Book Review: The Second Trip, Robert Silverberg (serialized: 1971)

(Uncredited cover for the 1973 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Robert Silverberg’s late 60s and early 70s science fiction novels were often well-wrought ruminations on acute social alienation.   For example, in Dying Inside (1972) a man slowly loses his telepathic abilities and thus, a core component of his identity.  In  The Man in the Maze (1969), a man rendered incapable of interacting with other humans, goes into self-imposed exile.  In Thorns (1967), two manipulated/modified souls (a man surgically altered by aliens and a young girl who’s the virgin mother of hundreds of children), find strange solace in each other’s company.  In The World Inside (1971), our heroes feel disconnected from the unusual world they’ve grown up in — and rebel in their own ways.

The Second Trip (1971) subverts this theme.  Instead, our hero desperately attempts to re-integrate himself into society (as his persona has been designed to do), to come to grips with his laboratory-constructed reality, to sift through his past cobbled from the minds of his creators, to apply “real” meaning to his fragmented (invented) memories.  However, he’s thwarted, not by his own mental anguish, but by the malevolent force of his body’s previous occupant…

I found that The Second Trip is not only Silverberg’s most disturbing work of the period but contains his most experimental prose.  Be warned, the work contains controversial/explicit sexual content, mature language, and, some might argue, dubious gender politics.  After its serialization in Amazing Science Fiction in 1971, the magazine’s editor Tim White had to admittedly defend the work due to the deluge of angry letters the magazine received.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (some spoilers)

Paul Macy is literally a new person.  Constructed in a Rehab center, his memories are selected memories of his creators; his purpose is to become a productive member of society; his body, was the body of a criminal.  The criminal, Nate Hamlin, was a brilliant sculptor — a veritable Picasso of his day — brain wiped on the orders of the court for the rape of multiple women.  But Nate has been “stripped out of [Macy’s new] body, cell by cell, and extinguished” (21).

Macy steps tentatively out of the Rehab center, his badge readily visible for all to see that he’s a new man — the previous mind to dwell and utilize his body, condemned to death: “The Rehab badge was intended as mercy, as a protection against the prodding of absent memories” (6).  Macy is ordered to stay away from all Hamlin’s friends, ex-lovers, etc.  Macy is not to be reminded of his body’s past, he is to be accepted, re-integrated with open arms because he is a new person.

His first day out of Rehab, Macy runs into Lissa, Nate Hamlin’s ex-lover and one of his models.  She ignores his Rehab badge and begs for help and partial memories of Hamlin’s past creep into Macy’s brain.  Paul, after a few days acclimating to his new job as a newsreader and against the orders of the Rehab doctors, decides to meet her after she threatens suicide.

Lissa, in dire metal and physical straits, is partially telepathic — occasionally able to detect others around her: “I get five, six people at once.  This mushy noise in my head.  The buzzing.  The voices.  Like static, only sometimes words drift in on the static.  I pick up these weird emotions, and they scare me.  Not knowing if I’m imagining or not.  There’s somebody two tables away who wants to rape me.  Wishes he dared.  In his head I’m naked and bloody, spreadeagled, arms and legs tied to the furniture” (34).  In short, telepathy as a horrific/debilitating curse… (this theme is explored further in Silverberg’s next novel, Dying Inside).

At his meeting with Lisa, Macy has a psychotic episode — Lissa’s telepathy triggers what remains of Nate Hamlin’s mind, who was never fully eradicated from his body.  Large portions of the novel involve conversations between Nate and Paul as Nate attempts to take over the body — with downright terrifying consequences.

Final Thoughts  

Silverberg’s most intriguing moments concern the nature of the created Paul Macy.  In an effort to get Paul Macy to voluntarily vacate the body Nate Hamlin attempts to convince him that he’s not really an individual, simply a pseudo-being conjured in a laboratory:

“And you?  What are you?  Who are you?  You’re nothing.  You have no depth.  You have no texture.  You have no past.  You have no reality.  I’ve been sitting here inside you, taking an inventory.  I know what you’re made of.  Macy, it’s all ersatz.  You have no purpose in existing.  You can’t do anything that a robot couldn’t do better.  A holovision commentator?  They can program a machine with pear-shaped tones, and it’ll broadcast you off of the map” (81).

When Nate’s persona resurfaces in Paul, Silverberg effortlessly shifts between third and first person (from both Nate and Paul’s perspective).  I found the prose incredibly effective at conveying the two drastically different people.  I found that a lot of the critiques of the novel are leveled at the sexual content.  Nate is a terrible individual who is jailed for rape — Lissa, despite her onetime love of her artist hero, is disgusted by his deeds while Paul is depicted as a caring (although conflicted) individual and polar opposite to Nate.  There is no attempt to minimize the true horror of such a crime.

However, the character of Paul comes off as a stock character of Silverberg’s novels — someone who objectifies women (for example, there is not a scene that transpires with Lissa where he does not describe her breasts).  At moments Silverberg attempts to rectify this — there’s an intriguing easy to miss moment where Paul wonders if such a simplistic view of women was programmed into him by his creators: “Maybe it’s because I don’t understand people very well, being so new in the world, he thought.  Or perhaps one of the doctors built his own archaic attitudes toward women in general into me — does Gomez, say, see them only as extensions and pale reflections of the men they live with?  Mere bundles of foggy emotions and woolly response?” (88).  Despite this statement, I found Silverberg falls prey to what he warns against.

A layered, compelling, and disturbing read… Recommended for fans of Silverberg and New Wave science fiction.

(Uncredited cover for the 1981 edition)

(Peter Gudynas’ cover for the 1980 edition)

(Gene Szafran’s cover for the 1972 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1987 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Second Trip, Robert Silverberg (serialized: 1971)”

    1. I was very impressed with the prose etc. My rating might have been a tad low… But, I found the end rather hasty (to be expected), and, I have the normal gripes about his female characters.

      But really, I get so frustrated when I see best sci-fi novel lists and not a single Silverberg listed! If any, Dying Inside might be included, but I hardly think it is his best work. I think The Second Trip is superior. I wish I wrote a review of Dying Inside when I read it a year + ago, but sometimes I feel unmotivated to do so…

  1. Your review is excellent. Not many books are written like this. It’s sad that much of today’s fantasy uses sex gratuitously. Here, the sex is an intricate part of the story, and makes the reader understand just how demented and vile Nate Hamlin is. It was also pointed out to me –and I think it’s true– that New Wave was not simply the use of sex within a literary context, but the exploration of taboo topics. Pushing literature into uncharted territory, and exploring the human equation in new ways. This book is a fine example.

    Beyond this, I think Silverberg offers up some incredible word smithing. Jumping between limited 3rd and stream of thought snippets, the narration takes one deep inside the main character’s mind, even though that mind is constantly changing. Quite fascinating for those who care about that sort of thing.

    1. Thanks.

      Silverberg can be quite gratuitous as well…. Not so much Nate’s crimes (which are definitely part of his character) but Paul’s view of women (which is also part of his character but definitely deployed to titillate). As I mentioned in the last few paragraphs, Paul wonders if he has been programed to think that way — but, I’ve read so many of Silverberg’s novels that I know that Silverberg himself thinks that way more often than not… a la “women have breasts, and they bobble, and they have breasts, and they cry, and did I mention, they have breasts!”

  2. The opening two paragraphs of this review are a nice touch. I haven’t read all the books mentioned, so it was nice to have The Second Trip contextualized within Silverberg’s period oeuvre.

    I’m curious, what did you think of the book’s ending? (Perhaps for those who have not read it, they shouldn’t read further. 🙂 I found it a bit incongruous with preceding events, but perhaps I missed something?

    1. If anything, Lissa is also a “Silverberg-type” character that fits into the mold of the other novels of the period, the one possessed by the acute social alienation… She is cut off, mostly against her will, from society. Paul facilitates her reintegration. Essentially, Dying Inside follows a telepathic character — although less a debilitating type of telepathy — as he loses his abilities. It makes a lot of sense now that I think about it that those two novels were written essentially back to back.

      Which part of the end? Nate’s rampage when he takes over? Lissa’s role in ending his torment? (she is often used to facilitate the plot throughout the novel). Or, his desire (finally) to actually care for Lissa? (remember, the whole everything will be happy when Lissa gets out of Rehab is completely in his head, the only action he actually does is to go to the phone to call Gomez).

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