It’s been a dog’s age since I’ve read a Silverberg. [Also, a dog’s age since I last reviewed a book, but that’s neither here nor there.] One of the most productive SF writers, he went from a procession of Ace-style action novels in the ’50s to some of the most insightful and brilliant novels of science fiction’s New Wave. And it’s that later half of his career that makes me consider Silverberg one of my favorite science fiction authors. In the last two years I’ve read almost a dozen of his novels, yet I’ve only read a handful of his short stories in 2013. Well, I made a promise to myself to start reading books as I bought them, and A Time of Changes was one of my most recent acquisitions…
The novel is told as the memoir of Lord Kinnall Darival, exiled prince of Salla who has come to know the self. On Borthan—founded by stern, stoic humans of northern stock—personal pronouns are obscene, self-concern is a sin, and the worst crime is to let loose emotions that should be buried deep inside. “I love you” is a more vile obscenity to this culture than “fuck off” is to ours. This set of social norms that prohibit acknowledgement and repress the self is the Covenant, and the rule of the Covenant is the rule of law supported by the teachings of the gods. The only outlets for the deepest secrets of one’s self are one’s bond-brother and bond-sister—friends close enough to be siblings, assigned at birth—and the drainers, an almost religious sect who “drain” the internal burdens of their clients, bound by oath to reveal none of what they hear.
Kinnall’s memoir takes him from his younger days at the court of his father, the Prime Septarch of Salla, through his torturous exile and road to growth, culminating in his meetings with the Earthman, Schweiz, who picks apart what little of tradition Kinnall’s retained. The taking of a telepathic drug from the far south that expands consciousness and melds minds sets Kinnall on a self-appointed mission to enlighten his planet and allow his peers to bare their souls. But there are those who do not tolerate anyone changing the status quo, and Kinnall’s message of love and peace comes to a world that has long buried its emotions in favor of distance.
At its core, the novel asks the loaded question “What is self?” in a similar vein to Philip K. Dick asking “What is human?” The planet Borthan doesn’t know, having long forgotten and repressed expressions of their earthly ancestors. Kinnall himself comes across as always confused by his world’s rigid social standings and distanced lack of emotions, going through its motions but failing to grasp its meaning, always questioning its purpose. A rebel not quite able to rebel. He comes to view himself through his connections to others—his love for his bond-sister, his friendship with the strange Schweiz. By the end, he’s become so enthralled by his own visions and hopes of becoming his world’s savior from the Covenant, and spirals towards his own doom as a Christ-like figure.
Silverberg’s 2009 introduction relates his own time of changes at the end of the 1960s—moving from the clean-cut establishment of the Eisenhower years to bohemian southern California and its psychedelic world of recreational drugs, free love, equal rights, and transformative counterculture. In part, its place in that turbulent era explains many of its elements, even its focus. The novel’s use of drugs made some see the book as a tract advocating their uses, and the author’s introduction makes sure to point it that was not the intent (“…it was the liberation that the drugs helped to bring, not the use of drugs for their own sake, that I was talking about”).
Many SF novels have since become dated, and A Time of Changes is no different. Instead of technological growth, it’s the novel’s use of drugs as a path towards world-wide freedom and love and equality that make it a dated read, if only because such themes have become inescapably tied to one distinct era. The novel has so much of the late ’60s/early ’70s counterculture in it that it’s hard to imagine the psychotropics and mind-sharing in any other form.
At its core, A Time of Changes is a coming-of-age story, the mental, theological-philosophical growth that takes Kinnall far beyond the limits of his socio-political restraints. It’s a novel growing as he does, from his earliest questioning of the culture’s machismo and self-denial to his eventual spiral into Christ-like martyr figure. The Silverberg novels I’ve read from this era—when the author wrote some of his best works—have all shared the similar themes: Hawksbill Station’s protagonist is coming to realize he’s no longer needed, Downward to the Earth has a protagonist realizing more about himself after learning about the alien other.
Of the three books, I think A Time of Changes has its character undergo the most growth, yet it’s also the least successful. Most of this is due to the distance between Kinnall and myself, the reader; I never felt I got a good feeling for him as a person due to the memoir nature. Or, more to the point, I never really connected with him. (Is it bad when the character trying to connect all people under love feels so far away, or good because he came from a culture of distanced relationships?) He has elements I can respect and admire, yet the character also rambles forth about his “large rod” and premature ejaculation far too often, and ends up being rather flat—Silverberg tried a bit too hard to point out Kinnall is not a big strong hero, though a person heroic in his actions. In essence, his time of changes and great philosophical paradigm shift were major events in contrast to his upbringing, but as I didn’t fully empathize with Kinnall his time of changes didn’t have the dramatic depth it deserved.
I also had to question the novel’s key conceit, that “I” and “Me” and consideration of the self was a sin. If that’s the case, why do characters have names—and, it hints, names carried down from namesakes? Why does the use of the second-person singular “you” not carry any kind of burden, nor have any kind of social stigma for the second-person? I understand the concept behind it—institutionalized control of the self, through social mores and religious belief—and noted the underlying machismo of the society this is meant to repress. (When a foreign dignitary, trading some rather witty third-person challenges with Kinnall’s royal father pushes too far, the Septarch replies “I will wrestle you myself.”) But that major element of world-building didn’t entirely sell me, and a few times I felt it was used only if convenient.
A Time of Changes won the 1972 Nebula, and that year was nominated for both the Locus award (where it placed third) and the Hugo. I can see why it was so popular back in the day, but I don’t feel it’s aged as well as the best novels of the time. Certainly, I think there are some stronger Silverberg books to consider. The distance between the narrator and the reader creates an awkward gap in a novel about bringing people closer together, and reading was slow going at times. That isn’t to say the novel is without merit. It’s a very smart book that leaves you with a lot to consider, and handles limitations of the self well. The lack of “I” and “Me” reads like a serious authorial attempt and not like some gimmick. Silverberg was no slouch in his prime, nor were the Nebula voters fools.
What we’re left with is a novel that says more about 1971 than it says about the future, one that says more about internalization and the self than your average SF novel. I found the ideas it brings forth fascinating, but the execution too artificial and the plot not entirely satisfying. Worth reading for the serious Silverberg fan, or those who prefer the New Wave flavor of science fiction, though at the end of the day it’s a mixed bag. Even if you’re just reading award winners, consider it, but consider saving it for later.
For an alternate view, check out From Couch To Moon.