Duncan Chalk begins every working day climbing the iron rungs that form a switchback trail to his desk perched forty feet above the floor. Duncan Chalk weighs over 600 pounds. "Pain," he explains to his minions, "is instructive."
Chalk should add that it is also profitable. He runs a media empire that ranges from carnival attractions to the most exclusive resorts in the solar system. His broadcast speciality is programming that allows the audience to watch other people go through hard times, or simply to suffer in general. Actually, none of this is made particularly clear by Silverberg, but given that the novel dates from 1967, he rates "fortune teller" status for his prescient view of what the future viewing public will want to watch.
Chalk, through a process that is also not made clear, feeds off the misery he markets. And he needs a new attraction. Fortunately for him. an astronaut named Burris has recently returned from a disastrous encounter with the inhabitants of the planet Manjipoor. (Yes, it sounds like an Indian restaurant.) The Manjipoorians, for what seems to be no better reason than idle curiosity, performed operations on Burris that killed two of his shipmates and left him a grotesque deformity. Then there is Lona, a young woman who is mother to 100 children. She donated eggs for what turned out to be fantastically successful experiment. He anonymous participation was blown by the press, and she became more famous than our own, beloved Octomom. Months later, her unwanted celebrity a thing of the past, he lives in seclusion with severe post-partum depression.
Chalk decides these two should get together, have a very public romance, followed by an inevitable public breakup, a scenario that will delight both him and his millions of consumers. I know none of this makes any sense, but Silverberg pulls it off. Every character, from Burris and Lona to Chalk's lowliest minions are well-developed individuals. The settings, that range from shopping malls for the vulgar masses to resorts that only the most fabulously wealthy humans can afford, are more believable today than they would have been to Silverberg's readers forty years ago. The resorts are like Steven Wynn wet dreams.
Thorns is consistently entertaining but I am not sure that it has a point. Our absurdly mismatched lovebirds learn some hard lessons, Chalk receives a spectacular comeuppance, and I suppose the ending in more or less positive. It's a great ride with just a bit of a letdown at the end.