I came to Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, with a certain caution, for two reasons. First, I’ve never read any Silverberg, and an entire book about an author I have not read didn’t sound very appealing. And secondly, I had heard (inaccurately, as it turns out) that this particular book had been on the Rabid Puppies wishlist.
I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. It’s basically a set of transcripts of long interviews with Silverberg, and since Silverberg is an entertaining raconteur, with a lot of opinions on a lot of subjects, it works quite well. Zinos-Amaro asks good questions, which helps. Though it did feel like reading yet another podcast.
There were a lot of bits which caught my interest, but a prevailing theme through the book was Silverberg’s awareness of his mortality. He is eighty, he figures that realistically, he probably has another 5-10 years in him, and that changes how he views the world. He has less patience for trying to figure out where an author is coming from, for example – if the story doesn’t work for him, well, he only has limited reading time left. I was especially struck by the bit where he talked about having read Rabelais for the third time recently, and having enjoyed it very much, and this was his farewell to Rabelais, because he only has so many years left, and there are other books that still need to be read. I was less thrilled/convinced by his contention that authors should really stop writing at sixty or so because (with a tiny handful of exceptions) they just don’t produce good work after that point, because they tend to be too removed from current linguistic and social trends.
I enjoyed his anecdotes about his extensive travels (he has said farewell to a number of places, but he refuses to say farewell to Paris, because he will keep going there for as long as he possibly can), and I was interested to hear that, like me, he has very vivid dreams and nightmares and writing fiction keeps the nightmares at bay because his imagination is getting used by his conscious mind so it doesn’t need to disturb him by night.
Zinos-Amaro interviewed Silverberg extensively about authors and their styles, asking what he thought of the various Nobel Prize for Literature winners over the years (interestingly, Silverberg does not read science fiction any more, and tends to read literary fiction instead). I especially liked his take on Patrick White, which is pretty much what I think of White too:
“Very strong novel, but, gee, I don’t want to read any more of his books. Here’s a case where every sentence set my teeth on edge, but the story itself is quite powerful.”
I am also now keen to get my hands on Hector Servedac by Jules Verne, which has a bizarre plot about a comet shaving off North Africa and taking it into orbit around Jupiter, then bringing it back. Apparently, this is not a fatal experience for those on board, and I really need to know what happens!
Silverberg also had some interesting things to say on the subject of style. There’s a nice section where he compares the styles of Hemingway and Greene (who he does like) with Hardy (who he does not approve of at all). And he talks about doing ‘hack work’ as a writer, which he views as an honest job, provided you know that this is what you are doing.
Having said that, I can’t help noticing that female writers just don’t seem to exist in Silverbegs world. Anne McCaffrey is the only one who even gets a mention, and then only in passing as the first female Hugo winner, and a friend who gave him a big box of magazines containing his work after his house burned down. Her writing is not discussed. Penelope Lively is mentioned by the interviewer at the end, but Silverberg has not read her work, and he talks about another female author as appealing to millions of women. I do think that this reflects more on his age and background than any deliberate bias or misogyny, but it’s a bit frustrating nonetheless.
Silverberg’s politics were another ‘oh dear’ moment for me. He is a libertarian, and quite right-wing economically. He does think that the Republican tendency towards anti-scientific thinking and Christianism is a problem, but apparently it is still preferable to what the Democrats do. And he really does not seem to understand left wing politics at all – I had the sense that he was arguing in good faith – but against straw men, without having any idea that he was doing it. In particular, he is quite dismissive of modern political sensitivities in a way which suggests that he absolutely misses the point of them.
Overall, this book leaves me feeling that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy reading Silververg’s novels, but that I’d love to read his autobiography. He comes across as thoughtful, likeable, and very erudite – but also old-fashioned, rather conservative, and a bit depressingly embedded in Old White Male SF culture.
I prefer Le Guin, but this really was far easier to read than I anticipated.