverberg by Harlan can be found on YouTube), and the fact that he is a Maugham fan is almost to be expected…Silverberg has seemingly read every book ever written! Oh…as for “Son of Man,” I’d leave that one till you are better acquainted with the author, as it is a very difficult book for many to get through (I personally enjoyed it, although I found it a bit of a slog), but Woolrich’s “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is more than highly recommended. Again, Brad, thanks so much for your support. Mucho appreciado!

    • Brad Hawley /

      I’ve got a copy a copy of Night Has a Thousand Eyes, so I’ll read that one for now and stick with the Silverberg Short Stories before moving on to Son of Man–Thanks for the suggestion about holding off on reading it.

  6. Brad, don’t miss Downward to the Earth and Sailing to Byzantium.

    I have several of SubPress’s recent Silverberg collections — I think they are collecting all of his work in several volumes.
    I also have a review copy of The Book of Silverberg which just came out yesterday. This is an homage to Silverberg by many famous authors. (Similar to Songs of the Dying Earth, an homage to Jack Vance, which I loved). I can’t wait to read it.

    • Brad Hawley /

      Thanks, Kat: I’ve got a collection of novellas that includes Sailing to Byzantium, and I love the Songs of the Dying Earth, so I’ll check out The Book of Silverberg. I’ll also look for Downward to Earth. By the way, I noticed that I did not get the Silverberg collections of short stories on sale–they are apparently always available at a very low price on the Kindle. I think most of the more-newly issued 8 volume collection is available at $2.99 a volume! That’s quite a deal considering the quality. I wish all of Harlan Ellison’s works were available at that price! So far, my favorite SF short story writers are Ellison, Asimov, Bradbury, Vance, Fredric Brown, and now Silverberg is finding his place on that list.

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