The Masks of Time
(Gollancz SF Collector's Edition, £9.99, 252 pages, trade paperback,
first published 1968, this edition published 5 September 2002.)
The purple patch theory of artistic achievement goes like this: for
however Blonde on Blonde in 1967).
you may write (or paint, or make films, or whatever) ultimately your
standing will be judged by the work of a relatively short period. Before
this "purple patch" you are learning your craft; after it, you may produce
good work but for whatever reason (personal, professional) a subtle
decline has set in. However brightly you may burn you can't do it forever
at the same heat: energy and inspiration may be depleted, or the conditions
uncongenial. Secondary purple patches are of course possible (Bob Dylan,
for example, had one in the mid 1970s, but he will be judged on the
five albums leading up to
Robert Silverberg's purple patch took up the ten years from 1967 to
1976, the middle phase of his long and prolific career. It's one of
the most extraordinary such patches in the history of genre SF. It began
with the novel Thorns and ended with another novel, Shadrach
in the Furnace. Before then, much of his output was admitted hackwork,
a few more considered short stories apart. After Shadrach, he
retired (exhausted?) for four years, before returning with Lord Valentine's
Castle and follow-ups, novels that are slicker, more overtly "commercial"
... and to me at least much less interesting. But it's the work of that
middle period that will last. It was a benchmark for quality and
quantity, what with sixteen novels (some of them "fixed-up" or expanded
from shorter works) and a large amount of short fiction published during
that period. That huge output is notable for its sheer variety and flair,
often dealing with emotionally harrowed, alienated protagonists.
The Masks of Time was first published in 1968. Its first British
publication, in 1970, was under the title Vornan-19, but this
Gollancz Collector's Edition restores the original title. At some 90,000
words it's one of Silverberg's longer novels from that time. At the
end of the year 1998, a mysterious man, Vornan-19, materialises naked
on Rome's Spanish Steps. Vornan claims to be from the future. The novel
is narrated by Leo Garfield, a physicist specialising in the time-reversal
of subatomic particles, who is seconded to the scientific team to investigate.
Over the coming year, leading up to the turn of the Millennium, in a
world that seems ready to accept a new Messiah, Garfield and his team
keep tabs on Vornan and fall under his spell to an extent. But is Vornan
what he says, or an elaborate fraud?
Reading The Masks of Time now introduces a strange parallax
effect. Although the novel wasn't intended as prediction, you can't
help notice a gap, narrow here, wider there, between its near future
which is now our recent past. Vornan's charisma is a sexual one, and
Silverberg makes much of his character's erotic prowess and his powerful
allure to women. But this is Sixties thinking: a belief that unrestricted
sexual exploration was unreservedly good (something about which contemporary
Silverberg can be preachy, and there are moments in this novel where
Leo becomes his mouthpiece). With post-AIDS hindsight, that seems especially
naive It's a mindset that's often accompanied by an unthinking sexism,
with women (never this author's strong point) having to do little more
than lie back and be compliant. It's commendable that Silverberg tackled
sexual themes at all, and as frankly as he did, in an era when genre
SF was still quite prudish, but his limitations have to be noted. Vornan,
as described, has an epicene quality, though Silverberg barely touches
on his effect on men -- though having said that, one character's dark
secret is a homosexual one.
The Masks of Time shows Silverberg confidently flexing his muscles,
and to be fair the novel does hold the reader's attention up to its
deliberately open ending. It's not Silverberg's greatest -- that would
have to go to his output of 1971-72, the deepest purple of the patch,
with Dying Inside being his absolute masterpiece -- but
it's an above-average work that is worthy of your attention, despite
its dated aspects.
Review by Gary Couzens.
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