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.