Lion Time in Timbuctoo: the collected stories, volume 6 by Robert Silverberg
(HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 390 pages, paperback; published 20 March 2000.)
Lion Time in Timbuctoo, the sixth volume of Robert Silverberg's Collected Stories, is an intriguing, and at times appalling, example of eloquence without persuasiveness, skill without substance, passion without heart. It consists of two novellas and eleven short stories, "the cream", in Silverberg's own words, "of the Silverberg output, 1989-95"; all of the pieces featured are well-written, slick and stylish, evidence of an impressive technical repertoire built up in the course of a highly professional career of over forty years. So far, so good. But the good ends there. However competent, however dexterous in their employment of genre tropes, however tuneful to the ear, these stories are soulless, facades behind which no true vitality lingers.
The cause of this is clear enough. Silverberg's history as an SF writer falls into three phases: that of the 1950s and early 60s, in which he was by his own acknowledgement a prolific hack pouring forth profitable trash; that of the mid-60s to the mid-70s, in which, inspired by the revisionist fervour of the New Wave, he wrote a copious succession of haunting and searingly brilliant experimental SF novels; and the late phase beginning in 1979, one of relaxation, of the effortless composition of entertainments in a less than rigorous Science Fantasy vein. The late novels are colourful, and at times rhapsodically visionary; but they are almost without exception formulaic, the products of a technical master who no longer has any real conviction in the enterprise. The stories are the same, beguiling, but without originality or point. The hack of period one is back, masquerading behind the virtuosity of period two.
Lion Time in Timbuctoo is casual reading, then; at that level it functions well enough. But any reader of Thorns, or Nightwings, or Dying Inside, or A Time of Changes can only be disappointed. The title story is symptomatic. It draws in stock vivid colours an alternate Twentieth Century Africa that has escaped European colonialism; as the old emperor of Songhay dies, his capital is the location of intrigue as well as mourning. Present are stock aristocrats, stock bureaucrats, stock scheming diplomats, and a stock temptress; they wander stock marketplaces and palaces, talk stock courtly power-speak, and suffer from a stock heat wave. Everything is stock in the way that Silverberg's Majipoor is stock, in the way that his indistinguishable neo-Byzantine empires always are stock: there is a pervasive sense of decoration without authentic texture, of emotion felt so often and so monotonously that it has no quotient of feeling any longer. The only stock that is low is that of creativity.
And so one glides through the tales, as effortlessly as Silverberg penned them. "A Tip on a Turtle" is a dull women's' magazine-style entry about the fatalism of prescience, in which the reader, infectedly foresightful, always knows what will happen next. "In the Clone Zone" is clumsy Mengele. "Hunters in the Forest" is standard bored-futurians-seek-excitement-through-time-travel stuff, of a kind Silverberg has done much better previously. "A Long Night's Vigil at the Temple", billed as an SF tribute to Tolkien, is padded religiose twaddle. "The Red Blaze is the Morning" is similar, but a slight improvement. "The Way to Spook City", a lurid farrago, features a love affair between an ageing tough-guy rancher and a (literal) bag of alien wind. "Crossing Into the Empire" is yet more faux-Byzantine splendour. And "The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James" is low-order steampunk pastiche.
So why bother with Lion Time? Well, there is the technical fascination of willful failure. But more importantly, there is the odd gem in the dross pile. "It Comes and Goes" is an effective existential horror story. "Looking For the Fountain" knowledgeably exploits Silverberg's erudition in the field of the Spanish colonisation of the Americas, imitating very amusingly the pious arrogance of the typical Conquistador memoir. "The Second Shield" captures Silverberg's own artistic dilemma quite neatly, and "Death Do Us Part", after much cliché about immortality, delivers a devastating poetic ending. Even the oldest pro can, in the terminal ennui of his craft, throw off a few hints of his gracious prime.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 8 April 2000