A Time of Changes

Robert Silverberg
A Time of Changes Cover

A product of its time


In the mid-1960s we find many established genre writers starting to produce more mature and more literary fiction, culminating – amongst other brave and ground-breaking concerns – in significant stories criticizing militarism and the neo-imperialism agendas of the then US foreign policy, a trend that reached its peak with Grand Master Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. This novel swooped most of the awards at the time and expressed just how successful the New Wave’s ideological platform had been. Arguably, the legacy of the New Wave remains inconclusive, considering the still on-going debates about the supposed “ghettoization” of the genre. Robert Silverberg is an exponent of the New Wave. Initially a prolific writer of “routine” SF in the 1950s, he began to produce some of the most interesting works in SF during this period, such as Thorns, The Masks of Time, Tower of Glass and A Time of Changes, which went on to win the Nebula Award in 1971. I have never read it before now.

A Time of Changes is clearly a literary experiment. And – sadly, dare I say – very much a product of its time. Don’t get me wrong – I did like the book, but even recognising the fact that it is a story from its decade, I feel it’s quite dated.

It is a simple story that deals plausibly with a variety of complex issues. The setting is that of a future society on the planet Borthan, earlier colonised by members of a religious sect. They followed a set of theological guidelines called the Covenant, which prohibited one from opening your heart and mind to others, essentially then, the denial of self. It is meant to prevent individuals from placing their personal burdens on others, to the extent that a ban is placed on the use of first-person pronouns. Referring to one self as “I” is a terrible breach of manners and has both dire social and legal consequences. The act of “self-bearing” is the ultimate sin, as our narrator informs us himself:

Obscene! Obscene! Already on the one sheet I have used the pronoun “I” close to twenty times, it seems. While also casually dropping such words as “my”, “me”, “myself”, more often that I dare to count. A torrent of shamelessness. I I I I I. If I exposed my manhood in the Stone Chapel of Manneran on Naming Day, I would be doing nothing so foul as I am doing here. (Orb edition 2009, page 17-18)

We see that not everyone on Borthan embraces the Covenant. The opening sentence “I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself” introduces the reader to someone who eventually came to resist the Covenant. Kinnall continues to relate his experiences from early childhood onwards to this exact point where he can write his self-bearing sentence. We meet him as a prince in the province of Salla, the younger son of the prime septarch on Borthan. Tradition dictates that he has little chance of becoming septarch himself and therefore decides to leave his home upon his father’s death. He wanders for years before making a home in the southern province. Here Kinnall meets an earthman who challenges his early assumptions about his society and convinces him to take a wonder drug that breaks down the barriers between human minds through a telepathic experience. This act changes Kinnall from a staunch bureaucrat into a prophet of self-bearing, with some tragic consequences, and ultimately leads to his self-imposed exile in the Burnt Lowlands.

I generally enjoy this type of narrative, and was often reminded of Severian's odyssey in Gene Wolfe’s seminal The Book of the New Sun. Silverberg does a splendid job with the internal conflicts of someone who challenges the very fabric of their society and come to question the basis of their world and its religion. Kinnall is a strong, often courageous, inquisitive character and, judging by this first-person narrative, very introspective. But, like Severian, he is also notably fallible, appalingly arrogant and destructively selfish – these traits finally lead to an unexpected tragedy near the end as he proceeds to spread the drug and the new way of thinking about his world. Silverberg handles Kinnall’s downfall with consummate skill. One can be forgiven for equating this downward spiral to the predictable calamity of established drug addiction. Perhaps, in some preternatural sense, Silverberg has crafted an ingenious rebuke against the unchecked drug use of this period.

I do have some problems with the book. The Orb edition (2009) that features an explanatory, contextual preface by Silverberg, also, thankfully, had a map. Without this map, the lengthy descriptions of the geography of Borthan and the imaginary names would have been totally lost on me. Despite the wonderfully crafted world-building in true Silverberg tradition, it had little relevance for me to the story. Well, maybe Kinnall’s exile in the Burnt Lowlands and its accompanied descriptions is perhaps an exception, as symbolic of his downfall, the ultimate destination of his personal odyssey. A big part of the book is therefore little more than world exploration and adds to the surface appearance of just an elementary story about just another drug. Yes, Silverberg’s writing is exceptional, intriguing and euphonious, but it ultimately doesn’t save the story from all the tedious musings and descriptions. At times it felt dull and lackadaisical – the story could have done with some trimming. It never really shifted past first gear.

In the preface Silverberg does acknowledge that since the publication of A Time of Changes he discovered other languages that avoided the construct “I”. It might have appeared a unique literary device at the time, but let’s not forget that Samuel R. Delany has attempted the same in Babel-17. The story would have been so much stronger if Silverberg avoided using the construct “one” all together; it is nothing else but a mere replacement of the pronoun “I”. Why bother? People were still referring to themselves directly. It would have been less artificial if he remained within the constructs of what we experience with Kinnall’s forlorn into Glin, where people actively avoid speaking about themselves at all, not even using the term “one”. And it is quite acceptable to refer to someone else as “you”, which felt equally contrived, for – unless I’m mistaken – “you” still implies a concept of “self”.

It is a one-sided story, a telling from only Kinnall’s perspective. Don’t expect the opponents of self-bearing to be more than pitiable, brain-washed victims who will never know the true happiness that comes from sharing yourself with others. The story lacks a strong counter-protagonist and suffers greatly because of it.

In the final analysis, if you are looking for epic and multifarious adventures in hard-SF this book is not going to appeal to you. It is predominately a detailed character study with alluring exploration of an alien world and equally strange society that asks obstinate questions about the world around us. The first chapter and middle part of the book is engaging and exciting – pure Silverberg world-building, the remainder weaker, even disappointing. I find the book an important achievement in the history of SF, for its attempt to move away from technological explorations and pulpy space adventures into the challenging sub-genre of soft-SF, exploring difficult psychological and philosophical issues - and can appreciate why it won a Nebula Award, clearly an attempt to recognize the principles of the New Wave generation. I can’t say I agree with Silverberg conclusion, though. Self-repression does not need to be replaced by self-annihilation and the appearance that total intimacy is the best way through which to create a peaceful, happy society, is very naïve, typical of the idealism from that era. The idea of totally opening up to others with a certain reckless wantonness and allowing them into our minds in order to study our innermost thoughts, feelings and concerns is more than a little incommodious.

I’m glad to have read the book, but wanted to like it more. Silverberg has written much better novels, many of which did not go on to win an award.

Sources: Edward James, Science Fiction in the 20th Century. Opus (1994); Robert Silverberg, "Preface" in A Time Of Changes, Orb (2009)