Robert Silverberg, A Time of Changes. Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1973, 221 pp. ISBN 0-575-01610-8
Rating: 10 out of 10
“I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself”. This is the seemingly-innocuous first line of A Time of Changes, a novel that was first published in 1971 as a series in Galaxy. But on the continent of Velada Borthan, on the planet Borthan, this phrase is more obscene than any combination of gutter expressions for human genitalia ever could be. In fact, an autobiography like this is an abomination for the people of Velada Borthan, the epitome of the cardinal sin of “self-baring”, in a civilization where the words “I” and “me” are among the worst, or even the worst, obscenities that one can utter.
Before continuing, perhaps I should explain what led me to return to a novel that I had read many years past and that was first published 46 years ago. Earlier this month I attended WorldCon 75 in Helsinki, Finland (see this), where I had the privilege to meet SF Grand Master Robert Silverberg for the third time. (The other two times were at Confiction, 1990, and Noreascon 4, 2004). The first two times, I had one or two books autographed by Silverberg and I wanted to have at least one more at this occasion. However, it proved extremely difficult to find one of his books in the trade hall. There was only one large bookseller and they didn’t have any of Silverberg’s books. I also went through all the second-hand books displayed by another large book seller, but without any luck. When I was looking through the single bookcase that a seller of game paraphernalia had, I actually bumped into Silverberg himself.
I told him that I was desperately searching for one of his books, but couldn’t find anything, to which he replied that he had found some, but in Finnish. He had bought them, because the publisher had never sent him a copy. I admitted that my Finnish was perhaps not as good as I would like and told him that this was the third time that we met. Like the previous two times, I told him that his books always make me think, one of the biggest compliments that I can give to a writer. At this point, I let him go, although I would have loved to talk with him more. However, a writer of his stature (by far the most accomplished writer present at that meeting, the presence of George R. R. Martin notwithstanding) is much solicited during a meeting like this and I didn’t want to behave like some breathless fan (even though I am…)
Despite my lack of prowess with the Finnish language, I was on the verge of buying some of Silverberg’s books in that (to me) very foreign language when, finally, at a stand having just a handful of second-hand books, I spotted two of his books in English, A Time of Changes being one of them, and in pristine condition at that. Later that afternoon, Silverberg autographed it during his signing session (together with the second book, his short story collection Sunrise on Mercury). While doing so, he noticed the Ex Libris label pasted on the inside of the front cover (see photo). It turned out that this copy had been part of the collection of an acquaintance of his, Sam J. Lundwall, a famous Swedish SF writer and the author of an authoritative history of science fiction, Science fiction: An Illustrated History. So even though I had the book already in my collection (Of course!) it obviously was well worth the 10 Euros that I paid for it!
Well, after that rather lengthy diversion, back to the book. As I didn’t really remember the story, I decided to read it again. That proved to be a rewarding experience: it is surprisingly fresh and hasn’t aged at all. Partly that is because technology does not play any role in the story. Yes, there is space travel and people use phones and ground cars and planes. However, no details are given and the general level of technology of this world is about the same as what we had in the 1950s, without there being much interest in scientific or technological advances. So the most obvious pitfall for science fiction writers, being bypassed by modern technology, is avoided. Of course, one notices that the novel reflects its times (as even future-oriented SF novels almost always do). 1971 was the high point of the flower power and hippie movements and, indeed, the major theme of the book is love (only for a minor part in its romantic sense) and how a certain indigenous psychedelic drug might help people to understand and love each other. It would not be Silverberg’s style to get lost into the more dreamy and mushy aspects of that counterculture, but its influence nevertheless is clearly there.
As mentioned above, the book is written as the autobiography of a person living on this planet in this culture where each person’s mind is their castle, to be guarded from others. Referring to oneself as “I” or “me” is absolutely forbidden and people are forced to refer to themselves as “one” (and reading through the above, this seems to have rubbed off on this one, too…). From this seemingly simple premise, Silverberg explores the ramifications of such an attitude and, in just 200 pages, builds a believable society around the “Covenant”, an ancient document which formalizes the interdiction of “self-baring”, the obscene act of sharing one’s thoughts and feelings with others.
As is the case with the best that SF has to offer, it’s not technology or science that is the most important thing in this book: it’s people. And Silverberg succeeds majestically. Although there is surprisingly little action in this story, still the narrative, consisting mostly of the inner feelings and thoughts of Kinnall, is captivating. By the end of the book, one feels as if one knows the main character intimately. Kinnall has his own style of writing, clearly different from Silverberg’s own usual style. The prose is formal, at times poetic. The ending of the book is open as the reader doesn’t get to know whether or not Kinnall Darival succeeds in his attempt to break the Covenant and open his countrymen to love for one another. Personally I feel, however, that it is most likely that in the long run he will have succeeded, given the large number of people, many of them important and influential, whom he has converted to his creed of sharing, before finally being captured.
Summarizing, I strongly recommend this captivating, highly-original tale of what it means (or should mean) to be human.