Although Robert Silverberg had been a prodigiously published author prior to 1967, that year is often spoken of as being something of a watershed time for him. Before then, the author had written no less than two dozen sci-fi novels, starting with 1954’s Revolt on Alpha C not to mention dozens upon dozens of short stories (over 80 in 1958 alone, according to a certain Wiki site). But in 1967, a new maturity and literary quality entered Silverberg’s works, to the surprise of both his fans and fellow writers. In 1967, Silverberg came out with no less than six novels (!): The Gate of Worlds, Planet of Death, Those Who Watch, The Time Hoppers, To Open the Sky and Thorns. For this reader, a recent perusal of that last title has served to demonstrate what that “new maturity” of Silverberg’s precisely entailed. Released in August of that year as a 75-cent Ballantine paperback, this short novel combines world-of-the-future sci-fi with some prescient forecasts, sharp characterizations, colorful backdrops and obscure literary allusions. It is a masterful piece of work from the then 32-year-old author.
In the book, we meet three very unusual people. Duncan Chalk is one of the richest men on Earth, the 600-pound owner of an entertainment and real estate empire. Putting on shows for the masses is just one of Chalk’s endeavors, and when we first encounter him, he is arranging the newest installment of what today would be called a “reality TV program.” Chalk, the reader soon realizes, is something on the order of…well, do you recall that classic episode of Star Trek, the one entitled “Day of the Dove,” in which Capt. Kirk & Co. encounter an entity that feeds on hatred and violent emotions? Well, that is what Chalk is… a psychic vampire who gluts himself most especially on the sorrow, misery and negative emotions of others. For his next TV show, he aims to bring together two miserable people — one physically damaged, the other mentally — and get his jollies as the enforced pairing turns from love to bitterness.
The first of that pair is Minner Burris, a starship explorer who, on a recent visit to the planet Manipool, had been captured by the aliens there and surgically altered. Now living on Earth in shame over his altered physique, Burris’ scars are actually both mental as well as physical. And then there is Lona Kelvin, a 17-year-old girl who is popularly known as “the virgin mother of 100 children.” Lona, you see, had agreed to donate her eggs for an experiment in extrauterine fertilization, but now that 100 babies have been brought to life from her ova, via mechanical incubators and other women (another instance of prescience on Silverberg’s part), she is not being allowed to see any of them. This has resulted in Lona becoming a, uh, loner, as well as a suicidal wreck, after two failed attempts. Chalk promises each what matters most to them — a brain transplant into a new body for Burris; two of her babies for Lona — and the stage is set for Chalk’s latest misery maker….
Thorns, with its underlying theme of the protective devices that people and things build to shield themselves from pain, wonderfully explores the relationship between these two broken characters, from initial intrigue and compassion, to a physical coupling, to feelings of love (well, on Lona’s part, anyway), to acrimony and recrimination, and to a resolving of their mutual problems.
For this reader, though, best of all is the colorful backdrop of the late 21st century Earth and its environs that Silverberg gives us. Minner and Lona are treated to a tour of the planet and beyond in the novel, and so we get to see Chalk’s luxury hotel in Antarctica, his Luna Tivoli amusement park on the moon, and the upper-crust resort paradise on the frozen Saturnian moon of Titan. The novel is just chockablock with imaginative throwaway touches, such as the revolving ring on one man’s finger, the spray-on garments, and the mercury Whirlpool ride at the Tivoli; it is a fully detailed backdrop for such a slim novel (my edition only runs to 157 pages).
Adding credibility to his tale are the instances of scientific goobledygook that Silverberg treats us to, as when Lona thinks back on the incubation process: “As gastrulation proceeds, the mesodermal mantle extends forward from the blastopore, and its anterior edge comes to lie just posterior to the future lens ectoderm….” The novel also gives the reader some interesting secondary characters, such as Chalk’s three henchmen, an idiot savant gifted at numbers, and the lustful, masochistic widow of one of Burris’ fellow spacemen.
As for those literary allusions previously discussed, Silverberg incorporates references to Melville’s Moby-Dick, Langland’s Piers Plowman, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and mentions, in passing, Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg observatory, the Greek astronomer Aristarchus and the Roman physician Galen. (An extraordinarily well-read man, Silverberg — it should come as no surprise — is also the author of over 70 books on history and science subjects.)
This is a sophisticated novel, beautifully written, intelligent and insightful, with wonderful dialogue and a satisfying conclusion. Really, a most impressive display from this great author, already a seasoned pro at this point but clearly venturing into a whole new stage of development in his writing. And for Silverberg (who at this late date is the recipient of — by my count — three Hugo awards and five Nebula awards, not to mention his status as a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and, as of 2004, an official Grand Master), the best was still to come….