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The Masks of Time

by Robert Silverberg

(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 cover scanlong 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 Blonde on Blonde in 1967).

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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