That Book Silverlock


By John Hertz (reprinted from Vanamonde 1213):  After John Myers’ Silverlock was published in 1949 it languished two decades until Terry Carr at Ace published a paperback (1969).

In 1979, while Jim Baen was at Ace, his arm was twisted by Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle, and Ace reprinted; in 1982, again; then a Buccaneer hardback (1992); Ace again (1996); then the NESFA (New England S-F Ass’n) Press hardback, with Bruce Pelz’ music for some of the songs, and the invaluable Companion by Anne Braude and Fred Lerner (2004); and not to be slack, an Ace trade paperback (2005) followed by a Kindle version (2008).

Let’s suppose you know a white streak in the hair of our protagonist Clarence Shandon makes him Silverlock.  He, a 35-year-old Chicagoan — Dante’s age when he dreamed The Divine Comedy (1321) — shipwrecked and afloat nine days out of Baltimore, meets in the water a man calling himself Widsith Amergin Demodocus Boyan Taliesin Golias none of which Shandon recognizes, watches Moby Dick smash the Pequod which he also does not recognize, and goes through three hundred pages of adventure in the Commonwealth of Literature, footing, fighting, feasting, finding thirtyscore characters of song and story none of whom he recognizes.

Eventually we wonder at his having seen a Pacific Ocean whale (H. Meville, Moby-Dick, 1851) a century later in the Atlantic, and indeed his saying blandly in the first place he was on the Naglfar, which being the ship made of the nails of dead men Loki will navigate when all things are destroyed at Ragnarok seems at best strange for the mundane vessel equipped with a radio our protagonist describes until he gives us its name twice in the fifth paragraph and we never hear it more.

Stories a poet and audience have in common are a great resource.  Say “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” and you bring without naming Helen of Troy from Greek mythology three millennia ago, and quote without citing Marlowe’s Faust (Act V, sc. i) from the 16th Century.  An audience who knows them delights.

To sing of the known is a time-honored art: The Iliad and The Odyssey three millennia ago, the Vedas earlier.  The Ballad of Harlaw that Jeannie Robertson (1908-1975) sang, about a battle in 1411, was printed in a 1549 collection; Sir Walter Scott published another about it in 1806.  The fame of Scott and Robertson came from an audience that did not know, reached by artists so good their work appealed intrinsically.

We begin to touch on speculative fiction, which tells of things an audience cannot have known because they have never happened.

To introduce the 1979 printing (and thereafter) Anderson says, “it’s incomparable fun….  more….  Life is often stark and, in some sense, ultimately tragic.  Good comedy recognizes this truth and draws strength from it….  Golias makes the tale surge with energy from the beginning … [Silverlock] has experiences terrifying or heart-wrenching….  high seriousness is enhanced by mirth [NESFA p. 17].”

Niven says, “Myers must be in love with words (as I am).  He must roll them around in his mouth (as I do) to get the taste….  I went through it like a tourist in Paradise….  I recognized about a third of the characters….  Afterward I went hunting for others….  Silverlock is a … B.A. in Business Administration learning how to read, and why [pp. 21-22].”

Pournelle says, “It is the sort of book that can take an engineer obsessed with putting man into space and send him to the reference library…. it did this for me [p. 20].”

Not everything in Silverlock comes under never happened.  A third of the way along, Golias gives a hall of feasters “The Death of Bowie Gizzardsbane” in a hundred four-stress lines, like a skald or a scop, which he is, and might lead you to remember the Alamo: it’s about that battle, Sam Houston (1793-1863), Davy Crockett (1786-1836), and hero of the song Jim Bowie (1796-1836), “the war-wise winner of battles … melting with death.  Yet the might of his spirit / Kept a tight grip on the trust he’d been given….  Killing, though killed.  Conquered, he won” (pp. 126-129).

Our protagonist, who is from that world — Golias seems to have been everywhere — does not recognize this story either.

Silverlock is full of fighting.  Also drinking.  Heart of oak are the men, and it is men, mostly, and of that kind.  Silverlock himself is athletic; he was on his school’s rowing team.  The women are mostly submitters or seducers.  What if you don’t think that the good life?  What if you find yourself thinking “Is that all there is?”

You could say, in Peggy Lee’s next line, “Then let’s keep dancing” (J. Leiber & M. Stol­ler, 1969) — although there’s booze in that ballad too.  You could say Silverlock is a book of its time — and indeed, how not?  You could say Myers wrote what he knew.  Let’s follow the Ernie Kovacs Rule and take a good look (as his strange — of course — 1959-1961 television game-show was entitled).

That name Naglfar is Myers’ signal there is something strange about this book.  Is it the adventure?  The incongruity?  The congruity that upon inspection underlies it?

Why does Silverlock go to Hell?  Why is he so helpless there?  Why doesn’t the book end when Satan tells him there’s no way out?  What happens with Silverlock and the horse?  Why?

Speculative fiction often carries characters who not knowing can be explained to or shown learning.  But nobody explains to Silverlock, and he hardly learns.  He sees what he can.  Yet that does increase.  The remarkable thing — I believe the book is a comedy — is that he learns at all.

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7 thoughts on “That Book Silverlock

  1. I’ll have to read that again. I picked up a book called (I think) Silverlock Companion, which is useful for catching the allusions I missed. The book is fun. Thanks for posting this here.

  2. The book ends with Silverlock gaining wisdom all in a rush, finally gaining awareness;

    “I had drunk of Hippocrene and something different was in order. It had to be so. I had been to Hippocrene, and it was too great a thing to be merely an incident on even so pleasant a journey as that to Riders’ Shrine. I had won my passport to the Commonwealth and must expect to take all the chances, for good and bad, that befall an independent operative.

    For if I glimpsed what I had failed to gain by not drinking all I should have, I saw what the two draughts I actually had downed had done for me. They say the events of his life slide through a drowning man’s mind. Similarly all the things I had seen and done since reaching the Commonwealth had returned to me during the first upward surge of my flight. They had returned to fix themselves in my consciousness in order and proportion, a portable spectrum of values, graded for all occasions. To one so equipped new places would never be too strange, nor would old ones lack the luster of novelty.”

    Yes, he’s a jerk (though never reaching Thomas Covenant levels of jerkdom), but he makes the journey and succeeds (mostly; although he missed that third drink at the spring you can argue that that is totally in keeping with Silverlock’s nature, even with added wisdom…). But the critic misses the point; it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t now enumerate all those easter-eggs scattered through the book to show that now he gets all those in-jokes and references, it matters that Silverlock finally has gained awareness he’d never had before. To John Hertz, all I can say is, “You don’t get it. It isn’t ABOUT you, you just rode along on his coattails, as all readers do. Bitching about the ride is just weak sauce.”

  3. What if you don’t think that the good life? What if you find yourself thinking “Is that all there is?”

    That must be why I didn’t find Silverlock that interesting, circa 1990, after having been told by multiple people how indispensable it was. Not just that there aren’t much in the way of women in it (if I recall, the only who gets to do much at all is an Amazon depicted as an anomaly among women) but the “is that all there is?” factor — after all, the ending which Al the Great and Powerful quotes has the protag realizing that his experiences have given him “a portable spectrum of values, graded for all occasions”. Yeah, pretty complete set of values, all that feasting and fighting. I just am not too fascinated by a comedy about an oblivious bro.

  4. I read it in the late-80’s and was similarly meh. Yes, the allusions to other works and RL incidents are extremely well-done, but as a concrete whole, it’s not much of a whole. Clueless guy becomes slightly less clueless, we’re told, but we see no evidence of it. “Is that all there is?” indeed. Sorry bro.

  5. I read this book as a teenager and missed half the references; I loved it. I’ve read it since then, several times, and keep catching more references–but they really don’t matter, in the end. Why Silverlock matters is the sheer delight in exploring strange new worlds (wow, where did that come from?) and in realizing that the stories are more real than daily life (especially if we aren’t paying attention) . . . and that, in the end, everything, everyone’s life, is a story.

    It’s a good book.

  6. What Mary Frances said, although the book is awful about women and I didn’t care for the sequel. The book’s love for storytelling and stories’ redemption of the protagonist are wonderful.

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