Yesterday’s Future: Insufficiently PC

Carlos Mondragon is not enamored of Robert Silverberg’s vintage Hugo nominee, “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”:

Overall, I found the story itself to be quite dull (as well as anachronistic, misogynistic, and slightly racist) at times. No news here; one has to take Old School SciFi for what it was – even though that doesn’t really excuse its writer, given that 1972 is not that far removed from us. In this respect, the fact that it was ever nominated for a Hugo just goes to prove that said award has never been a guarantor of quality.

Silverberg having been one of the least conservative sf writers of the Seventies did not immunize his work against the reproaches of contemporary readers, of course. But if that’s all the mercy he’s going to receive, heaven help the other favorites of that era.

The more commonly accepted idea of Silverberg’s place in sf history, which takes context into account, is the one expressed by Kim Stanley Robinson in this recently-published article:

“[In the 1960s and 1970s], that’s when [Silverberg] came into his own,” [Kim Stanley] Robinson noted. “When he saw that science fiction could be written in the styles of the great literary modernists, it struck sparks in him. He became one of the new wave. He’s so prolific that he popped off a half-dozen classics in rapid order – The Book of Skulls, Dying Inside, Nightwing. Those are among the books that marked that era as being the high point in American science fiction. Silverberg was a big part of it.”

3 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Future: Insufficiently PC

  1. For really non-PC, E. F. Bleiler in “Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years”, (Kent State University Press, 1998, ISBN:0873386043) has this comment about the Taine of San Francisco stories by David H. Keller:

    “The end result is an America without problems: The white trash and low-grade whites are all dead, the blacks are either dead or dumped into Africa. Adolph Hitler could not have done it better. Not only very weak from a literary point of view, but a disgraceful chain of stories, probably the most offensive to be found in early science-fiction.” (page 212)

    The Bleiler book is a great read.

  2. (just made my way here backtracking from my blog stats)

    Guilty as charged. I recognise that my comment may have been stated in such a way as to come across as PC-ish and hence a bit pedantic. Which is a shame, because I really tend to be neither of those things. By way of a partial explanation, I was thinking back on Joseph Conrad, who is one of my top three favourite English-language authors, and on some comments that contemporary African writer Chinua Achebe once made regarding the fact that, for all his genius, both stylistic and anti-establishment, Conrad himself was guilty of exoticising black African people and even some racist ideas. The point being that Conrad could not be excused by reference to the times in which he lived. I guess that was what I was thinking when I reflected on Silverberg’s story. While I see where KS Robinson is coming from, and do recognise that I have enjoyed other of Silverberg’s work, my issue was not with style, so much as not easily excusing the values reflected in some of his work.
    Long comment aside…congrats for this blog. It is really outstanding.

  3. Carlos: I encountered your blog in April, and have been back to look at it several times. Your comments from the perspective of a working anthropologist about fictionalized anthropology make for interesting reading.

    It took me awhile to get a handle on my reaction to your post about the Silverberg story because, for one thing, you’re not wrong! Yet in 1972 Silverberg seemed so much more sensitive to cultural and political matters than I was (or may be now…) that it takes a real effort to set aside that timebound memory and imagine the experience of reading this story through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time in 2008.

    When I saw Kim Stanley Robinson talking about Silverberg relative to other sf writers of the Seventies, I finally had language to answer your post.

    Thanks for your comment!

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