Son of Man by Robert Silverberg
Son of Man by Robert Silverberg
Pyr, 2008, 225pp
Robert Silverberg is a master of science fiction. If there were any doubts on the matter, they were put to rest by his 2004 reception of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Grand Master Nebula. He has been writing SF for more than fifty years, with experiments in social SF like The World Inside, on overpopulation in 2381, and science fantasy, such as the Majipoor series. He has written more than fifty novels and innumerable short stories.
Son of Man was originally published in 1971. It recounts the adventures of the twentieth-century man, Clay (and here I am strongly tempted to add the words “Get it?” accompanied with a knowing wink), in the far distant future. In this far future, the descendants of homo sapiens have evolved into a number of distinct species: Skimmers, Awaiters, Eaters, Breathers, Interceders, and Destroyers. Also present are other post-homo sapiens humans, caught, as Clay was, in a “time flux” and brought to the same far-future.
Most of the story centers on Clay’s interactions with a particular tribe of Skimmers. These “Sons of Man” (i.e., evolutionary descendants of the human race) have nearly unlimited powers, including the abilities to change genders at will, to soar the cosmos in their intellect, and to die and return to life. As Clay is introduced to their life, he is invited to share in their sequence of rituals, which often involve sexual intercourse of one sort or another.
It is difficult to describe the novel’s plot, as the story is non-linear. Silverberg is much more concerned with bringing the reader into contact with the various regions and species of his future Earth than in telling a story in the traditional arc. His (by and large) effective use of repetition and long streams of juxtaposed images gives the work a very dream-like quality. In a lot of ways, Son of Man reads like the bastard literary offspring of Wells’ The Time Machine and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
I sense that Son of Man is the sort of work that one either loves or hates. I do not fall into the former category (although I cannot say that the book elicited enough emotional reaction from me to put me firmly in the latter camp either). What philosophy there is in the story is confused by the manner in which the story is told. I also found the story ruined by the manner in which it is told. To cite the most obvious instance—the entire novel is written in the present tense. This was a great obstacle to me in entering the world of the story, making me focus much more on Silverberg’s prose. Some of the most effective individual passages—and there is no denying that at points Silverberg’s prose is nothing short of brilliant—had for me a similar effect. It is not a good thing for a reader to find himself focusing on the writing instead of the story.
I have yet to decide whether Silverberg’s quotation of Byron as one of Son of Man’s four epigrams is ironic or not: “Shrink not from blasphemy—’twill pass for wit.” I did not find the novel blasphemous. Son of Man is a prolonged dream-sequence, not an attack on religion. Perhaps the readers in 1971 would have found the transgendered sexuality of the story shocking. In our own post-Jerry-Springer era, it struck me as tame. Though I will admit that I could have done with far less of the play-by-play on the condition of Clay’s genitals.
The Pyr re-issue of Son of Man weighs in at 225 pages, though given every chapter starts on the right-hand page, fully twenty of those pages are blank. Fans of Robert Silverberg or those interested in non-linear storytelling may find Son of Man worth investigating.
(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)