(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1966 edition)
*Review for the 1966 edition. The 1979 and 1985 editions were revised.*
collated rating: 3/5 (Average)
Needle in a Timestack (1966) is an uneven collection of ten short stories from the late 50s and early 60s by Robert Silverberg. By the late 60s and early 70s Silverberg was producing his masterpieces. However, earlier in his career he wrote mostly pulp novels and short stories. A few in this collection tackle, in varying degrees of success, social science fiction themes: the media, war propaganda, colonialism, unusual criminal punishment, the suburban lifestyle etc. Many of these themes Silverberg returned to in a more satisfactory manner in later works.
Although none of the stories are masterpieces a few are worth seeking out: ‘The Pain Peddlers’ (1963), ‘To See the Invisible Man’ (1963), and (perhaps) ‘There Was an Old Woman–‘ (1958).
A collection for fans of Silverberg — especially those interested in his earlier non-novel attempts at social science fiction.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
‘The Pain Peddlers’ (1963) (13 pages) 4.25/5 (Good): The 1960s and 70s saw a growing interest in and concern with the negative ramifications of media, in this case television. D. G. Compton, Brian N. Malzberg, and Norman Spinrad wrote numerous woks on this theme. In Silverberg’s short story the media purchases painful experiences by offering money to individuals about to undergo expensive and extremely painful operations. Of course, the amount of money offered is contingent on the quality of the pain experienced — and thus, the less the anesthesia the more the cash. The pain is “recorded” and sold to adoring fans.
‘Passport to Sirius’ (1958) (16 pages) 3.75/5 (Good): In this short story Silverberg draws heavily on a fecund theme trod by Orwell’s 1984 (1949), simulated war for economic gain. This satirical story pits Consumer Sixth Class David Carman against the system (your consuming power i.e. income denotes what class you’re assigned to). Carman, fearing that a predicted economic downturn that will dash his life savings, forges a passport to serve in the war effort on Sirius. Little does he know, Earth has never been to war with Sirius.
‘Birds of a Feather’ (1958) (25 pages) 3.25/5 (Average): This story has a intriguing premise which is never developed. Imagine if there were hundreds of sentient alien species yet Earth was completely closed to them. The only way for humans to see the fascinating variety of aliens is a zoo masquerading as a research institution that shows its alien “specimens”. Strangely, a rare visit to Earth is held in high regard (and a matter of pride) by the denizens of the galaxy who sign up in droves. Silverberg is clearly writing a commentary on colonialism and referencing Victorian scientists who showed those whom they described as “primitive” humans to gawking crowds. But with a twist…. The work devolves into a rather insipid conning to the con artist narrative.
‘There Was an Old Woman–‘ (1958) (16 pages) 4/5 (Good): I’m not exactly sure of my final assessment of this story. Definitely the oddest one in the collection. A female biologist decides, for unknown reasons, to create thirty-one identical sons. Each one she grooms for a different profession: historian, criminal, bar tender, scientist, lawyer, athlete, etc. The story told is the official account by the historian son. Each son excels in their field both while home schooled by their mother and after heading to college. Eventually each becomes dissatisfied with the profession forced upon them. Soon they decide to take things in their own hands, and, each utilize the skills ingrained in them to achieve their goal….
‘The Shadows of Wings’ (1963) (15 pages) 1/5 (Bad): By far the worst in the collection…. The sole individual able to read the supposedly long dead Kethlani language is hastily summoned with shocking news: a live Kethlan has been discovered and he is needed to in order to establish communication. A Kethlan looks like a bat. The Kethlan speaks of an evil race. End of story. Really, that is all. An uninspired clunker — clearly Silverberg cranked this one out in a few hours.
‘Absolutely Inflexible’ (1956) (15 pages) 3/5 (Average): A time travel story with an intriguing twist. Sometime in the past scientists developed one-way time machines. The dismal state of the past world means that hundreds of time travelers attempt to travel to the future (the story’s present). Unfortunately, the past ages were replete with diseases to which the present is horribly susceptible. Thus, the time travels are imprisoned on the Moon for fear of infecting the general populace. The leader of the bureau which oversees their imprisonment meets a time traveler from the past who operates a two way time machine and decides to give it a try. Queue time paradox…
‘His Brother’s Weeper’ (1959) (24 pages) 2/5 (Bad): A dull story where a man sets out to fix the finances of his supposedly deceased, womanizing, wealthy, and high society composer brother. A newfangled transportation devices is supposedly the cause of his death. When he arrives he discovers that his brother was engaged to two money grubbing young women who tur their attentions on him. Clearly a plot is afoot.
‘The Sixth Palace’ (1955) (15 pages) 3/5 (Average): A massive robot guards a famous stash of treasure. Numerous intrepid prospectors have met their deaths trying to get their hands on the loot. Two prospectors create a computer that will be able to answer all the robot’s questions which it uses to screen those that arrive. Unfortunately, the robot isn’t looking for “correct” answers, rather, a different sort of truth.
‘To See the Invisible Man’ (1963) (15 pages) 4/5 (Good): For the crime of coldness (refusing offers of hospitality refusing to help your fellow man, etc) a man is punished with metaphoric invisibility signified by a designator on the forehead. This invisibility means that whatever you do will be ignored by all members of society, including others who are invisible. Presaging Silverberg’s brilliant character study, Dying Inside (1972), ‘To See the Invisible Man’ tracks the struggles of the unnamed narrator who must serve his time “invisible” to the rest of the world. Initially he revels in his ability to steal, to spy on others, etc. Eventually, the true ramifications of such a punishment are felt.
‘The Iron Chancellor’ (1958) (28 pages) 2.75/5 (Average): An overweight suburban family trades in their old robot cook for a newer model. The new model, quickly dubbed The Iron Chancellor by the family, contains programable weightloss parameters. As a result, the robot prepares the exact meal needed for each member of the family to lose weight. Slowly, the robot takes its task to the extreme and the family is powerless to resist.
(David Davies’ cover for the 1967 edition)
(Tom Adams’ cover for the 1970 edition)
(Peter Elson’s cover for the 1979 edition)
(Don Dixon’s cover for the 1985 edition)
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