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A great sampling of Silverberg's early work

The Cube Root of Uncertainty - Robert Silverberg

When I was younger, Robert Silverberg was among my favorite science fiction authors. While an extraordinarily prolific author of novels, I appreciated him most for his short stories, which remain some of my all-time favorite reads. Every summer when the latest edition of the Year’s Best Science Fiction came out, his would be the first name I would look for in the table of contents, and if one of his stories were included it would invariably prove to be among the best in the collection.


This was why, when I saw a copy of this collection of his short stories in a used bookstore I eagerly snapped them up. The dozen stories inside are all from the first decade and a half of his writing career, and represent some of the best from his output during the era. Some of them I had read before, while others were new to me. The stories are:


“Passengers” – This was one of the stories I had read before. In it, a man living in a world where noncorporeal beings possess humans tries to connect with the woman he had spent the night with during his last possession. It’s one of Silverberg’s most famous stories, and it still holds up pretty well so long as you don’t think too hard about the premise


“Double Dare” – Two engineers participating in a contest with an alien species find out that there is a price to winning. This was the oldest story in the collection and one of Silverberg’s earliest works; while a fun tale it felt insubstantial compared to some of its weightier counterparts.


“The Sixth Palace” – Two men submit to the tests of a mysterious robot guarding an incalculable treasure. One of the stories that was new to me, I enjoyed it enormously for both its premise and its resolution.


“Translation Error” – An alien agent sent to hold back humanity’s development finds himself in his worst nightmare. It was only when I was part-way through this that I realized that I had read this story before, which gave me a rare opportunity to appreciate something anew which I had enjoyed before.


“The Shadow of Wings” – A xenolinguist is forced to overcome his fears when confronted with a unique opportunity. This was another story which I had read before that proved an enjoyable revisit for me, even if it doesn’t rank among Silverberg’s finest.


“Absolutely Inflexible” – Tasked with dealing with the threat posed by time travelers, a government bureaucrat finds himself caught in a unique trap. One of those paradox tales that seem to have been a staple of the short stories about time travel during that era, it was fun if perhaps a little predictable.


“The Iron Chancellor” – The robot chef programmed to help a family lose weight takes his task to extremes. This is perhaps the most famous of the stories in the collection, and it’s one of my all-time favorites of his.


“Mugwump Four” – A wrong number leads an ordinary man on an extraordinary adventure. I had read this story ages ago and did so again when I reread it. It’s impressive how much Silverberg can compact into a single tale.


“To the Dark Star” – Three very different scientists – a human, a modified human, and an alien – cope with interpersonal tensions while observing an astronomical phenomenon. Tense and disturbing, this was one of the stories from later in Silverberg’s career, and its differences make for a contrast with the older stories in this collection.


“Neighbor” – A powerful landowner receives an unusual request from his despised neighbor. There is something in this story that I just find so incredibly true about human nature, even if it isn’t something about which we should be proud.


“Halfway House” – Suffering from cancer, an industrialist seeks a cure from a unique place. Though the premise in this story is interesting, it doesn’t prove as effective as the other tales in this collection.


“Sundance” – A member of a team of humans on an alien world questions his mission to eradicate a native species. This was the story I liked the least, both because of Silverberg’s often abrupt shifts within it and for the cultural expropriation in which he engages with his central character.


While the book offers a set of stories as mixed in quality as other collection of its type, in this one the average quality is much higher than the norm. Together they offer a great representative sampling of Silverberg’s earlier work, and make for highly enjoyable reading for any fan of the genre.