You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, October 6, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: SON OF MAN by Robert Silverberg

A few pages into this book, I groaned. I picked it up because I was reading Robert Silverberg books. I barely glanced at the cover to get a sense of what it was going to be about. On the first page, Clay, a man of our time, which in the case of the book would be around 1970, finds himself caught in a time flux and deposited in some future world, a verdant paradise possibly a million years in the future. Soon he meets Hanmer, one of the current human specimens, a soft spoken, somewhat androgynous young man with green skin and red eyes. Hanmer will be Clay's guide.

That's when I groaned. I seldom like books that involve a stranger trotted around a wondrous new world and shown wonders. Dante set a high literary standard for this format around the beginning of the 14th century. Utopian novels employ this method, and they are a drag. In science fiction from about the same tame as Silverberg's novel there is Theodore Sturgeon'sVenus Plus X, a silly and tedious book. Nothing much can happen in these stories, if they are stories. They read like account of visits to futuristic theme parks that prompt from their authors inflated language suited to the wonders on view. Silverberg is an author who can describe some pretty outlandish worlds and make them totally believable. For Son of Man he slips into highfalutin language that he imagines does justice to the mystic and ecstatic rituals Clay experiences. It doesn't. It just sounds strained.

Few books I have ever read spend such time on the state of their protagonist's genitals. Everyone is naked in this world. Hanmer and his five friends, known as Skimmers, not only look androgynous but change gender at will. Clay's frequent erections, whether prompted by sexual arousal by a Skimmer in his/her female mode or at times simply by something in the air, are mighty things. Except for one gender-bending encounter that must have much more titillating and shocking in 1971 that it is today, Clay finds himself mounting not only the Skimmers but in some cases the primordial ooze he drags himself through and even wet sand on a beach. (Think about the last one.) There is much engulfing and thrusting described, although at times Clay ejaculates more spontaneously. We also learn how the varying atmospheric conditions affect his penis and testicles. Silverberg was a hardworking, full-time writer who in addition to SF wrote dirty books for long forgotten paperback publishers like Nightstand Editions. That industry was done in by home video and the internet, but if you were around in the seventies you probably encountered these kinds of publications and you will recognize their language in Son of Man. Where else would you come across the word "encunted"? (It doesn't make it through spell check but it is in Wiktionary.)

But I digress. No, I take that back. Clay's erections are a central feature of the book. His other experiences involve body-dissolving trips to the edge of the universe, time spent as a giant carrot, and struggles alone through the "Unpleasant Zones," areas with names like Heavy, Slow, Dark, Cold, Empty. The Skimmers, who are not unlike H.G. Wells' Eloi minus the inconvenience of the Morlocks, live a carefree existence, their only duty being certain rituals that keep the world humming along. Sound boring? It is. But to Silverberg's credit, and his love of monstrosities, Clay meets along his journey some pretty interesting throwbacks to earlier human forms that range from spheres who live in mobile cages, to pimply, stinky goat men, to ravenous dinosaurs -- each of them some evolutionary adaptation to an era of earth's history.

The conclusion is a cosmic experience, at the Well of First Things. (Endemic to this kind of book is an absolute lack of humor, and yet much in Son of Man could be transferred to a Douglas Adams book with little rewriting.) In addition to a prolonged ejaculation this climactic eperience involves an immersion in the full panoply of humanity and a quasi-religious experience in which Clay takes on all the sorrows, fears, and boredom of everything from his Skimmer friends to Neanderthals and the spheroid thing in the cage, Why he feels compelled or even has the right to do this is not clear, except that he is Clay, he is one special dude.

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