In The Beginning (Kindle Edition) by Robert Silverberg (ebook review).

September 9, 2016 | By | Reply More

‘In The Beginning’ is a collection of short stories from Robert Silverberg’s early days in the business. It’s the stuff that he churned out to fill magazines in the 1950s in order to make a living. In later more literary collections, he has been somewhat dismissive of this work but fans of pulp fiction, ripping yarns and unpretentious adventure stories sometimes like to relax with a straightforward solidly plotted easy-to-read pot-boiler. Throw in a lot of autobiographical information by Silverberg about his early years in the business, his colleagues and the magazine editors and you have the kind of book that’s a must have for fans of the Golden Age. Some people might be tempted to read the long and interesting introductions about life as a pulp writer in 50s USA and just skip the stories but don‘t, they’re worth a look.


First up is ‘Yokel With Portfolio’ from 1955. Kalainnen has come to Terra from the backward planet of Trask and is hoping to get a meeting with the Colonial Minister and get some aid, some much needed help to bring his homeworld up-to-date with technology. Cue lots of queuing to see minor officials and not much progress. A smug lizard from a neighbouring planet does not improve his mood but when a dangerous beast escapes from the New York Zoo, it turns out he may have some useful knowledge. The yokel is an odd hero for slick, well-educated native New Yorker Silverberg but he pulls it off nicely.

‘Long Live The Kejwa’ has an escaped criminal crash-land on a small planet where the blue-skinned natives seem to treat him as a god. You can see the ending coming a mile off and it might have been a five page story in one of those late 50s comicbooks churned out by Lee, Kirby and Ditko. It was okay.

Lee Hayden is an agent for the Bureau in ‘Guardian Of The Crystal Gate’. The Bureau is a government agency that handles the weird cases in 2261, a year in which oddly culture is still very like that of 1950s America. Men have been vanishing and strange, flawed diamonds like burnt-out fuses are left in their place. One brilliant new diamond, bright, glowing, kept in a lead box, has turned up. Lee must investigate. The first person narration is very much in the mode of 1940s noir detective films but this is another easy reading adventure. It was based on a cover painting by Ed Valigursky that showed two attractive young ladies wrestling atop a giant diamond and appeared in the August 1956 issue of ‘Fantastic’, along with three other stories authored or co-authored by Silverberg. He was banging them out fast.

There’s another adventurer hero in ‘Choke Chain’. He doesn’t seem to work for any particular organisation but intervenes when a ruthless gang take over the Callisto colony and enslaves the populace with special collars they need to breathe. The dastardly trio are a human, a Martian and a Venusian, which dates it somewhat. The yarn is pretty straightforward derring-do but Silverberg adds a nice little twist at the end which gives it a bit of extra pathos.

I say that Silverberg is too negative about these stories but ’Citadel Of Darkness’ is the exception to that. It’s awful. It’s the worst Silverberg story I’ve ever read. It might well be the worst Science Fiction story I’ve ever read. The Terran Empire is under attack from evil aliens from another galaxy, who have turned their entire planet into a spaceship, traversed the space between galaxies and raided several worlds enslaving millions. The hero and his wife accidentally come across this planet and decide to stop them. The race capable of such marvels is unable to spot their ship landing. They are captured after some fisticuffs but, with the help of human slaves, manage to overcome the evil high priest just as he is about to cast the naked, writhing form of the woman into the nuclear reactor that powers the planet-ship. It’s like a cross between traditional SF and Robert E. Howard style sword and sorcery. Two half-naked humans conquer an entire planet of ruthless intergalactic marauding aliens. At least Silverberg gave plenty of opportunities for the artist to produce a fun cover. Under different pseudonyms, he had four stories in this March 1957 issue of ‘Fantastic’. The funny thing is that, at the same time, he managed a sell to Horace Gold, the very demanding editor of ‘Galaxy’ magazine. Bob certainly played the field in those days.

The best thing about the book is the autobiographical stuff in between the stories. Silverberg has often told of how he churned out stuff to entertain and to pay the rent but I was under the impression he had to sell each individual story, a laborious process. Not so. He teamed up with the sociable Randall Garrett, who went and saw editors face-to-face and got more work. They landed a contract with Howard Browne at Ziff-Davies Publishing to supply a quantity of fiction every month, which was bought and published for a fixed fee, a very nice fee for the times. Later, Silverberg and Harlan Ellison had a similar set up with editor W.W. Scott, bashing out crime stories for ‘Trapped’ and ‘Guilty’ magazine and SF stories for ‘Super-Science Stories’. Arrangements like these were quite common in the great days of pulp fiction.

Some of the tales written for ‘Super-Science Stories’ are pretty bad but there’s good stuff, too. ‘The Hunters Of Cutwold’ (1957) is the kind of yarn Conrad or Maugham might have done if they wrote SF. Brannon is a guide on Cutwold, a jungle planet and can’t turn down the big money paid by a party of tourists to hunt the Nurrilins, a local species not yet declared sentient by the authorities, largely because they were in hiding. The thrill for the tourists is killing a sentient being, getting away with murder. A dark tale that in some ways is a precursor to ‘Downward To Earth’, Silverberg’s later novel.

‘The Insidious Invader’ is a kind of creepy horror story about an alien mimic, set in the nice suburban apartment of the homecoming spaceman’s sister. This would have made a good episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’.

‘Exiled From Earth’ (1958) has a neo-puritan regime that’s banned theatres on Terra and an actor doing Lear for green aliens who longs to go back home. It was written for Horace Gold’s ‘Galaxy’ but rejected. It’s a quiet piece for ‘Super-Science Stories’ and may have been a surprise to readers.

The rest of the stuff from ‘Super-Science Stories’ is low grade ore but readable enough. America went mad for monsters in 1959 so they plastered ‘Special Monster Issue’ across several editions and Silverberg had to make his aliens a bit more threatening to fit the bill. As usual, he adapted well. When the SF market collapsed at the end of the 50s, he bashed out soft porn paperbacks to earn a crust, then went into the more satisfying trade (surely) of popular archaeology books. Later, he came back to SF with a great series of novels in the late 60s and 70s that will forever be classics. The stories ‘In the Beginning’ don’t come within several parsecs of that work for quality but this is an interesting historical document and a fun read if you set your critical facilities to a lower level. Very low in some cases.

I bought this as an e-book and the formatting is excellent. Extremely easy to navigate from story to story or skip about in it if such is your desire.

Eamonn Murphy

September 2016

(pub: Gateway, 2011. 320 page ebook. File Size: 1016kb. Kindle Edition Price: £ 2.99 (UK). ASIN: B005LB9AOU)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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