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The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg
(Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Editions, £10.99, 229 pages, paperback; first published 1975, this edition 12 July 2001.)

It's another in the Victor Gollancz yellow cover series -- and if you've got as many of these as I now seem to have then the cover scanglare of the morning sunlight hitting your bookshelves must be getting rather painful to the unprotected and bleary eye!

Lew Nichols is the eponymous 'stochastic man', a young statistician with excellent predictive instincts. He's working for Paul Quinn, a charismatic rising star in US politics with a steadfast eye on the US presidency. Lew is not a fortune-teller, just pretty handy with a trend, so when he encounters the sorcerous prognostications of Martin Carvajal he's initially and understandably sceptical.

Carvajal can see the future, but far from revelling in this fantastic power he seems a broken and wasted man. He has become very rich from playing the stock markets yet takes no pleasure in his wealth. Nichols notes, on first meeting him, that 'there was a leaden undertone to his skin, a wintry slackness to the flesh of his cheeks, that spoke of an exhaustion that was as much spiritual as physical' (p.38).

Silverberg goes far out of his way to present Cravajal as a pathetic figure in comparison to the dynamism of the mere mortals he is surrounded by; his power is almost too large for him to come to terms with, so he has retreated into a deep and unattractive fatalism.

Carvajal takes Nichols under his wing, but his power has shown him that the future is entirely set in stone: all he has ever done or ever will do is preordained, and he is simply a cog in the machinery of the universe. This makes Carvajal an inscrutable character, not one the reader can hope to understand -- as he points out to a baffled Nichols a number of times. And Carvajal is, in some ways, 'the reader' of his own story -- perceiving (perhaps correctly) his passive role, watching events unfold that are already written on the page of history (except that with Carvajal history and the future are one and the same).

Carvajal's guidance of Nichols makes The Stochastic Man reminiscent of Luke Rhinehart's The Diceman (and it's interesting to note that The Diceman preceded The Stochastic Man by almost three years...), in that no matter how ridiculous, counter-intuitive or just plain destructive Carvajal's instructions may seem Nichols has sworn to follow them.

Like The Diceman, Nichols' life is twisted and torn out of all recognition by the end of the novel, but unlike The Diceman (and because this is sf, not psychobabble) Silverberg's hero makes A Discovery by the book's close, one which feels distinctly tacked on simply to give the book A Meaning.

Try as I might I couldn't seem to gather any enthusiasm for writing this review. It's not really Robert Silverberg's fault: set in 1999 The Stochastic Man is at the very least an amusing document of '70s attitudes and expectations (it was first published in 1975 when Silverberg also produced the stunning Dying Inside).

Of course by 1999 drugs have all been legalised, so have multi-partner marriages and prostitution; God-awful clothes, orgies and (rather quaintly) trans-continental rocket travel are commonplace -- all the 'groovy' things the '70s might have led you to expect in the '90s. If only the '80s hadn't got in the way...

One thing Silverberg does have spot-on is the naked political ambition of presidential-hopeful Paul Quinn. If Quinn followed focus groups -- and Carvajal's instructions, transmitted through Nichols, seem no less whimsical -- then he'd be welcomed with open arms at Millbank! As it is his campaign seems chillingly modern.

As a novel The Stochastic Man is quite good, as well written as Silverberg's work always is. As an exercise in stochastic predictive technique it's largely a failure. But as an illustration of the maxim that sf is always about the present it's a very palpable hit.


Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 20 October 2001